OP-ED: Reimagining education in Covid-19 and beyond

The journey to reach this vision is a collective responsibility BIGSTOCK

We might need a complete overhaul of the system

According to the UNESCO, some 1.3 billion learners around the world were not able to attend school or university as of March 23. The United Nations has described the global scale and pace of education disruption from Covid-19 as “unparalleled.”

According to the World Bank’s “Learning Poverty” indicator — the percentage of children who cannot read and understand at age 10 — stood at 53% of children in low and middle-income countries — before the outbreak started.

This pandemic has the potential to worsen these outcomes even more if we do not act fast. Many children do not have a desk, books, internet connectivity, a laptop at home, or supportive parents. Others do. What we need to avoid — or minimize as much as possible — is for those differences in opportunities to expand and cause the crisis to have an even larger negative effect on marginalized children’s learning.

However, amidst all the fear, panic, and uncertainties, new channels of innovation, creativity, and systemic transformation are also accelerating at unprecedented levels. When the dust settles, Covid-19 may present itself as a microcosm of what’s to come.

So to navigate the storm and prepare for its aftermath, we curated a discussion series in partnership with a2i Programme, Teach for Bangladesh, YGAP, Edward M Kennedy Centre, and Education Entrepreneurs Society (EES) to explore how we can identify and learn from robust, innovative emergency responses across regions.

We also wanted to inspire action that reaches the marginalized communities. Finally, we wanted to utilize this opportunity that emerged from education disruption to create and spread the discourse around rethinking traditional learning models and approaches to better prepare for a post-Covid-19 era.

Reimagining the role of education entrepreneur

In our first panel on the role of education innovators in reimagining education in Covid-19 and beyond, we had Waliullah Bhuiyan, co-founder and chief executive officer of education startup Light of Hope and Pavitra Bahadur, co-founder and chief executive officer of Karkhana based in Nepal.

The education entrepreneurs pointed out that previously the education system was designed to prepare children to fit into specific sectors such as medical, engineering, and tourism, etc. The diversity of these sectors was limited in the past. But in the last 10 years, the diversity has increased greatly with a large number of new sectors disrupting the job market.

Companies like Uber and Airbnb have digitized services previously offered by taxi drivers or travel agents. Such disruptions will be a common feat in the post-Covid-19 world, which will force us to constantly learn and adapt to the rapidly changing needs of the job market scenario and, for that, we need to build a generation that is good at learning and adapting.

In the professional world too, up-skilling is extremely critical for professionals to future-proof their careers in the current scenario. In the imminent economic downturn, companies are likely to cut non-core jobs. There are only two ways any professional can future-proof their career — be more qualified than the peer group, and/or be skilled in areas that are likely to see continued growth in the future job market scenario.

Therefore, parents shouldn’t just be concerned about the academic results, but also about the skill sets that children are acquiring to adjust to the new normal. Both the innovators feel that, in the next five years, 30% to 40% of the parents’ population will gradually shift from demanding curriculum to acquire only content-based competencies to a more dynamic curriculum that addresses the needs of the future market scenario.

Parallelly, the schools must ask themselves: Are we preparing students with the ability to navigate their way in the future job market? Are we equipping the students with empathy and moral values? Do the students have good communication skills to work collaboratively with others?

They also advocated against exam-driven learning. The panelists asserted that this is not the right time to assess learning, as it will have an adverse effect on the students’ mental wellbeing. Children have rich social lives, often experienced almost exclusively in school and extracurricular activities.

With the current lockdown, they are confined to the limited physical spaces of their houses with little scope to play and no scope to be with their friends. Therefore, instead of clutching on to previous assessment techniques, this period should be used to explore new ways of addressing education and to identify what’s worth discarding.

While discussing the impact on edtech companies and education entrepreneurs, the panelists highlighted that the adoption of learning online through the use of technology will accelerate like never before.

There will be offline universities and colleges; however, from a purely market-share perspective, the amount of education content that will be consumed through the use of edtech will be many times the learning that will happen on campus.

Reimagining the role of teachers, parents, and students

In our second panel discussion on reimagining the role of teachers, parents, and students in Covid-19 and beyond, we had on the panel Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, who brought the teachers’ perspective to the discussion; Anusheh Anadil, CEO Jatra, who shared a parent’s perspective; Afzal Hossain Sarwar, Policy Specialist and Head — Future of Learning at the a2i Programme, added the thoughts of a policy designer; and finally, Mehrin Morshed, a student from Dhaka college, presented a fresh perspective on what students feel and how they might want us to reimagine education.

The session was orchestrated and moderated by Shakil Ahmed from the Acumen Academy who is also an educationist, futurist, and storyteller.

With Shakil Ahmed’s provocative questions, the discussion oscillated from questioning the importance of syllabus to unearthing the grounds for its creation, before finally landing somewhere where its limitation to enhance individuality, creativity, and critical thinking was acknowledged.

Dr Imtiaz quoted Einstein, “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge,” in asserting the importance of creativity in education. He was quick to highlight that the fragmentation of education into specific academic units and syllabus has narrowed the scope of imagination in the practice of teaching learning.

Adding to this belief, Anusheh Anadil drew a stark contrast between compartmentalized, colonial education with interconnected eastern education rooted in the “guru-shishya” learning model that used to allow students to understand the world within them to navigate the world around them.

