The Pandemic is a Huge Learning Opportunity

By Anjum Altaf

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit education hard. Schools and colleges have been closed since March which has resulted in a lot of hand-wringing with both educationists and students deploring the time wasted. Pressure is building up to reopen and the government has announced September 15 as the likely date of resumption. 

This decision is based partly on the determination that the pandemic has been controlled in Pakistan but experience from many countries that had thought likewise has shown that such relaxation can be premature. Across the world, educational institutions have opened only to be closed again because of the emergence of infection clusters.

This is not surprising because the virus has not been eliminated anywhere. It has been successfully localized in many places but as soon as large scale movement is permitted across locations, it has shown a propensity to cross borders and resurge. With millions of students, staff, and service personnel moving in and out, such a resurgence remains a major risk. Where human lives are at stake the maximum caution is warranted.

But what then is to be done to address the seemingly genuine lamentations about the time being wasted? I would recommend substituting creative thinking for fruitless whining that does no good and can do considerable harm by rushing reopening while the virus is still active and credible evidence to suggest herd immunity is not available.

It is ironic that when students are actually attending classes in person, educationists tell them that most learning takes place outside the classroom. Now that the students are actually out of classrooms, the same educationists are unable to convert that opportunity into any kind of learning. This can only mean that they were repeating an aphorism without having given it much thought themselves. 

Learning outside the classroom is even more relevant in Pakistan compared to other countries because too much of what is taught in the class is outdated, dull, and boring. Many teachers in low-income public schools know less than the students and even in colleges considered decent many just read out from notes that they inherited from their predecessors.

It is true that one aspect of learning outside the classroom derives from what students learn from each other and this is lost when institutions are closed. But other students are not the only peers from whom one can learn. All of society constitutes both a peer group and a laboratory rich in learning potential from which a student can benefit with just a little guidance.

Consider the fact that many students in other countries voluntarily take a year off from school or college because they wish to enrich their education in ways that are not possible in the normal course. We ca think of the break imposed by the pandemic as an enforced time off for all our students. How can we use it to advance a different form of learning that goes beyond classroom education?

For smart educationists, this should not be a difficult proposition. Instead of preparing lectures that are to be delivered online and consumed inside homes, they could assign tasks to students that would require them to go out and explore their neighbourhoods to find out how life has been impacted by the pandemic.

Such exercises can range from the simple to the complex depending on the maturity of the student. At the simplest level, a student could survey a hundred households in his or her neighbourhood to document the number of infections and deaths that have been caused by the pandemic, how households have coped with these, and what other hardships have ensued. 

A similar exercise can document the economic impact of the pandemic. How many have lost their livelihoods, what have been the coping mechanisms and how have lives been impacted.

More advanced students can engage in industry, profession, or institution specific studies. How have small and medium enterprises in various sectors been impacted, what has been happening inside hospitals and clinics, and how have various service providers fared. Other students can ascertain the number of burials in local graveyards and compare them with the same period for previous years.

Such a pedagogical orientation can have multiple benefits. First, crowd-sourced information, carefully gathered, can fill a huge data gap pertaining especially to small towns that are largely off the official radar. A much richer profile of what is really happening on the ground as a result of the pandemic would emerge.

Data received from diverse locations could help put together a map of the country identifying areas differently impacted by the pandemic enabling resources to be directed to those most in need. Students would not only gain knowledge of their places of residence but become aware of other places in the country when the studies are shared and discussed online.

Second, students would gain experiential knowledge and the invaluable skill of doing research as their progress reports are critiqued by their teachers. They would also learn how to express themselves by having to write coherent accounts whose linguistic quality would be monitored by another set of instructors.

Through such a participatory process, students would become active agents in the documentation, monitoring, and management of the pandemic and be able to suggest practical recommendations to mitigate its effects. They would also become familiar with their neighbourhoods to serve as community workers in public health campaigns and economic assistance initiatives where needed.

The learning generated from such a pedagogical orientation can easily outweigh the loss from suspension of in-person classes. Creative teachers can incentivise such learning by making it eligible for academic credit. The design of a senior thesis is particularly amenable to such a research and supervision model.

With a little modification such a model is also feasible for children enrolled in schools. Teachers can supervise groups of children and engage them in outdoor activities exploring local flora and fauna, natural habitats, and places of historic interest. Organizing discussions around these would add much more to knowledge than any number of lessons in the classroom.

With a little more creativity and a little less complaining this suspension of the normal course of activities can be turned into a huge learning opportunity that can have the added benefit of getting students to know much more about themselves, their fellow citizens, and their localities. Instead of seeing themselves as passive victims students can become active participants in a campaign to help their country and society in a once-in-a-lifetime challenge.

This opinion appeared in The News on September 10, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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