World, Education, Latest on coronavirus outbreak

Coronavirus pandemic reshaping global education system?

Bane of virus may also prove boon as shutdown is forcing countries to innovate to keep education system afloat

Iftikhar Gilani   | 19.03.2020
Coronavirus pandemic reshaping global education system?


As the coronavirus 19 pandemic prompts countries to close their borders and quarantine people, a new education system is taken shape around the globe.

Besides Turkey, which is launching digital education for children beginning next week, many other countries have already started a distance learning system, with students taking lessons and appearing in tests while staying at home.

It is believed that the bane of the virus may prove an ultimate boon to help to bridge the much-needed digital divide, as it is coming with innovations bringing new solutions for the education system.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) – an intergovernmental economic organization with 36-member countries – 421 million children are affected due to the closure of schools in 39 countries. The other 22 countries have announced partial closures.

To stem the spread of the virus, the Hong Kong administration had introduced interactive apps for students to learn at home in February. The Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF) believes that some 120 million Chinese students are currently getting access to learning material through live television broadcasts.

"These risk-control decisions have led millions of students into temporary home-schooling situations, especially in some of the most heavily impacted countries, like China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran," says Gloria Tam, an official in the Minerva Project, a leading educational innovator.

In a paper, written for the WEF, she said these risk-control decisions have led students into temporary home-schooling situations, especially in some of the most heavily impacted countries, like China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran.

"These changes have certainly caused a degree of inconvenience, but they have also prompted new examples of educational innovation," she added.

World's largest remote learning experiment

The pandemic has led the Zhejiang University (ZJU) -- a comprehensive research university, spanning seven sites in China's eastern Zhejiang province -- to start the world's largest remote learning experiment.

Even though under government orders, all classrooms were shut from Feb. 24, university officials decided to adhere to the original calendar. The university is offering more than 5,000 courses to both undergraduate and graduate students.

According to Wu Zhaohui, the president of the university, the course hub has so far attracted 570,000 visits, and a live streaming app co-developed by Alibaba -- a Chinese multinational company specialized in e-commerce -- has recorded an audience of 300,000.

Moreover, the university is expecting its 2,500 graduates to defend their theses online over the next few months.

As part of the quality assurance process, ZJU organized a series of training sessions in mid-February for 3,670 faculty members. An instructor was invited to impart skills to conduct massive open online courses.

Seeking to bridge the digital divide, the university has negotiated deals with several network providers to subsidize the data plans of its faculty and students. The ZIU is already known as a leader in Information and communications technology (ICT). Using its strength, it is engaged it crating smart campuses since 2017, equipped with audio recognition and simultaneous interpreting.

But it was the coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks, the university put up a total of 200 smart classrooms for teachers to shoot video courses or live stream their classes. 

COVID-19 accelerates digital classroom process

While the education innovators had been experimenting the digital classrooms worldwide over the past many years, its slow pace was frustrating. Most teachers and students across the world were hesitating to adopt it. Experts believe that COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated the process.

"With 5G technology becoming more prevalent in countries such as China, the U.S., and Japan, we will see learners and solution providers truly embracing digital education in a range of formats. Traditional in-person classroom learning will be complemented with new learning modalities - from live broadcasts to educational influencers to virtual reality experiences," writes Diana El-Azar, senior director at the Minerva Project.

The Education Ministry in China -- the country most affected by the pandemic -- has developed a new cloud-based, online learning and broadcasting platform to enable students to log in from anywhere.

In Hong Kong, a consortium involving 60 educational organizations, publishers, media and entertainment industry professionals have come together to provide 900 educational assets – including videos, book chapters, assessment tools, and counseling services for free to students staying at home.

Most schools in affected areas are finding stop-gap solutions to continue teaching, but the quality of learning is heavily dependent on the level and quality of digital access.

To help the less affluent, who cannot meet the cost of digital devices and data plans, the WEF has recommended government and corporate to decrease costs and make digital classroom affordable. Otherwise, there is a greater danger that the digital divide could become more extreme. The fear emanates from the fact that only around 60% of the globe’s population is online.

The pandemic, however, has provided an opportunity as well as lesson that in the unpredictable world, it was necessary to bridge the digital divide and impart skills to build resistance to face various threats from natural disasters to violence. More so, it calls for adaptability so that resilience is built into the most important sector that is education system.

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