“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” This quote reflects some of what our world is facing at the present time.
While education systems and experts juggle many issues to improve the outcomes of education and its effect on the economy and labor market, they also face the added challenge of the coronavirus.
Due to the novelty of the COVID-19 virus, we did not have a clear picture of its infectious spread in schools and universities, or its longer-term magnitudes, despite the scientific research. On the other hand, we have grown familiar with its adverse bearings on education.
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of many systems, not only education. We have all witnessed the severity of its impact economically, socially and psychologically. Thus, going back to normal with our education systems after the pandemic is not simply a matter of turning a key. It is estimated that over 1.2 billion students have been kept out of the classroom in 186 countries worldwide due to the virus. For many countries, the dilemma is whether to reopen schools or defer the decision.
There is no single decisive answer or one entity that will provide such an answer. This should involve comprehensive and cooperative actions; there is no "one size fits all" methodology to complete school reopening. During the pandemic, children seem to be less vulnerable to serious coronavirus illness and death than adults. However, children can spread the virus, leaving elderly relatives with preexisting conditions vulnerable.
UNESCO has six key conditions to assess the state of readiness when schools have been identified for reopening: Policy, financing, safe operation, learning, reaching the most marginalized, and wellbeing/protection. Add to that cooperation with government regulations and health ministries. Apparently, this can vary based on the context and the countries involved and their economic resources.
Meanwhile, critical policies should involve monitoring health indicators at schools, merging distance learning with the in-school approach of teaching and learning, equipping teachers to deal with learning recovery and students’ mental health, and providing information on viruses and infection control as well as precautionary hygiene and disinfection management plans.
Policymakers, parents, and teachers have to be involved in such issues and decisions. Implementing measures like this will be challenging, without a vaccine, which is not expected to be widely available until next year, and many schools may stay closed or be forced to shut abruptly in the face of a second wave of infection.
Some of the challenges during the lockdown are education financing, international student mobility, loss of teaching time, reliable internet access, and teachers’ digital capabilities.
According to the OECD, learning losses will result in about 3 percent lower incomes over the lifetimes of students in grades 1-12. Therefore, we need to ameliorate the learning losses.
Planning for the future of education is vital and is taking place on two timescales: The short-term challenges in the return to school, and the challenges over the next 18-24 months as systems work to build resilience and adaptability for the future. And since things are a bit clearer now, we should not rely solely on distance learning and e-learning. We should expand our horizons and introduce new methods of teaching, communicating and evaluating.
We are all familiar with the fact that there are fundamental skills that cannot be acquired online, so we need to make sure that we provide high-quality remote learning, which has numerous challenges such as IT infrastructure, technology qualified teachers, cybersecurity and bullying.
In general, in-person learning is more productive than online or distance learning since it involves effective teacher-student interaction.
However, some studies indicate that e-learning may be as effective as face-to-face classroom learning. A number of studies confirm that students retain 25-60 percent more material when learning online compared with only 8-10 percent in a classroom. It is believed that students are able to control their time as they learn at their own pace online. Moreover, e-learning entails 40-60 percent less time to learn than in a classroom.
E-Learning will play a huge part in education. However, online learning efficiency relies on students’ age — the younger the student the easier to get distracted.
The Saudi G20 presidency continued to support and coordinate international efforts to counter the impact of the pandemic, both in human and economic terms.
Many G20 members held virtual meetings to discuss the pandemic repercussions and the necessary actions. The Kingdom's experience in facing the pandemic has been praised widely. Saudi Arabia has proved its success in keeping its population safe and ensuring their education continues.
With the virus still lingering, preparedness in education should not be limited to the pandemic since there will be other coronavirus infections in future and humanity must prepare itself. However, we have to be optimistic — it is a vital part of our resilience.
• Dr. May Alobaidy is the first Saudi woman to be appointed an adviser to a minister. She has worked as a senior adviser to three ministers in addition to her role as CEO of the Strategic and International Partnerships and Initiatives Center, which she established at the Ministry of Higher Education.