The quarantine caused by the coronavirus shows some digital deficiencies in the educational system, especially in rural areas. In some places, however, the available resources and the hard work of teachers and students have made things a bit easier.
Coronavirus has completely disrupted the traditional learning process, not only because of the suspension of classes but also because teachers and students have had to think about learning in a completely different way. Teachers have gone from facing their beloved students to facing the challenge of online teaching.
Educational centres, from one day to the next, decided to close their physical doors to adopt virtual classrooms as a way to keep students from lagging behind in their learning and to maintain enrollment numbers stable.
The era of learning at a distance arrived as fast as physical classrooms closed their doors. Consequently, learning did not take place equally, because not all schools, high schools, and universities were equally prepared. The legislation is uneven and unclear about what educational centres have to offer, so many institutions chose to take their own path.
There are many differences in terms of fighting the digital divide, because administrations make different decisions, and people have different situations when accessing technology.
Some learning centers are using Google, Microsoft, Snappet, BlinkLearning, YouTube, WhatsApp and Zoom as learning platforms to make classrooms innovative. Just like in physical classrooms teachers use their materials to correct exercises, virtual rooms enable them to do the same, but in different ways.
According to Mark Cormier, Head of Training and Professional Development at The Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano (CCCN), the switch from physical to virtual classrooms presents plenty of challenges. “It has been a real challenge for teachers to adapt their practices, materials, and activities to a computer-mediated environment, but everyone is doing the best they can.”
Cormier adds that “one of the biggest challenges has been the extra responsibility of helping students learn, to use the video conferencing software and troubleshoot technical problems while still teaching content from the courses.” He says there is a meaningful learning curve associated with the shift and such a change affects teachers, students, administrators, and parents.
For more seasoned professionals, the change has been less dramatic. They all connect at the same time they had their classes before and more or less maintain the same routine, even if it is by teleconference.
Platforms allow teachers and students to exchange materials, collect assignments, give feedback and rate work. Teachers present planned activities for each class as academic departments create tutorials and user guides for both teachers and students.
“We have already seen a major difference between our first and second week of classes in terms of student attendance and the time it takes to get students connected to begin the lessons. Things have been very smooth this week, so that shows that people are adapting pretty quickly,” explains Cormier.
“At the Department level, I have been very impressed with the response from teachers. They are in constant communication with their supervisors and colleagues via email and group chats in Whatsapp to report technical issues and share useful tools and activities from their lessons.”
The new situation has not hit educational institutions the same. For a long time, schools with more resources have been working on the digital updating of students and teachers. This has helped many schools, although the new digital challenge means that there is a need to developed more things at a higher speed.
“As an English teacher of a public high school, I have had to rush into experimentation with online teaching thanks to the coronavirus pandemic,” says professor Marlon Orozco, an experienced high school instructor. “I am depending on tech and the Internet to reach as many students as possible and have them do practice, homework assignments and other activities.”
Email has been the star platform in many cases. It is, after all, a tool with which to maintain communication with families, students and monitor academic performance these days.
It is about facilitating access for everyone. With the current teaching tools, teachers prepare daily emails in which they specify tasks and remind students of doing their pre and post-class homework through a concept known as blended learning.
Teaching and learning online also implies that students and teachers attach a photo or other complementary files to their profiles. Throughout threads of messages, students can express whether they have difficulties and resolve any doubts they may have.
As in so many other sectors, solidarity has taken over education. Despite their busy schedules, teachers continue to find time to assist each other during classes and class breaks.
“Coronavirus has certainly had an important impact in our country as it has affected many areas including the education system,” says Garyan Rojas, a Resource Teacher and Coach at CCCN. “Fortunately, there was a very positive response. Teachers really started trying their best since the very first day,” she adds.
“This emergency has reinforced the sense of community in our institution and it is very heartwarming how the sense of collaboration has become stronger and has helped to consolidate the community of educational leaders.” Ms. Rojas also highlights the importance of sharing ideas and experience as a way to adopt and implement best practices.
The idea is avoiding the halt of an instruction system from which millions depend on to advance their lives and careers. The goodwill of all those involved has opened an almost unimaginable range of possibilities in the middle of one of the most difficult situations that teachers and students have faced in a long time. They are not only facing a technological challenge but perhaps even a cultural and methodological one as well.
Things have not been different in public schools. At Liceo Edgar Cervantes Villalta, in Costa Rica, professor José Angel Ampié says that although at the beginning he faced some resistance from students, things have changed for the best. “In order for us to work on an online platform, we need to have a lot of discipline. I have to be very attentive to answer students’ questions because there needs to be a lot of order in terms of the times and dates given for assignments.”
In spite of the fact that Mr. Ampié had previous experience working online, he had a little of a learning curve to make classes more attractive and to engage students. “I am in direct contact with the students so that if they have questions about the content of the classes or the best way to use online platforms, I am able to respond with more immediacy.”
The key is that you have to prepare and train teachers to avoid their scepticism. “I feel that we are more connected than ever before, even though we are all working remotely from different parts of the country,” says Cormier.
If you think that all the previous variables are not enough to make it complicated for teachers and students, imagine what is like for professionals and youngsters in rural areas. Families and teachers with fewer resources have an even greater difficulty to keep schools “open” and to advance their instruction goals.
“One of my biggest worries is related to the enormous “holes” this crisis is making bigger and bigger in terms of the learning process,” says professor Orozco. As in many other cases, oftentimes, resources are not enough to help everyone, even when there is no lack of effort. “I have more than 400 students (levels 8th and 9th), divided into 14 different groups formed by around 35 students each group,” remembers Orozco.
It is impossible for them to have a virtual class if they only have a poor connection on their mobile devices or if they do not have a printer at home. In many places, neither schools nor parents can afford to let students stop learning on a daily basis. They do what they can so no one is left behind.
“I have many students who don’t have access to a computer outside of school or the public library. Their cellphones are not adequate to download heavier apps and information or they just do not have enough credit. Then it is difficult for some of them to accommodate the current situation to a technological mode.”
Teachers everywhere are noticing a common issue when trying to keep students up to date, assuming that they have technology in their favor. Most of them are not experts in using virtual platforms for teaching students. They have not been trained to do so before. “I have found some difficulties in their usage, which makes it a little more complicated when trying to reach some pedagogic objectives in this way,” explains Orozco.
One of the most important problems, teachers say, is that platforms do not fulfill all the necessities required to have a decent class and for students to obtain the best possible help. “Sometimes we expect them to have the characteristics that we need but they don´t; so it feels frustrating.”