Monday, June 1, 2020

Why School Closure Will Badly Hurt Students And Teachers

Previously, I wrote about how classroom-type of learning isn't productive for every student, and how e-learning is a long-awaited shift in education that should have been done years ago.

In short, we are witnessing a revolution in education. Woo hoo!

Still, there are many skeptics out there who don't share my optimism. Indeed, e-learning is not without its pitfalls - from technical to psychological. The fear that digitization of education may widen the gap of inequality between the rich and poor is not far-fetched at all. After all, richer parents can afford cutting-edge technology, private tutors, and more personal time and attention to check their kid's homework. For many poorer kids, school teachers are all they're got.

The problems associated with e-learning are merely part of a larger looming issue: school closure.

Expectation (every kid has Mac)

Photo by Julia M Cameron
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At the outset, there are some important points I need to stress. E-learning is NOT mutually exclusive to physical learning. Reduction of classes does NOT mean school closure.

When I say cut down on lectures, what I mean is that the hours saved from lectures can be better invested on smaller tutorials, extra-curricular activities, or even internship. I certainly don't mean students should just stay home and study all day - that's counter-productive to learning.

Now, I know that COVID-19 is still stalking our lands. Some say that schools should remain close until a vaccine is found - when the coast is completely clear. I disagree. That's just lazy thinking. Precautions can be taken. If businesses can be allowed to open, there's no reason why schools can't too. Education is essential, and there's even more reason why we should find innovative ways to keep schools open and physical activities running - staggered hours, smaller classes, temperature checks, and so on. And this applies to education at all levels - from pre-school to university.

University of Cambridge has even announced that all face-to-face lectures have been scrapped for the whole next academic year until mid-2021. Other universities may follow suit.

E-learning is a great idea. But if executed poorly, both students and teachers suffer.

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I dislike attending lectures. Either I'm dozing off or reading something else at my own faster pace. But that's just me. Some students learn more in a classroom environment. They can absorb information easier through audiovisual aids. Note-taking is a way of revision. Group discussions spur ideas and interest. Point is, many students may struggle if e-learning is enforced fully. Humans are social creatures. Students thrive through collaboration.

Next, extra-curricular activities. Societies. Sports. Arts and culture. If schools and universities remain closed for a semester or a year, all these will be halted as well. Students' resumes will be thinner, that's for sure. As much as we ridicule against some of these activities for being purely box-ticking and resume-padding, there is still much intrinsic value in most of them. Hackathons for coders. Pitches for business. Mooting for law. Soft skills. Building connections. All gone, no more!

Then there's the facilities. Library. Laboratories. Sports centres. Recreational spots (canoeing out on a lake). Bunch of friends just chilling out at late night mamaks. Nothing academic here, but they're all part of the campus experience. Networking. Learning new skills. Enjoying new experiences.

Lastly, there's the loss of personal interaction. Yes, we can easily migrate to video calls - I'm already doing that. But the atmosphere lacks warmth. Voices crack or go soft. Speaking and listening becomes an incredibly taxing exercise. Frustration sets in. My laptop has died mid-call a few times, leaving others hanging. We end up saying as little as we can, and move on.

Such doom and gloom is not speculative at all. According to a World Bank paper, school closure for 4 months will reduce the lifetime earnings of students equivalent to 15% of a year's global GDP.

Reality (every kid wears a hat)

Source from SCMP

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What about teachers?

Many are unhappy with the extra work required of e-learning, and coming up with alternative forms of assessment besides exams. Many are strongly opposed to schools reopening due to fears of infection, such as teachers' unions in the UK.

At the same time, they expect to be paid. And they seem to care little that their students' education are being delayed. Honestly, they want to have their cake, and eat it too.

Everyone else is at risk of being retrenched, so why not teachers? There's nothing wrong being fearful of your health - but that's not enough a reason to put a pause in the lives of students whose future lies in your hand. If you don't want to bear the risk, then just quit. You're not irreplaceable. There are plenty of hungry (and likely even better) teachers itching to take your spot.

As a teacher, I'm more than ready to get back to teaching at the university. I'll take precautions, of course. Less meetings, smaller groups, and so on. Do I run the risk of being infected? Of course. But it's a risk I'm willing to take. Teaching is my job, my responsibility. Life goes on. Life finds a way.

For teachers eager to get going but insistent that schools should remain close and everything be taught via e-learning - you're just being selfish. Learning is being compromised, and you know it. It's just a cop-out solution.

But the irony is that they're signing their own redundancy package. If lectures and tutorials can be fully virtual, what's stopping lessons from being out-sourced in future? If exams are all switched to open-book online tests, why can't the examiners be a centralised independent panel? If extra-curricular activities and campus experience are unnecessary, how do you justify collecting expensive fees that allows employment of full-time teachers? The slippery slope is this - the more schools compromise on 'learning' experience', the more they become irrelevant. Yes, it's an existential crisis. So be careful what you're advocating!

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For me, the path is clear. I'm all for e-learning - to complement schooling, not replace it entirely. E-learning is merely a means, not an end itself. Teachers still play a big role in a student's learning curve - live AND virtual. And when I mean 'schooling' and 'education', I'm not talking about classes and exams. I mean the whole package, including extra-curricular activities and personal interaction.

To shut down schools indefinitely is just... cruel. You're killing the dreams and hopes of an entire generation. You're sacrificing the needs of the young for the needs of the old. Worst of all, you're treating 'education' like some kind of video-game that can be plugged and unplugged.

As a teacher, I'm more than willing and able to go the extra mile even as the COVID-19 rages on. I'm young and have a clear bill of health. I can cover for my senior colleagues. I can pick up on new subjects. I can 'parachute' into rural areas to have intense 2-3 week workshops with students.

Point is, both teachers and students can make education work during this difficult time. We don't have to take a break. We don't have to scale down to edu-lite. We don't have to stop living.

Life itself is a learning process. If we can't learn how to live through this temporary pain... well, then, we haven't learnt much about life, have we?

You know what's the biggest lesson about life? That life will always find a way...

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