AS OF APRIL 21 – at the height of Covid-19 – schools in 191 countries were forced into mass closure. An estimated 1.5 billion students globally were left in the lurch, with the underprivileged and special needs students being the hardest hit. To discuss and galvanise perspectives about the future of education, the Singapore-based think tank HEAD Foundation organised the webinar, Covid-19 What Next…? - Levelling the education playing field under Covid-19… and beyond.
On the panel were Dr. Ethel Agnes P. Valenzuela, the Secretariat Director of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO); Sooinn Lee, cofounder and CEO of Enuma Inc.; and Philipp Schmidt, the Director of Learning Innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. The visiting Professor Tikki Pangestu of the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, moderated the forcum.
Education in Southeast Asia (SEA) was stalled for the first half of 2020, with the region’s 11 education ministers working together to determine measures to be taken in response to the pandemic, says Ethel of SEAMEO.
Similar approaches have been adopted by several nations. These include reverting to television and radio for educational broadcasts, blended learning initiatives that combine traditional face-to-face methods with online platforms, and distributing learning materials to those in remote areas. In nations with better internet infrastructure, the pandemic expedited the transition towards online learning among educational institutions.
“We leveraged on our partnerships with international groupings, circulated recommendations in highlevel political discussions and launched webinars for stakeholders. Our goal was to ensure continuity in learning. The governments are prioritising the safe reopening of schools, working in concert with their respective health authorities to that end,” she says.
Protect Students by Protecting Their Knowledge
Citing reports about illiteracy rates prior to the pandemic, Lee explains that pre-schoolers are the most vulnerable to disruptions in education. “About 250 million children cannot read or write. Even in affluent countries, two-thirds of the poorer students at school barely acquired minimum literacy and numeracy skills.” Prolonged school closures, she warns, could potentially lead to further deterioration in youth literacy.
Schmidt agrees that inequalities in education have been laid bare. Access to education is now no longer only affected by internet coverage. “It’s also about having ample time to focus on your studies, without having to look after elderly or ill family members. It’s about the availability of literature in your language; there is a wealth of academic materials, but they may not exist in your native tongue.”
(From clockwise) Professor Tikki Pangestu, Sooinn Lee, Dr. Ethel Agnes P. Valenzuela and Philipp Schmidt.
This uneven access may similarly – and detrimentally – encourage a higher rate of school dropout. The pandemic has exacerbated truancy, with more students starting to become “invisible” in online classrooms.
Technology is Not the Only Solution
The panellists are unanimous on the use of technology as the way forward for the education sector. But to be sure, technology alone will not be the solution, what is also clear is that no solution will work without technology.
Lee’s firm Enuma Inc. was inspired to create the KitKit School for underprivileged students who lack internet access. The software, which is now in use in Tanzania, is showing promising signs of improving literacy and numeracy among the nation’s poorest students.
“KitKit school functions in remote settings without internet coverage. We believe this self-directed solution will help to provide a more flexible learning method for underprivileged children,” she explains.
The software was a joint winner of the Elon Musksponsored Global Learning XPRIZE 2019, launched as a global initiative to create open-source, scalable software for self-learning among children.
The KitKit School is showing promising signs of improving literacy and numeracy among Tanzania’s poorest students.
Tertiary institutions like MIT are similarly adapting to the Covid-19 world by simplifying their grading systems to the pass/fail iteration. Schmidt observes that this new iteration provides greater space for students to innovate and experiment, as well as alleviate the result-oriented pressure that comes with the traditional grading system.
“Students still work just as hard, but there is more freedom that comes with not being tied to assessments,” he explains, quoting the adage by British economist Charles Goodhart, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure.”
A strong public education system requires top-down public policies and innovative bottom-up approaches to meet halfway. “It is also absolutely critical that equitable and sustainable global, regional and national partnerships be maintained between the public and private sectors,” says Pangestu.
“Talent is roughly equally distributed, but opportunities are not,” concurs Schmidt. “I don’t believe that a market-based approach, as espoused by private institutions, would help reach all learners. Ultimately, public education should serve as the basis to ensure that quality education is accessible to all.”
For her part, Lee cautions that the lack of political will, as well as prevailing nationalistic tendencies globally may hamper efforts to promote digital education. “Most governments are inclined to prefer solutions that are custom-made, by locals where possible, to suit national needs,” she says.
But Lee takes heart. There has been a growing interest from governments to adopt Enuma’s software. “We pitched our solutions to ministries and government officials via teleconferencing. Before the pandemic, this was simply not possible; nobody was open enough to listen to ideas from external software developers.”
Besides calling for enhanced multilateral cooperation within SEA, Ethel stresses that “while governments are focused on the reopening of schools in accordance with local health guidelines, we should not neglect disadvantaged students, especially those lacking access to technology. Most nations in SEA have devised educational packages and broadcasting methods to reach them, but there is still room for improvement, e.g. by expanding access to available learning resources.”
SEA is still mired in considerable wealth disparity and because of this, safeguarding access to education for all remains a top priority. Coordinated and concerted efforts by all parties coupled with wider access to technology can go a long way in guaranteeing education as a basic human right.
1. “Startling digital divides in distance learning emerge” UNESCO (2020): https://en.unesco.org/news/startling-digital-dividesdistance-learning-emerge
2. “Global learning crisis is costing $129 billion a year” UNESCO (2014): http://www.unesco.org/new/en/media-services/singleview/news/global_learning_crisis_is_ costing_129_billion_a_year/
3. Bao, X., Qu, H., Zhang, R., & Hogan, T. P. (2020, May 13). Literacy Loss in Kindergarten Children during COVID-19 School Closures. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/nbv79
Ooi Tze Xiong, a former Xaverian, currently works at a multinational firm at Bayan Lepas. After years of sojourning in cities across Malaysia and Singapore, he eventually decided to call Penang home.