18 August, 2022


Covid-19 Pandemic & Disruption To Education: Challenges To Restoring Normalcy?

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

The disruptive nature of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic that has been hitting the entire globe since November 2019 has been disruptive of economic, social, cultural, and political landscapes of all peoples of the world. Within the two-year time period from November 2019 to November 2021, 271 million persons accounting for 3% of the world population became victims of the virus. The number of deaths so far has been over five million people.

The pandemic is not yet fully subdued. New variants of the virus emerge frequently threatening the efficacy of the vaccination program. As a result, the world still reports of daily infections of more than half a million and deaths of more than 6,000. In Sri Lanka, more than half a million or 3% of the population have been infected. The number of deaths has exceeded 14,000. Both the global and Sri Lankan death rates have been 0.07% of respective populations.

Hence, contrary to what many believe, Sri Lanka’s situation is not at variance with the global trends. However, these numbers are still lower than the casualty figures of the Spanish Flu of 1918-9. In that pandemic, about 500 million or a third of the world’s population got infected and a little more than 50 million or 3% of the world’s population died.

Education, the biggest casualty

One of the sub sectors which COVID-19 has fully disrupted has been the education sector. Due to the prolonged lockdowns clamped on countries with strict travel and gathering restrictions, the normal school systems could not function. For most part of the academic years, both schools and higher learning institutions had been kept closed. Students at all levels had been confined to their homes like those kept in house detention. There was no engagement in social or entertainment activities. Sports were a taboo.

This was a severe blow to continued skills development and knowledge acquisition. When the brain is kept in idle form for a significant length of time, it tends to become lazy and unyielding to new knowledge.

This was the status of students when the virtual learning modes were introduced to impart knowledge under the new normal situation.

Popularity of virtual learning platforms

Given the pandemic driven restrictive conditions, the use of the virtual learning platforms was the ideal form of continuing education without disruption.

Though there were many such platforms available for this purpose, the most popular and widely used platform was the Zoom. Hence, the virtual learning became synonymous with ‘Zoom Learning’. Both students and teachers preferred the Zoom because of its versatility and user-friendliness. As a result, the daily user number of the Zoom platform rose to 300 million by October 2021 compared to 10 million at end-2019. Its closest competitor, Microsoft Team, had only 75 million daily users worldwide. Hence, there is nothing wrong in designating virtual learning as Zoom Learning.

Challenge of virtual learning

In Sri Lanka, virtual learning became a daunting challenge for the education administrators, teachers, and students. That was because the country’s computer literacy and internet penetration have been dismally low. According to the latest survey conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics pertaining to 2020, Sri Lanka’s computer literacy and internet penetration have been 32% and 36% of the age group between 5 and 69.

However, a welcome development has been the digital literacy of the country at 50.1% of the same age group. The computer literacy has been defined as ability to use a computer on his own, while digital literacy covers the ability to use on his own a computer, a laptop, a tablet or a smart phone by the same age group.

These are all improvements from previous surveys. But those improvements have been slow and are inadequate in terms of the requirements.

Logistical inadequacies

These logistical inadequacies in Sri Lanka as well as outside have created several inequities in virtual learning. There is the problem of inequity between the tech-savvy and non-tech-savvy, high income and low income, internet accessibility and internet inaccessibility, and advanced devices and basic devices. These inequities do not play a deciding role in the case of face-to-face inhouse classes.

There, all the students are present in-person in the class and receive the instructions delivered by the teacher in equal measure. If any student could not absorb what is being taught, the teacher could immediately attend to it and introduce remedial measures.

There is always a multilogue in which students could share their knowledge and experiences with peers, the teacher with students, students with the teacher.

There is active participation prompted and generated by the teacher. In virtual learning, unless the student shows it up, there is no possibility for the teacher to attend to any deficiency of a learner. Unless the students have gained capacity for self-learning, virtual learning is not as efficacious as the traditional in-class learning. As a result, the inequity that has been observed has the tendency of compounding and getting widened over time.

Learning in isolation

There are several other deficiencies and problems of virtual learning. In-person physical classes, the students get the opportunity for active and wide social interaction and intercourse.

They feel that they are a part of a wide social community. It builds belongingness among them and that feeling is necessary for a society to progress. But virtual learning does not give this opportunity because participants are in different locations working in isolation. As a result, it is isolationism that is promoted and not student-community spirit.

Within the framework of new normalcy being practiced in the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no possibility for them to meet in person too. Hence, the learning that happens is not learning in a community but in isolation from others. It does not provide possibility for interactive learning which is more efficacious.

Need for self-discipline

In this scenario, there is the need for self-discipline that has to be practiced by students. They should participate actively in class discussions raising questions on the stuff they do not understand or agree to. In the virtual platforms, there is opportunity for this either by raising hand or placing comments in a chat box provided. To accommodate them, the teacher should also have a different kind of discipline. He or she must appreciate the questions being asked, encourage students to ask questions or present disagreeing views, verbally or in writing, and answer each one of them by either himself or herself or get other students to respond to those views. In that way, he or she can convert a virtual class to a dynamic forum of discussion which is a must for learning.

In addition, the opportunities provided by modern technologies by way of supplementing the verbal presentations with visuals or videos should be used to the maximum by the teachers.

