New normal education: online, hybrid or multifarious? | Sunday Observer

New normal education: online, hybrid or multifarious?

3 October, 2021

According to medical experts and researchers, the ‘Delta’ variant has reversed the transition towards normalcy throughout the world. Many countries, including Sri Lanka, were time and again compelled to impose pandemic-related lock downs and other health restrictions to contain the virus transmission.

As one of the most pressing factors that occurred as a result of the pandemic, the school closures have had serious effects on education at all levels on the development and well-being of children in schools and higher education institutions in Sri Lanka.

Need of physical classes for health

Physical classroom activities are considered utterly important to support the mental health of children. The dispossession of social interactions due to the disruption of the physical presence of students in schools has compelled students to switch to remote learning methods. However, it is the common belief of educationists that distance education does not offer the same outcome as physical classroom engagement.

Particularly, in Sri Lanka, due to the long closure of schools, socially disadvantaged children and those in remote areas have lost the ideal support and fallen behind dramatically. This phenomenon can increase the social inequity in the country that can be detrimental to society in the future.

As per UNICEF, this is the largest disruption to schooling in history and whatever measures taken must not rob children of their education and development. The prestigious UN agency insists that schools should remain open as long as possible with adequate public health and social measures in place.

The vast majority of Sri Lankan medical experts are in agreement with this judgment. In keeping with this suggestion, in Sri Lanka, the Government has commenced vaccinating the school children in phases to expedite the opening of schools. This was a decision that came into praise for the entire country.

Must be cautious at schools

However, the opening of schools in the country must be done exceptionally cautiously under the complete supervision of medical experts. This also must be phased out properly with total adherence to health instructions. Specifically, the mandatory social distance norm plays the most important role in reopening schools and higher education institutions due to the limitations in spaces available that seem not sufficient to bring in all students together.

Hence, the online learning model that came into effect during the school closures must be continued perhaps until the Covid-19 is annihilated, an ultimatum that seems far off as yet.

Until then, every country in the world including Sri Lanka has swooped to a mixture of learning models. The mix is required to bring the students to classrooms for important social interactions, physical activities, and talent-based learning while providing them subject-based education online.

Online tricky for elementary

Remote learning has proven to be challenging to elementary level students as the younger children require guidance, social interaction, and tangible learning. These aspects cannot be reproduced or duplicated easily on an online platform. Also, holding the focus of a young student of elementary level intact for an extended period can be tricky for the teacher when communicating online.

To fill the gaps between the physical classroom and online learning during the school closures, the concept of hybrid learning was introduced with a variety of modalities. Hybrid learning is any combination of in-person and remote learning. However, the concept is not entirely new.

This approach has been in practice in the world intermittently, long before the Covid-19 breakout. Nevertheless, owing to the dire requirements surfaced with the pandemic, many countries have commenced applying the model.

There is a variety of hybrid learning combinations according to subject matter experts. The best combination differs from country to country depending on multiple factors. For each one of the combinations, different technologies can be integrated to achieve the most suitable learning outcome.

All these aspects will have strong implications in selecting the best-suited hybrid system for Sri Lankan students. The relevant experts and professionals have to collectively decide on the type of engagement for Sri Lankan students.

When most are offline

Recent research reveal that online teaching and learning models can be effective if the students have consistent access to the internet and the required digital devices such as computers or mobile apparatus.

In addition, more importantly, the same research suggests that the teachers must possess targeted training and other relevant supporting tools for online instructions.

Regrettably, Sri Lanka falls behind in both the above aspects. According to a recent media report only, approximately 30% of the total student population has direct Wi-Fi access. (The total internet penetration as of January stood at 50.8%).

Also, the specialised training for teachers for online education is not yet programmed by the authorities.

This poses a threat to the system with a remainder of 70% students out of approximately over 4.1 million students. As per this writer’s information, the Government is in serious discussion in consultation with relevant authorities to provide a viable, pragmatic, lasting, and effective solution in all counts.

To obtain intellectual input, this writer spoke to Prof. Rahula Attalage, an eminent educationist, the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, and former Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa. Prof. Attalage revealed that when he was at the UOM, long before the emergence of Covid-19, some of the top management meetings were conducted online via WhatsApp.

He added that interviews for the recruitment of academics as lecturers from all over the world, (which is not an easy task by any means), were also conducted through WhatsApp in the absence of Zoom, Team, or any other similar communication platforms.

Hence, he believes that a combination of online, classroom and television may be the best modality for Sri Lankan students considering the current education and communication landscape of the country.

Television reaching more than internet

Prof. Attalage said that reaching students in schools more effectively can be done through television where the coverage and the reach are immensely higher than online platforms.

The drawback is that television is offering one-way communication where on online platforms, the possibility of a discussion by way of question and answer can be achieved but the delivery can be innovatively ‘shaped’ to suit the television platform.

Also, television teaching sessions can be relayed in common places such as community centers or temples in an area, if home viewing is not possible. His opinion is that a combination of physical classrooms, Online learning, and television programs will be a viable solution for Sri Lanka.

According to prominent medical professionals in child and adolescent psychiatry, giving a complete education solely through an online education model is impractical and unfeasible. They strongly opine that if children lose physical interactions with others and are deprived of most of the practical aspects of educational activities, their personal development can be severely impacted later on.

In addition, students will be denied the opportunity of recognising other skills in areas such as sports, music, painting, and other similar talents that are usualy identified at the elementary level.

Another grave gray area is the prospect of abuse of the devices by students, particularly adolescents, by way of using unwarranted online platforms. Unless, the parents monitor the online activities of children constantly and continuously, the chance of falling into dubious elements exists.

Collectively, the widespread view of the medical fraternity is that the schools must be re-opened as early as possible under medical guidance and supervision. A multifarious education model that includes online, physical presence, television, and any other suitable processes will likely produce desired results.

Online, hybrid, or multifarious learning models seemingly are not a temporary stopgap any longer. According to many subject specialists in the world, the ‘new normal’ is likely to be continued for an indefinite period. Therefore, as schools in the country prepare for a potential return to the classroom soon, elements of online learning will remain for an indefinite period into the future.

With the current vaccine rollout, physical classroom activities are certain and imminent. However, due to the social distance criteria, every school will be compelled to confront the issue of overcrowding although one-on-one interactions of students will improve. Hence, the educational policymakers will be forced to embrace hybrid learning models as a foundational change.