General Education and COVID-19

 New environment, New Challenges, and New Opportunities

Text by by Anahit Hovakimyan. Originally published on Enlight December 18th, 2020

General education during the pandemic

The presence of the pandemic has led to many changes in our daily lives, of which the education field has not been left out, where such a challenge is hard to remember on such a large scale in the last century. Even the temporary closure of educational institutions during the two world wars was not as widespread as it is now because the classes were primarily interrupted in ongoing military actions and of high risk of bombardment. Because of the epidemic various countries have faced a dilemma: continue to keep open educational institutions or close them. As a result, many countries decided to indefinitely close the educational institutions, which affected more than 60% (according to some sources, 90% of the student’s community), which dropped out of training indefinitely. Because of restrictions, 188 countries gradually closed schools from March 4 to April 1 in 2020.

Due to the closure of educational institutions, an urgent need arose to develop, adapt, or use new ways of organizing education that would ensure the continuity of education and provide education of the highest quality possible. Initially, a number of online education tools (Moodle, Microsoft Teams, G Suite, etc.) were tested in educational institutions in many countries, and teacher training was provided (in some cases, they were organized by various NGOs or initiatives); several methodological guidelines were developed to help teachers in organising online education by using methodological, technical tools and software programs.

After some breaks, the educational system was finally reorganized into an online platform, but, unfortunately, it not only did not solve all the problems but also led to the emergence of new ones.

New environment, new challenges

The general education system of Armenia and many countries of the world faced many new problems and aggravation of previous ones in the new environment caused by the epidemic. One of these problems was the accessibility of education which, in this case, was mainly connected to technical tools and availability of the internet and which became the reason for being left out of education among the children from socially vulnerable groups in developing countries. It is true that in some countries (Lithuania, Georgia, Australia, Armenia, and other countries), several subjects were broadcast on television or radio. Still, their effectiveness as the only means of organizing the education of out-of-school students is not very high. Another problem is organising inclusive education using online tools. Conditioned by the presence of health and psychological characteristics of school children of SEN (Special Education in Need) many school children were left out from education given by special teachers. The above-mentioned circumstances aggravate the problem of availability of education being the reason for the occurrence of social, cultural, economic, and a number of other problems among the children left out from education causing the growth of inequality. The problem is urgent for Armenia, as a large group of SEN students has not been able to receive adequate professional assistance as a result of the temporary closure of inclusive schools, their capacity-building activities were interrupted, and they were left out of the learning process when other students had the opportunity to learn online. The problem of availability of education is added with the problem of quality education, the provision of which with exclusively online tools is tough and in some cases just impossible. The absence of students from school life negatively impacts their socialization, practical skills, capacity building, and comprehensive and harmonious development. Based on the report of “Spotlight: Quality education for all during Covid-19 crisis”, during online education educator concentrates on his education with difficulty, he actually feels lonely, parents are trying to combine their work and children’s education together, difficulties appear in school- children-parent- teacher relationship because of improper or incomplete provision of feedback and organization of general communication. 

The other problem is the imperfection of online assessment forms and the evaluation process, which is more aggravated during exams and final examinations. On April 9, 2020, an educational webinar organized by UNESCO proposed an approach according to which students’ progress should be assessed to identify gaps in their learning, and after the reopening of schools, accelerated and developed learning and assessment should be offered, as not all subjects could be thoroughly studied and assessed online. This could be one of the best solutions during the given situation; however, online assessment is one of the relevant pedagogic issues. As for the exams, in some countries, such as Great Britain and France, the exams were canceled. Other countries, such as Germany, Austria, and Hungary, decided that the exams should be held in compliance with the anti-epidemic rules, and the rest of the countries (including Armenia) held the university entrance or graduation exams canceling some of the exams. 

Precise planning of the learning process has become a severe problem for education managers worldwide in the long and medium-term, as governments can make decisions about the operation of educational institutions, thus leaving the participants of the educational process and the support staff in a precarious position without clear planning. For instance, one of the problems for pedagogues is to make thematic planning of the taught subject because due to the peculiarities of the studied topics, face-to-face training may require different amounts of time, while for online ones, another duration may be needed.

The desire of pedagogs to work in their profession has declined during the pandemic. N. Sweenay, a professor at Cambridge university, claims that one-third of teachers actively seek another job with the aim of leaving the present job within five years, which will bring a crisis in the recruitment process of teachers and education managers. Teachers’ and education managers’ complaints are connected with the heavy workload, big responsibilities, and not appropriate low pay. In addition, in the background of numerous changes in education now, there is a need to review the content of pedagogical education, having the purpose to prepare such pedagogs that not only will face the problems but also can successfully overcome and show creative attitude.

