One of the sectors mostly affected by this pandemic has been education. All formal learning organisations have veered towards online learning. This sudden shift, however, has been full of challenges both human and technical. Maybe you have experienced it by yourself when attending your classes.
However, this is only the tip of the iceberg if we pay attention to the impact that this has had on many other different contexts in different countries.
To discuss the topic, I talked with Elina Lehtomäki, Professor of Global Education and Chair of the University of Oulu multidisciplinary working group on sustainable development. She has also participated in several working groups such as the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture working group on internationalisation of higher education, and the advisory board of the international Academic Network on Global Education and Learning (ANGEL).
How would you define the situation formal learning systems faced due to this pandemic?
“Clearly, formal learning systems have been challenged, as most teaching and learning have been organised online which has meant changes in designing learning, rechecking pedagogical approaches, and most likely, rethinking what a safe environment for learners and learning means, what individual efforts are required, and how important peers are in the learning process.
Also, one of the exciting positive things of these situations is the increasing emphasis on research and informed decision-making. For formal learning systems this means that we need to further develop our ways of working, and to improve our readiness to respond to complex societal challenges such as the COVID-19 health crisis. Learning aims to equip people and promote their agency, but do we teach and learn sufficiently about collaboration and solidarity?”
Do you think that the changes implemented in the formal educational systems (e.g. schools, universities) will be permanent?
“In formal learning systems, there may be no way to go back to the previous ‘normal’. Most likely there will be more flexible, flipped learning options, increased use of digital platforms, and new designs to promote student engagement.
However, moving all the teaching and learning to digital environments would limit the use of multiple channels in communications and senses in learning. You may also ask who would like to be constantly online or in virtual reality. I guess we will seek a balance between digital and face-to-face teaching and learning while at the same time, increase the use of digital learning opportunities. Flexibility may be more emphasised as it seems evident that education systems that are flexible can better function in a time of crisis.
The connection and co-efficiency between education and health is evident. Health is an important precondition for learning while good quality education provides learners knowledge and skills to take good care of one’s health. An important issue to consider is how interconnectedness is approached in the future. The pandemic has increased gaps between learners and inequality in societies. Education and health are fundamental human rights, and they both need sufficient funding to secure a more equal world.”
So, this situation is not an opportunity for the educational sector?
“Conditions that create or contribute to inequality are more evident in this pandemic. UNESCO and many governments, including Finland, have recommended digital learning solutions, which will certainly support learning in contexts that have the good bandwidth, equipment, educated and innovative teachers, responsible leadership, professional development opportunities and even technical support widely available. Even in countries with limited resources, there are pocket areas or privileged groups that have access to digital learning and safe environments, while majorities may not have these. But learners in poverty experience further challenges when households face, for instance, lack of clean water, physical space, power cuts, and unemployment.
In the course on Global Education Development we have students with information and experience from different parts of the world. We talked about alternative solutions for learning such as the use of mobile phones, libraries, family members, and community workers, yet concluded that many solutions would still require resources, people with skills, and access to equipment and software. We agreed that questions that require serious attention and that may not be fully solved by digital learning alone include wellbeing, nutrition, protection, the vulnerability of female students, finding ways to respond to the needs for support, collaboration with families, and assessment methods.”
What differences do you find between countries in response to the challenges posed?
“One significant difference between countries is in perceptions of the overall purpose of schooling. In most countries, education systems, curricula and teaching are inflexible, because education selects and categorises. Consequently, schools and teachers are to perform according to given instructions and timetables. Teaching aims to prepare students for standardised tests, leaving little space for flexibility in timing, testing, and learning. In such systems, learning may be perceived as the test results. Countries in which education systems have flexibility may reflect on changes such as the COVID-19 pandemic by introducing minor changes in timetables and learning modes. Human, financial, and technical resources and moreover, well-informed decisions matter in our capacity to respond.
In Finland, and in countries in the so-called Global North, there have been several online webinars and discussions on the influence of COVID-19 on education and learning. Well, we have the tools and time for this, and it is important to share information and promote knowledge on informed decision-making. However, we fail students and teachers in most low-income countries and areas in conflicts, where the webinars and discussions are not accessible. Globally education as a field is under-resourced and a lesser priority sector than others, particularly arms and defence industry.”
How do you think this pandemic will impact the educational sector overall?
“Solely in the school year of 2018, nearly 260 million children and young people did not have access to school, and among those who were enrolled many did not complete their education or reach the expected learning results. According to UNESCO, due to this pandemic, 177 countries have closed schools, affecting 72.4 % of the student-population and leaving 1.26 billion learners out of school.
When I discussed these figures with our students, we observed, however, what school closures mean across countries. In Finland, closing buildings has not stopped teaching and learning, while in some parts of India, for instance, children have not had the necessary space at home and equipment for learning. In Finland, one concern has been child protection, as for some children home is not a safe place and teachers may have meant important contacts with safe adults. In India, especially girls have faced additional risks of abuse during the pandemic. From research, we know that in most low-income countries, children who drop out from school may never return to school.”