That requires greater work, research, and preparation on the part of teachers. In other words, they should present the stuff in a way to capture the attention of the students throughout the teaching session.

Exclusive nature of virtual learning

A cardinal and inviolable goal of any learning program is that it should be inclusive and not exclusive. Inclusive learning means that, on average, all those who participate in a learning program should get an equal amount of learning. Statistically, the average learning should be marked by a small standard of error. If the standard error is large, the learning also disperses within a wider range. In that case, only a few gains the learning knowledge, while the majority is left behind. Such learning is called exclusive learning.

Because of the inequity in virtual learning programs, a few get the chance of learning, while majority is left behind. What this means is that logistical facilities should be equally distributed among all those who participate in the virtual learning program if it is to be an inclusive one.

Inequity in internet facilities

The inequity comes in the accessibility to internet, internet speed and the devices used for virtual learning. The inequity in tech-savviness can be easily overcome by getting both teachers and students into a crash learning program. But the inequities in the logistical facilities cannot be overcome so easily as training of teachers and students. It needs high investment in ICT infrastructure, on the one hand, and making available acceptable smart devices to students and teachers on the other.

Sri Lanka’s internet inequity

The iniquitous distribution of internet facilities and the speeds of the internet have been one of the major stumbling blocks of virtual learning programs in Sri Lanka. While internet facilities are available at sufficiently acceptable speeds in the Western Province, in the other parts of the island, internet is available in selected blocks, at varying speeds and subject to technical difficulties. As a result, students have to walk many kilometres to find blocks where internet is available and even when it is available, the service is disrupted frequently causing students to lose both the video and the audio.

The result is that those students in places where better facilities are available have greater advantage of learning than those living in other areas. What this means is that incentives should be given to internet service providers to extend their services equally to all those virtual learners in the country.

Device inequity

The device inequity is more pressing for the virtual learners in Sri Lanka. Due to the lack of desktop computers or laptops, many students use smartphones with a screen of 3 by 5 inches to access the virtual learning lessons. Even for a descriptive subject like history, this mobile phone screen is too small for them to read the PowerPoint presentations used by teachers for screen sharing with participating learners. For a subject like mathematics, it is virtually impossible for students to read through complex equations being presented.

This is not a problem for a student with a larger screen like the ones available with desktops and laptops. Surely, there is a difference in the learning among students participating in virtual learning with iniquitous access devices. The solution to this problem is making available computers at affordable prices to all students who are engaged in virtual learning programs.

Common problems with virtual learning

The above pertains to the deficiencies of virtual learning due to iniquitous distribution of resources. However, there are some common issues that affect both the privileged and the under-privileged. One is the need for strong self-motivation and ability to manage time on the part of all the students following virtual classes. Such qualities in students are needed for the development of communication skills, both verbal and written, of students.

If a student is interested in developing his written communication skills, one strategy he can adopt is to write down the entire lesson in summary form in his own words after a virtual class. This he can do if he has a strong self-motivation. The other is what is now termed as Zoom fatigue.

Zoom fatigue

Zoom fatigue is the general term used to describe the brain tiredness after being exposed to prolonged video conferencing. It, therefore, applies to all platforms that offer video conferencing facilities. The term was coined by the Stanford psychologist Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Just like Googling is generally used to describe web searching and xeroxing for photocopying, Zooming is now used to refer to video conferencing because it is the most widely used platform. Hence the new psychological ailment being called Zoom fatigue though it applies to all such platforms.

What is meant by this is that in ‘person-to-person actual conferencing’ in any environment, you are practically free to move your head 150 degree this way or that way capturing and loading different scenes to your brain. It offers variety of experiences to your system. But in video conferencing, whatever the platform you are using, you are at close proximity to a screen of at most 24 by 15 inches staring at a fellow with only his face being visible to you. The monotony of watching straight in his eyes makes the brain uneasy. That is the source of Zoom fatigue.

Symptoms of Zoom fatigue

According to available information, the brain fatigue will cause the infected party to react in several negative ways to man-to-man relationships. First, they try to shun video meetings by avoiding, cancelling, or rescheduling them. Second, they turn off the video and switch on only the audio not paying full attention to the call at hand and doing multitasking during the entire call. It reduces the efficacy and effectiveness of the conference, and it affects very badly to students. It is like when the teacher is teaching in a physical class, students are playing their own games with no attention to what is being taught.

Third, there is a growing feeling to be alone after the meeting, avoiding all others. When people try to seek their attention, they usually get irritated. Fourth, the affected party becomes tense, feel being drained of energy after the meeting. Fifth, there is a tendency to believe that your ability to shoulder typical responsibilities is impaired and a little behind the scheduled time plans. Fifth, you feel your eyes are soring prompting to avoid lights and preferring to be alone in a secluded place.

Unfortunately, teachers who are at a distance cannot observe that their students have become victims of the classes they themselves have conducted. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the parents and other relatives who are close-by to attend to the case in hand with understanding and appreciation of the negative developments they observe in their loved ones.

Go back to the old system

Hence, though virtual learning is beneficial, it cannot replace the in-class learning from a teacher. Thus, it is necessary to return to the old method of imparting knowledge as soon as possible after the situation comes to normalcy.

*The writer who is a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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