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LITERACY DURING THE PANDEMIC AND BEYOND

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By Iqra Sarfaraz
Tue, 09, 20

On the occasion of International Literacy Day today, You! focuses on the effective educational strategies and learning during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond...

Access to education has always been a problem in Pakistan. Out of 70 million, 22.8 million children are out of school. And now, the coronavirus outbreak has exposed its inadequate education system and technological inequities in this sector. On the other hand, over 50 million school and university-going Pakistanis are now falling behind.

In June, protests were held in at least 36 Pakistani towns and cities as students had demanded that the federal government prevent universities from resuming academic sessions via online classes. Several students in Quetta were arrested for protesting the plan. The most vociferous opposition against the online classes is coming from the students who live in the remote areas of the country - Gilgit Baltistan, Balochistan, and the region that borders Afghanistan. According to the student leaders, the plan reflects the ‘state’s callous patronage of digital divide in the country’. They point out that their hometowns do not have electricity, let alone internet services. Indeed, home broadband is expensive outside Pakistan’s big cities, smartphone penetration stands at 51 per cent this year and only one million children of school-going age have regular access to digital devices and bandwidth as recorded by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority. In a system where deliverance of resources is inefficient, provision of education and learning becomes more challenging and that too in the time of a pandemic.

International Literacy Day 2020 focuses on ‘Literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond’ especially on the role of educators and changing pedagogies. The theme highlights literacy learning in a lifelong learning perspective, and therefore, mainly focuses on youth and adults.

The recent COVID-19 crisis came as a stark reminder of the existing gap between policy and reality: a gap that already existed in the pre-COVID-19 era and negatively affects the learning of those who have already had little access to education and are therefore faced with multiple disadvantages. During COVID-19, in many countries, adult literacy programmes were absent in the initial education response plans, so most adult literacy programmes that did exist were suspended, with just a few courses continuing online, through TV and radio, or in open air spaces. What is the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on youth and adult literacy educators and teaching and learning? What are the lessons learnt?

By exploring these questions, International Literacy Day 2020 provides an opportunity to reflect on and discuss how innovative and effective pedagogies and teaching methodologies can be used in youth and adult literacy programmes to face the pandemic and beyond. The Day will also give an opportunity to analyse the role of educators, as well as formulate effective policies, systems, governance and measures that can support educators and learning...

While talking to a few teachers and parents, this scribe found out about new acquired ways of learning among students not just during the pandemic but after that as well. Ms Ambreen Adil, A-Level economics teacher at The City School, Darakhshan Campus shares, “Being a teacher has made me realise that we never stop learning. Whether it’s the course itself or teaching methodologies, we are ever-evolving and growing in this profession. Yet another evolution took place this year due to the pandemic, which was e-learning and online teaching. Being a student of MPhil at the University of Karachi and a teacher of economics for A-Levels, I experienced studying and teaching via online apps which gave me an insight. Online teaching is an amazing venture introduced recently and the brilliant apps available for us are some user-friendly tools which one can use to impart knowledge. A little investment in the right hardware and motivation on both sides can make e-learning very effective. However, the absence of the physical presence of a teacher, power breakdowns and internet issues in our country make it challenging as well. I believe e-learning can be used as a helping tool to re-enforce topics and can be a teaching aid. But in my opinion, using only online methods may result in loss of interest of the students. Also, the teachers cannot be sure and neither can they assess how much actual learning is taking place.”

While the teachers and parents talk about how COVID has inverted the picture of education in the country, Sabah Saeed, a middle school teacher at Wahid Endowed Grammar School talks about the system, governance and measures that can support educators and learning. “There is no planned or systematic approach followed since the time schooling went online. Teachers aren’t guided properly on how to control students during an online class and how to make lessons interesting for them. And, since it isn’t planned and systematic, it is definitely creating a rift. There are kids who keep comparing themselves with the kids of other schools, let’s say big schools who are doing online activities and events while these kids aren’t. Students keep coming to us protesting that they don’t want to study in the same manner as they do while being physically present in the school as it is getting very boring and dry for them. So now, it all depends on the teachers how they take it from there. It is only the teachers who are getting accustomed to the new system, it is only them to make adjustments and be innovative with their teaching method and it is only them to cater to the changes and problems faced by the students. No one is helping the teachers or the students in this regard.”