She beautifully articulated how she does not deny that learning information about the world is important as long as it’s prompted by students’ inquiry. However, it’s also equally important for students to understand their own talents, motivations, and passions if they are going to lead lives that satisfy them.

Translating all these rich philosophies into simple actionable steps, Md Sarwar urged parents and teachers to utilize this time to understand their children and students better, to connect with them and to supplement their interests and passions. Designing simple routines with them, prioritizing their interest and their decisions can help parents and teachers build better rapport with their children in this challenging situation.

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He also highlighted how his work at a2i Programme has involved designing futures of education where students are to be developed with the power of creativity, critical thinking ability, collaborative and communication skills, and adaptability so that they have all the qualities to be “a solution” to the problems faced by their communities, societies, and nations.

At this point, Shakil Ahmed rightly weaved in the voice of the student on the panel — Mehrin Morshed, who is also an HSC candidate, gave a reality check when she mentioned how the education she continues to receive makes students like her very materialistic.

Having little scope to explore and hone her talent in other non-academic areas such as music and art in her school and college, Mehrin, like many other students, shackled by the norm of conformity to academic calendars and school syllabus, hardly gets the scope to nurture and unleash her creativity.

However, every calamity is an opportunity in itself, so instead of resisting the current shift to technology and its advancement, we should try to master it for our needs. But are the students currently utilizing technologies for continuing learning?

Mehrin said there are three categories of students: First, are the ones who have access to technology and are utilizing it for learning; the second, those who have access but are using it for social networking; and the third are those who have no access.

To that, both Anusheh and Md Sarwar added by urging parents to guide their children by being better role models who themselves invest in learning new things. Mehrin also hoped students’ voices in deciding pedagogy and education policies will be taken into account in the future, and important issues such as mental health and counseling will be integrated into the formal education system.

The discussion was drawn to an end with Dr Imtiaz’s discernment about infusing scopes of creativity and critical thinking in the existing curriculum instead of completely scrapping it because we still need doctors, engineers, and scientists but in this new age we need engineers with equally good knowledge of aesthetics and nature, who can combine the knowledge of multiple streams to build robust, avant-garde, and eco-friendly establishments.

Reimagining the role of education leaders

The third panel explored how we can reimage the role of education leaders in designing the interventions most needed to overcome the current challenges, and bringing the voices of multiple stakeholders to redesign the education system for the future.

In this panel, the panelists were MD Fashiullah, Director General, Directorate of Primary Education (DPE), Dr Zafar Iqbal, eminent writer and professor, Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor, Aspire to Innovate (a2i), and Madhukar Banuri, Founder and CEO, Leadership for Equity, India.

The education leaders analyzed the depth of the discrepancies created by this pandemic and talked about the steps that need to be taken immediately to address them. Director general of DPE Md Fashiullah said that the government has been planning short-term, mid-term, and long-term action plans for mitigating the adverse impact of Covid-19 on education.

It was also revealed in the panel that the government will soon launch bite-size lessons using interactive voice response technology and toll-free 24/7 phone calls to cater to student queries round the clock by a pool of expert teachers. The DPE is also exploring the options of delivering lessons using radio stations, available on almost all kinds of mobile phones.

But at the same time, the importance of increased budgetary allocation for tackling the impact of Covid-19 on our education system and also for strengthening the existing resources such as by making the textbooks sufficiently rich and interactive to facilitate independent learning, was pointed out by Professor Zafar Iqbal.

He additionally suggested supplementing the textbooks with workbooks as means to provide students with the scope of self-directed learning. There’s a need to create appetite among our students for knowledge and learning. Once their learning is guided by inquiry, students will learn to value the knowledge they receive from their books, teachers, and their surroundings.

Although different interventions are being carried out through TV, radio, and phone, education should be delivered in the future through peer learning and self-directed learning. Striking a similarity with the tone of education entrepreneurs in the first panel, the education leaders also considered redefining the curriculum and education itself to address sustenance of livelihood in this period.

They predicted that it will be essential to strike a balance among academic skills with the skills of inclusion, employability, and social-emotional intelligence. It was highlighted in the panel discussion that in the future there may be a need to fundamentally redefine some of the structural and systemic aspects that have been influencing education so that we can redefine access and the quality of education.

With the imminent threat of more than 30% students falling out of the schools, an overhaul of the system may be needed.

Finally, Anir Chowdhury ended on a positive note, highlighting the need to empower, incentivize, and systematize the avalanche of innovations coming from teachers, educators, and education innovators.

To scale and replicate effective solutions, it is important to identify, catalyze, accelerate, and harness them. While discussing the significance of a teacher’s role in guiding students and their parents through this crisis, the panelists collectively prioritized the teachers’ personal touch and connection with students to help them overcome the struggles and challenges of learning.

Additionally, the panelists maintained that it will be helpful to use the existing online learning spaces to allow students to create study groups to continue learning even in the most adverse conditions, but to also inspire them to come up with innovative Covid-19 coping mechanisms.

To summarize the collective intelligence gathered from the virtual panel discussions, we must use this time to revisit our systems and previous approaches to identify what is worth holding on to and to discard what is not worth holding on to, so that we can reemerge in the aftermath of this pandemic much stronger.

The direction and the desired destination where every child has access to quality education was well-articulated in a number of ways by the esteemed panelists.

However, the task of designing the journey to reach that vision remains a collective responsibility. So we must act fast if we are to save our future generations from falling into the traps of darkness.

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