Wed | Aug 5, 2020

Future of teaching, learning in a post-COVID-19 era

Published:Sunday | July 12, 2020 | 12:19 AM
Dian McCallum
Dian McCallum

Earlier this year, the School of Education, in collaboration with the Humanities Department at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus, convened a breakfast roundtable meeting with school leaders; a representative from the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information; and student leaders from the faculty under the theme ‘Schooling and the Future: Preparation for Life, Work, and Learning over the Lifespan’. The meeting engaged schools in a conversation about their role in teacher education.

We were not only concerned with the placement of student teachers in schools, but also with the general decline in the study of humanities-based programmes and courses. As such, we discussed with school leaders their roles in providing a holistic and balanced schooling experience and the contribution of a humanities-based education to preparing current students for life, work, and lifelong learning. The two-pronged focus of the meeting was based on concerns seen as critical to the furtherance of schooling and life beyond schools. Within a month of the meeting, the COVID-19 disease was declared a pandemic, Jamaica had its first case, and educational institutions at all levels were closed. The School of Education’s regularly scheduled activities such as its school-based practicum were ended, and we had to find an alternative to this activity, which we considered to be central to the preparation and certification of prospective teachers.

LESSONS LEARNT

What were the lessons learnt as teacher educators, and how can these lessons be extended to the wider teaching-learning community? At the level of the educational system, the COVID-19 onslaught has taught us that educational change happens when the prevailing circumstances demand it. Students of teaching and education learn that educational change can take place with or without educational reform, which is usually initiated at the policy level. At the same time, educational reforms do not necessarily lead to change. One of the urgent lessons is that we need to reactivate and recalibrate the educational-change efforts in the educational system – those not yet fully thought through, those planned but not fully implemented, those which simply have not gone far enough, and those which are now in gestation as a result of the pandemic.

At the university level, at the School of Education, we recognised that the recent changes in our teacher-education programmes are not enough. While the university has had a long history of distance and online teaching through the Open Campus and its forerunners – The University of the West Indies Distance Teaching Experiment and The UWI Distance Education Centre – and while we have had the benefit of a learning-management system since 2004, that system has been underutilised. COVID-19 has said to us that we must change how we use the tools we have, and we must prepare all our future teachers, irrespective of their specialisation, to teach using a variety of modalities and in a variety of ways such that they will truly be ready to hit the ground running when they enter their own classroom spaces, whether virtual or physical.

EDUCATIONAL CHANGE

The National Standards Curriculum is an example of an educational change or transformation effort that has not gone far enough. While this national curriculum is an accomplishment worthy of praise, in light of COVID-19, we must now determine why a curriculum designed to meet the needs of 21st century learners, described as a curriculum that is ‘dynamic, challenging, inspiring, and inclusive’, one with specific ICT Attainment Targets, could not be easily transferred to online delivery without the many hiccups that presented themselves.

Apart from the fact that didactic, teacher-centred methods were transferred intact to the online environment in a number of anecdotally reported cases, there were many issues that affected students’ access to online learning, primarily due to one or other access-related factors: geography, availability, affordability, and technological literacy. That Internet connectivity was also a significant challenge shows that the country’s main providers of the Internet play a part in how our technological incapacity affects our educational-change efforts and aspirations.

The concern we expressed at the February 2020 breakfast meeting about the decline in the study and focus on the humanities in schools, and, by extension, at the university level, has proved to be justified. While COVID-19 has demonstrated in no uncertain manner that STEM is critical and central to any education system to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by this 21st century, it has shown, too, that teachers’ ability to communicate and instruct effectively using the technology and students’ ability to reciprocate using that same technology requires a more holistic approach to education, which means an appropriate blend of what both the sciences and humanities-based disciplines provide.

Online teaching is not primarily a matter of getting the science right. Teaching is a human-to-human interaction, and when that interaction is taking place across space, the demand on the human element is at a premium. So how can we think that science has all the answers? If we think it does, how will these answers and solutions be communicated, accessed, and interpreted if not through the medium of language? Where will affective-type traits such as respect, appreciation, and tolerance be honed if not through well-intentioned and purposeful teaching, the raison d’ être of the humanities?

The chief lesson of COVID-19 is that the world must show a greater willingness to provide its future citizens with a more holistic and balanced education for them to meet, respond to, and live with the unforeseen events that the future will certainly bring.

- Dr Dian McCallum is a history educator and coordinator of the School of Education Practicum in the Faculty of Humanities and Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. This article is one in a series that seeks to promote and highlight the impact of the arts and humanities on the individual’s personal development and career path. Send feedback to fhe@uwimona.edu.jm and dian.mccallum@uwimona.edu.jm.