Paradigm shift – Schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic

Our children today learn more on the Internet and with their friends than in classrooms. Picture:

Education in Fiji has always been everyone’s priority ever since its introduction. The Government has taken lead role by investing millions of dollars every year to ensure that all school age children are provided quality education.

Until early 2000, basic primary and secondary education was through the means of structured program conducted within the four walls of the school’s classrooms.

In here the teachers were the disseminators of structured curriculum designed by Education Ministry and the students were the recipients of the curriculum content. Teaching and learning happened on a face to face basis

However with the changing times and enhancement in technology, innovative modes of teaching have been inaugurated to foster better and meaningful advancement of learning.

Digital era

The digital era of the 21st century has seen introduction of many forms of e-learning in Fiji schools. Schools started to introduce digital learning parallel with the tradition teaching mode.

E-learning or online classroom provides education to students through the internet. This can be accomplished by call sessions, in which the teacher connects with students, such as zoom classes, google classroom or moodle.

Alternatively, it could also be through providing students with all required materials to read and complete a given written task such as assignments, tests or quizzes.

As the public health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic is evolving globally and more so, the second wave of virus attack is creating anxiety and fear among all here, the digital era of learning is proving to be an asset to the education fraternity.

In other words, the pandemic’s unparalleled existence acted as a catalyst for unanticipated academic reforms.

Schools started investing heavily in and relied on IT infrastructure as e-learning quickly became the new standards for many primary and secondary schools across the nation.

Learning needs to continue in order for the children to be abreast with the curriculum requirements. Teachers, as well as students, had to adjust to the modern reality of online classes.

Digital learning is the way forward, however, before this is fully taken as a replacement of face to face teaching (which will be difficult to eventuate in Fiji for some time), a lot of work needs to be done to improve connectivity, accessibility and other associated challenges.

Let me then explore the advantages and disadvantages of e-learning in Fiji’s secondary schools and ascertain what contribution needs to be made by the Ministry of Education, the school managements, parents, teachers and students in order to make this initiative a success in the long run.

Pushing through the challenges of taking something that is highly successful face-to-face and designing it for a successful virtual experience will serve students long after the pandemic is over.

Adopting digital learning

For a semi-urban school such as Baulevu High School, which have majority of students residing in the interior of Naitasiri, this initiative brought awe to the students when digital learning was introduced at the school in 2020.

For many of these students, this was the first time for them to experience e-learning.

The concept of digital learning was intercepted in a staff meeting when the idea was mooted by me as the school head and overwhelmingly accepted by the hardworking staff members.

To make things easy, the school management fully endorsed the idea of teachers and gave the green light to procure the necessary hardware.

Mr Bari, the director of Remington Ltd, was very helpful in facilitating the whole project. His company supplied two 65 inch interactive panels to be used by Year 13 students as the first phase of the project.

This too, was supplied and installed at school even before the payments were made. Their technicians were very helpful throughout the project.

The next step was setting up google classroom program to upload teaching materials digitally for easy access. A colleague of mine, Arshad Al-Habib, (senior education officer – Office Technology – MEHA) assisted the school by conducting professional development for teachers to furnish them on the operational aspect of google classroom.

With the two hours professional development session, all teachers had their digital classrooms created and from the first day of 2020 academic school year, digital learning started for the small semi-urban school.

Beginning from Year 13 level, all students were gradually enrolled to the google classroom.

Advantages of online learning

Online learning offers teachers an efficient approach to deliver lessons to students. Online learning provides a multitude of tools such as videos, PDFs, podcasts, and teachers can use all these media as part of their lesson plans.

Teachers can become more efficient educators by expanding their lesson plans beyond standard textbooks to include internet resources.

This gives students more learning opportunities as they are able to explore more than one instruction methods which would benefit them.

Additionally, digital learning, though a new concept in Fiji schools; permits students to attend lessons from wherever they want. At this point in time, when safety of students is paramount, students can attend classes from the comfort of their homes.

It also enables schools to reach out to a larger network of pupils rather than being limited by geographical limits.

Online lessons can also be recorded, preserved, and shared for later viewing.

This allows students to access the instructional materials whenever it is convenient for them. Many schools are embracing this new concept.

As for Baulevu High School, this innovative technology is reaping its benefits in its early stages, as many students are accessing their revision materials from teachers on a daily basis.

The exchange of communication, students, inquiring about certain questions and teachers enthusiastically responding to students queries create positive vibe and conducive learning platform.

As the whole nation is again plagued by the second wave of COVID- 19 pandemic, schools such as Baulevu High School, which has invested in digital learning, is truly realising its worth now.

This pandemic has made other schools invest in the venture and a new wave of digital learning is gaining momentum in Fiji secondary and primary schools.

Disadvantages of online learning

While technological advancement is of great aid towards modernising education delivery, technology itself is an impediment.

While internet penetration has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few years, given the nature of the geographical locations and the extent to which wireless communication receptors has been set around the remotely situated settlements and villages, the access to internet for the students of Baulevu High School is an obstruction.

Students who are towards the North end circumference of the school catchment area extending to Nakini, Natoaika and Deladamanu villages have connectivity issues and thus are not able to access what teachers load on google classroom in the present time.

Additionally, without a consistent internet connection for students or teachers, there can be a lack of continuity in the learning for the child. This is detrimental to the education process.

This encumbrance on the reception end of data, poses challenges to student learning in the rural areas from where students belong to.

There are other significant disadvantages of distance learning for secondary and primary students, such as sense of isolation on students’ part and the inability for the slow learners to progress without face to face guidance of a teacher or a peer colleague.

The less smart ones may not be able to study on their own creating that gap between the smart ones and the poor ones in class.

Many of our students also cannot afford the hardware such as computers, laptops, iPad or smart phones to access class materials which impinge on their learning. This is prevalent for the students of Baulevu High as many of the students come from families with poor socio-economic background.

A way forward

It is now time for all stakeholders of education to make a grand coalition and confer on a convenient yet competitive means of venturing into the new era of learning for our schoolchildren.

Communication partners need to direct their corporate social responsibility towards digitalising education for the students so that benefits are maximised. A creation of a uniform platform would be a good idea, but coming to a common understanding would be another hurdle to overcome.

All in all, the aspirations of students need to be placed at the apex of the spectrum when online learning for primary and secondary are in discussion. We all learn from history, this COVID 19 has taught us that e-learning is no longer a want but a need.

No longer an option but a necessity. Therefore, our focus and priority should be in this area as how we as a developing nation can convert this dream into a reality.

  • VISHNU D SHARMA is the principal of Baulevu High School. The views expressed are his and do not reflect
    the views of this newspaper.

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