Leveraging 'People' Power of Sustainability

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Professor Raghbendra Jha, PhD (Columbia), FWIF

Professor of Economics and Executive Director, Australia South Asia Research Centre, Australian National University 

Chaos and (Potential) Order- Online Learning during the Pandemic 

When the pandemic hit the world, the world of education took major hits.  First, suddenly large numbers of schools and universities the world over were closed down. Although many of them have opened up, several of them remain closed – particularly in the developing countries.  Those who could, resorted to online learning.  Suddenly, millions of students and teachers were asked to switch from the familiar “face-to-face” pedagogy to abstract screen-to-screen format.  Those institutions who could afford it provided primers on online education in an online mode.   Those who could not afford such luxuries simply had to muddle along.   Then, there is the issue of internet connectivity and speed.  Countries/areas with good internet connectivity and speed had fewer problems.  Those with poor connection were often left in limbo. Similar arguments go for availability of laptops.  Those who did not own laptops had to resort to sharing them or using internet cafes (to the extent that these were open).

Second, many people (including parents of students who had to resort to online learning) lost their jobs because of the pandemic.  Therefore, many students could not pay their fees and may had to drop out of school/university.  When data on school dropouts during the pandemic are released, they are likely to show a sharp increase.

Third, these erstwhile students are unlikely to return to education.  This would imply a substantial erosion of the human capital available in these countries, which would then adversely impact on their prospects for economic growth and poverty reduction.  This, however, would be the secondary shock.  The primary shock would be the loss of jobs as the direct hit of the pandemic and uncertain prospects of the revival of these jobs in the near future.

Fourth, a latent dimension of inequality has suddenly become important. The “digital divide” used to be mentioned in passing as something that had to be bridged in the future but little serious effort was directed towards this at the global level.  The breathtakingly deleterious impacts of the pandemic on education has a new and more sinister dimension –sharp increases in inter-country and inter-personal inequalities and poverty.  The World Bank has predicted that the end of 2021 a staggering 150 million people will be added to the world’s stick of extreme poor. 

Fifth, whereas the rollout of vaccines for the virus is a welcome sign there are deep logistical problems if ensuring supply.  Furthermore, the less well-off countries may have lower access to these vaccines and may, therefore, have a longer and bigger public health and economic challenges.

Sixth, as the World Health Organization has also noted the suddenness with which the transition to online teaching and learning has taken place has caused tremendous mental health problems for teachers and students alike.  In many countries and institutions these problems and stresses were already quite severe.  To add to this, they have to deal with the stress of keeping safe from COVID and to adapt to a completely new style of work on an emergent basis.  Teaching staff have had to deliver lectures from homes.  Clearly, practical sessions have had to be cut short, data collection including field surveys have been all but abandoned.  Therefore, a considerable amount of research has suddenly been cut short. Thus, pressing research towards which substantial intellectual and financial commitments had already been made had to be abandoned, or at least postponed.

Seventh, many instructors have been concerned about how to assess student work.  Many have worried about ensuring the sanctity of the traditional closed-book exam although recent innovations have made this possible.  Giving feedback to students on their work has also become a serious challenge.

Finally, there is the issue of the inability to create the learning atmosphere that prevails in a normal classroom in an educational institution. Cohorts of students and teachers have been denied this experience and this does not bode well for the future of education.  

What are the lessons for education as we move to a potential order to manifest itself from this chaos? The experience with COVID has ensured that there is renewed and vigorous emphasis on connectivity and digitization.  No matter when things return to normal, online learning is likely to persist – maybe not as the principal mode of teaching, but certainly as an ancillary mode of teaching.

Furthermore, ironically although the pandemic has increased the distance between the teacher and the taught it has also reduced the distance between students/teachers and academics and trainers in different parts of the world – something that was nearly inconceivable in the pre-COVID world.  Now, webinars by distinguished academics living anywhere can be arranged. The worldwide experience with this has been encouraging for both hosting institutions and the seminar speakers.   In that sense access to learning has increased.

So, when the dust has finally settled on the pandemic a number of important lessons for teaching and research will remain. The global academic and students communities will need to capitalize on these lessons and ensure that the response to the next crisis (may it never happen) does not have to be forced on us.