The organisation of education in the online sphere by age-specific accounting of learners is also a problem. If the middle-school children who had already adapted to school and classroom discipline were able to continue their education relatively easily online, then it was a big problem for the elementary school students. Elementary school students were often required to sit in front of a screen for an entire hour, try to concentrate, and not engage in physical activity, which turned out to be an unpleasant process for them. During face-to-face training, educators were able to apply several tricks, games, and techniques that helped children become more active and focused. In addition, if high school students actually realize their goals and the importance of education, it is a problem for elementary school children too. They often do not even realize the need for education and being at home; they prefer to spend more time on the hobbies they are interested in than learning.

Summarizing the above-mentioned problems and challenges, we believe that the negative impact of some problems (e.g., age peculiarities, assessment process, etc.) on general education will be greatly reduced if blended learning is applied, which will allow online education to be combined with face-to-face and will ease the flow to schools.The main point of blended education is the combination of traditional and online education during which a learner could manage the curriculum, determine the place, time, and speed of the course.

To ensure the continuity of the unobstructed education in high and mid schools, we propose to combine the branching programming technology with the traditional teaching technology currently used in schools. Branching Programming allows to organise independent, individual education based on pre-arranged planning, which will not be obstructed in constantly changing conditions. It assumes the division of the studied materials and topics into small parts and the development of questions and exercises to determine the level of their mastery and find out the reasons for mistakes. After finishing work with each section, it is given to the student, yet if the answers are wrong, they cannot pass on to the other topic but must repeat that topic until they master it and answer the questions correctly. The whole process takes place by computer and the most challenging part is the preplanning and arrangement of the program. After that, in parallel with the work with teachers and classmates, learners will have an opportunity to study topics independently. This can be an effective supplement to the current approach in Armenia according to which, classes, having more than 20 pupils, during which two topics are assigned, and one of them should be studied independently.

New environment, new opportunities

Due to the pandemic, this new situation in the field of education has also led to some positive changes that deserve our attention.

In the transition to online education, large-scale training of teachers and support staff was provided in a number of countries. These fostered the development of professional skills/abilities and the usage of new methods and ways in the teaching process, which they can successfully use in face-to-face education. For example, teachers can determine the level of achievement of educational outcomes among the students in a given subject by conducting anonymous online electronic surveys. They can combine face-to-face education with online, having a purpose, for example, to keep in touch and continue studying with school children, who may have health problems or other reasons to be absent from the classroom and so on. 

The closure of educational institutions and online education fostered the increase of the level of technical-technological literacy for all beneficiaries. Moreover, it stimulated the rise in involvement of parents and family members in organizing children’s educational process and preparing the lesson. The latter was especially prominent among parents of elementary and middle school students and other family members. On the one hand, they were trying to support the development of children’s ability to use technical means, on the other hand, parents were more involved in the learning process. Since children actually did not attend school and teachers’ individual approach in online platforms is not like during face-to-face practice, parents spent more time preparing their children, explaining possible incomprehensible topics and questions. It allowed parents to spend much time with their children to learn about children’s educational difficulties and peculiarities.

The pandemic also contributed to changing society’s demands for the content of education to realize its importance, bringing to the fore the need to develop vital knowledge (health, hygiene, etc.) and 21st-century educational skills (creativity, collaboration, etc.).

Online education has allowed teachers and learners to effectively manage time and flexibility; for now, they have been able to record lessons and use them afterward, create a database of online resources, organize learning activities in more convenient conditions, save time and money on getting to and from school, and back.

The pandemic fostered the revaluation of teachers’ role, the realization of its importance. It was the priority challenge for teachers, a big part of which tried to learn the opportunities given from online platforms and adapt education with new conditions in a short period. It was a rather busy and responsible period for them and at this stage their work as such was in the center of attention of school children, parents, family members, education managers and beneficiaries of the society. As a result, their work and willingness or the role and mission of teachers in these very processes were the basis for transforming the teacher’s work and ideas about the latter’s image.

Due to the pandemic, one of the main trends was the transition from a culture of teaching to a culture of learning. Teachers began to push students to learn more independently, and the use of technical means, in addition to being a revelation for thousands of learners, also helped them realize the peculiarities of organizing extracurricular learning, gaining practical experience, and developing a desire to use them continuously.

It is obvious that 2020 will be written boldly in human history as problems that occurred during this year left their significant trace and would still be left on the development of humans, countries and the whole world in general. The transition of the general education system to online platforms in parallel to the pandemic has had many opportunities that would have a positive impact on post-epidemic education, but at the same time; this transition was full of new challenges and problems that would be felt not only in the short but also in the long run. Education will not be the same as before the pandemic because the problems, challenges, opportunities that have emerged in this short period will be the impetus for developing new educational paradigms.