Tue | Nov 24, 2020

Nadine McCloud-Rose and Peter-John Gordon | Learning in isolation

Published:Tuesday | May 5, 2020 | 12:10 AMNadine McCloud-Rose and Peter-John Gordon/Contributors

THE CURRENT COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the operations of our schools, with classes currently delivered in a ‘distance mode’ in which pupils stay at home. A distance mode is not the same as simple homeschooling, in which the entire educational process occurs outside of a formal school. There is, however, an overlap between elements of the homeschooling and distance modes. Undoubtedly, the ongoing distance education has exposed the digital divide, with some students having access to technological infrastructure, which makes distance education possible, while others do not. The digital disparity, of course, is a huge issue. Still, we wish to abstract from it in the article and focus on other essential distortions to the education process that have emanated from, or been amplified by, COVID-19. To do this, we assume that all pupils have equal access to technology, which makes distance learning possible.

Distance education, while necessary in the current circumstances, is not a perfect substitute for face-to-face instruction. For younger children to participate in remote learning, there is a need for more home involvement, as parents or guardians have to supplement the role of the classroom teacher. Different homes have different capabilities in supplying this support. Let us assume that the primary ‘teacher’s aide’ is the mother (although it could easily be the father or an older sibling). Different factors influence the ability of the home to supply competent teacher’s aides. The different educational levels of mothers result in various capabilities. The amount of time that mothers have to devote to the education of their children also affects children’s learning. We can think of more mother’s time dedicated to children’s education as an improvement in the quality of the teacher’s aide.


COVID-19 has affected the time constraints of mothers differently. Unemployed mothers, whether they were previously unemployed or have become unemployed, would be the set of mothers with the most time to devote to helping their children with remote learning. Although we had assumed away the digital divide, with some children being able to access the Internet and some not being able to, there is still a huge wealth effect. Wealthier families are more likely to have mothers who are housewives, with the least time constraint. They are also the ones best suited to be able to obtained extra resources by hiring in additional teaching help, as well as being able to procure supplementary educational material.

The more impoverished families are unlikely to command these resources. In many instances, they also rely on the school system for the nutrition of their children. Those mothers who are now working from home would be able to supply some amount of supervision to their children’s learning efforts, but not as much time as the unemployed mothers. Those mothers who must still work outside of the household are the most time-constrained of all mothers and are the group with the least amount of time available for helping children with schoolwork. This latter group most likely needs to find adult supervision for their children away from school. Families with little or no time to act as teacher’s aide, therefore, have limited coping mechanisms at their disposal to smooth or reduce the distortions to their children’s education process; for them, distance learning is tantamount to a millstone around their necks.

In general, older students rely less on adult supervision and the knowledge of their parents or guardians than younger children. Very few households would have a mother (or another ‘teacher’s aide’) who can help a CAPE or CSEC student with the structural representation of alkanes in organic chemistry, Newton’s third law of motion in physics or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in English literature.


The education process is not purely linear between teacher and student. Students are concerned not only with their absolute performance, but also their performance relative to their peers. Students (both older and younger) are affected by their peers. These peer effects could be direct or indirect. For example, the insightful questions asked by one’s classmates help one in coming to a deeper understanding of the concept under discussion (a positive direct peer effect). The disruption in a classroom caused by one student affects the learning of another (a negative immediate peer effect). An indirect peer effect could be student A observes that student B is doing well academically and so is motivated to work harder. Another indirect peer effect could be that student B’s performance prods the teacher who, consequently, gives more inspiring classes from which student A receives benefits. Thus, for some students, particularly the older ones, their peers are complementary to a teacher’s aide, whereas, for others, their peers are perfect substitutes for a teacher’s aide.

Students, of course, learn more than academic subjects in the school setting. A big part of the education process is character formation. Peer interaction is a vital part of character formation. The richness of the school environment in terms of co-curricular activities is essential in character formation, which feeds back into the education process. The willingness to stick to a task and strive for excellence are traits that can be nurtured or reinforced through co-curricular activities. Students who are gifted and who excel in non-academic areas do influence other students through peer effects, even if those other students will never shine in these non-academic areas.

Homeschooling removes these peer effects, whereas remote learning can reduce or even eliminate them. The possible heterogeneity of peer effects across gender is likely to compound the distortions associated with remote learning. Indeed, there is a strand of the psychology literature which suggests that girls are more responsive than boys to peers. We should, therefore, ruminate that girls and boys may be affected differently from the diminution of peer interactions caused by the introduction of distance learning.

The COVID-19 disruption to our education production process grants us an opportunity to think about how the education process works and what its essential components are. The more we understand this process and its various inputs, the better we will be in constructing an education infrastructure that educates all our pupils to the highest possible standards.

Nadine McCloud-Rose and Peter-John Gordon are lecturers in the Department of Economics, University of the West Indies, Mona. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.