Sabah also comments on the fact that during the pandemic, the entire focus is on dealing with the virus but not with the new ways of teaching and getting accustomed to them. “For instance, every teacher, before opening her class, should come up with an effective pedagogical scheme of planning her lessons around the pandemic and the current situation of the world. If not on a daily basis, it should have been done on a weekly basis which would teach the students something about the new ways of living and dealing with the disease. It is still a blind spot I must say, only the media is giving the information and none of the educationist is incorporating this in their classes. Of course, we are doing it on a personal level but nobody bothers if not done on a larger scale,” suggests Sabah.

According to Barrister Ayesha Iqbal, Programme Leader Themis School of Law, Karachi, the world of 2020, as we know it, has been an unprecedented year with the novel COVID-19 adversely affecting lives, uprooting economies, mounting fiscal pressures, straining development but most importantly disrupting the global education system and affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in 190 countries. In such times, teachers and education providers have played an essential role to prevent the education crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe and ensuring dissemination of knowledge and unhindered access to education. This worldwide crisis has stimulated innovation in the education sector thus ensuring continuity in learning. “From conducting classes online through virtual platforms, to assigning and marking submissions remotely to organising international competitions online, education providers have reimagined education and have delivered the same thus promising a future of learning. The shift from traditional classrooms to virtual classrooms does come with its challenges, no doubt especially in a country like Pakistan. From tackling inadequate access to technology and social infrastructure, to maintaining decorum to providing fair assessment opportunities to students, digital classrooms have increased the need for self-motivation and self-direction for students. Despite these challenges, online learning engineered by instructors has emerged with significant benefits by being a catalyst to creating new, innovative, effective and enjoyable methods of education which has promoted self-growth, self-awareness but most importantly adaptability.”

During this, it is equally intriguing how the parents are coping up with the new way of learning. Uswah Munawer, a young mom comments, “In a society where parenting is over emphasised but underappreciated, 2020 has been particularly challenging. While the world struggles to ‘stay safe’ and navigate through the new normal, add home-schooling with expectations tied to conventional approaches of teaching and learning, it becomes chaotic in an already mad world. Increasingly now, more than ever, there is a need to re-evaluate and reimagine the concept of learning for children. Personally, as a parent, I had taken a more relaxed approach in these unprecedented times. While structure is extremely important, the past few months have taught us the pleasure in enjoying the simplest of tasks - exploring nature, learning through play and acquiring daily life skills. 6 months into it, the curve has been steep and there is a realisation that education is in fact an amalgamation of learning tools, and the traditional classroom approach is just one tool, while many others had forever remained unexplored. Teaching and learning have to be a partnership between educators, parents and the young and adult students to deliver meaningful learning experiences. However, it is important to understand that this partnership will look different for people living through different circumstances depending on family structure, parents’ schedules, as well as resources and supports available to the families.”

Sabah Saeed also sheds some light on the lack of policy making on a government level during this global problem. “In the times of a pandemic, it is never easy to adapt to a new situation. Given the new scenario, we are only pushed to a new dimension and then we have to go about it. Before this, schools and institutions which were used to doing online meetings, even they found it difficult to make a shift to this kind of educational world. So, the current times have diverted our attention towards the importance of online learning and the importance of doing it right. There are only a handful of organisations and schools to help their teachers become acquainted to this kind of teaching. Majority of them have to learn things on their own and they are still learning after all these months,” she informs. “Sadly, the government doesn’t even support the idea of establishing a situation where there would have been committees which will look after the teaching methods while teaching online. If our education minister or other entities taking care of the education sector had made it run in a systematic manner, every school, big or small, would have been served through a same platform and things would have been different. Also, since there are no policies from the government and schools have to do it on their own, the schools’ management and teachers are further interrupted by other kinds of issues such as not getting the fees on time, students not attending the classes on time and parents complaining about their kids not attending the classes and what are they paying for if the students are not taking interest. So, there is pressure from all sides which eventually shifts their focus from making learning effective at the time of corona. If major worries are removed, we would have catered to the idea of becoming more creative with online education and telling students to take it seriously,” she concludes.