Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Mar 30, 2020
Quarantine education

The outbreak of coronavirus and consequent shutdown of schools, work places, cities and even nations has raised questions on its impact on education across age groups. Twenty nine countries have shut schools nation – wide, an additional twenty have some form of closures. With coronavirus griping the world more countries are likely to follow. Due to the pandemic the International Baccalaureate (IB) has cancelled exams which will affect more than 200,000 students world over. It’s impact on student learning is likely to be severe.  As has been established by research long breaks can have detrimental effect on learning outcomes. In lots of instances around the world universities and senior schools have shifted to e - learning. While e-learning has its merits and demerits, in times of emergency, it might be the only viable option for students to have continuous access to learning. However, the needs of students can vary widely in terms of cognitive ability, interest, style of learning, and so on. For the youngest learners, learning is a knowledge building process where meaning is co – constructed, thus making peer support and collaboration extremely valuable for socio – cognitive development.

 The challenges, therefore, in e-teaching at the primary level (particularly children in the age group of three to seven) are multifold. First, in the event of a health emergency like an epidemic where learning is shifted to homes, parents might not be confident or adequately equipped to ‘homeschool’. Well-meaning adults might end up relying on workbooks and worksheets that require a student to sit and repetitively complete these (such as those containing alphabets, numbers and sums).   Second, while middle school, senior school and university students might be cognitively developed to rationalize e - classrooms, it would be difficult to engage younger ones with this mode of learning. Unlike the older children, they do not usually communicate with peers via texts or phone. In fact learning at this age happens through play and peer interactions.

During the ongoing Covid 19 crisis the discussion on a parents WhatsApp group turned towards concern about young children’s learning, a mother humorously commented ‘possibly though Peppa Pig’. This statement reflects the influence of technology and popular culture in the everyday life of children. Access to technology has transformed traditional forms of learning, entertainment and play even for the youngest. In a study on early years pedagogy and implication of technology for children under five, Ioanna Palaiologou concluded that there is a need to reconceptualise young children’s learning patterns and reexamine the way in which the learning environment is organized. Education researchers have increasingly made the case for adopting technology in everyday school curriculum. Also, an EU funded project NIMIS (Networked Interactive Media in Schools), explored the possibilities of using technology to enhance classroom based learning. However, mass scale technology adoption is constrained by high cost and massive infrastructural requirement.

In times of crisis when the only option is to stay indoor, there usually is heavy reliance on technology. What if schools were able to bring in some element of creativity and innovation in concepts of learning that integrate technology with traditional forms of engagement? Schools around the world are experimenting with some creative ways to teach remotely. For instance, some schools are taking online lessons while some are setting tasks to complete and upload within a designated time frame; some kindergarten teachers have read out stories online and uploaded them on websites.

Even in India, in a situation of near shut down many schools are devising innovative ways to engage with children of all age groups. Some schools are assigning online tasks even for the youngest. On completion the tasks are shared by parents with the teacher virtually. Dr. Shalini Advani, the director of Pathways School, Noida, one such school which has been trying to engage even its early years online, has explained the age group-related challenge:  “Technology for the youngest functions differently --- it has to work in combination with parents and families. For older children there is fair amount of synchronous learning. It might be an interactive class but it is the teacher who is leading the class. With the early years we expect that a lot of learning will be asynchronous. Work is assigned or suggested for children to do. We are encouraging children to create or build something and then parents can upload a video. The biggest challenge is how do you foster human relationship online in this time of offsite learning? To overcome this challenge we are doing things like music lessons online where children can sing along.”

Quarantined time might be an opportunity for us to reassess the overall school learning environment and acknowledge the presence and use of technology in a child’s educational journey but in times of emergency technology is absolutely critical for creating a safe and stimulating environment. Desperate times call for extraordinary measures - we need to dig into existing research and from it devise creative and democratic ways to constructively engage the young. Keeping in mind the socio- economic disparities in India, we need to explore cost - effective ways of integrating technology with learning -- by using educational applications or forming class wise WhatsApp groups etc. students can share videos or photo of the activity that teachers set out for them. These activities can range from playing a game with parents; creating something from mud, water or rice; a drawing or a painting; singing a song; or watching educational video, pretending to be their favorite characters; virtual show and tell; sending voice messages; sharing handwritten ideas with friends; sharing artworks; and/or using the concept of collective storytelling to build a story that can be later enacted in school. It is important to keep the young stimulated, engaged, curious and also virtually connected to peers beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

The foregoing clearly indicates how important it is for educational departments and institutions to formulate feasible learning methods for all age groups. Finding cost effective and creative ways of engaging young minds will have positive implications moving forward. Such measures can even be adapted in situations of emergency. For instance, unscheduled school closures in times of conflict, natural disasters, or epidemics or even the annual feature of school closure in north India due to pollution spike.  The question no longer is whether or not technology is ‘good’ for children but rather how can it be leveraged optimally for their socio-cognitive development.

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Anub Mannaan

Anub Mannaan

Anub Mannaan is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Her area of research is on impact of conflict on education. Anub worked as ...

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