Online classes from GEMS Modern Academy School in Dubai. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

More than 1.4 billion children in 136 countries have been affected by the closure of schools and universities to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the United Nations.

These numbers will only rise in the coming days, leading to a colossal disruption in schools, colleges and universities around the world. It was commendable for the UAE government to close down schools and universities much before countries like Italy and the UK — who have now emerged as the new global epicentres of the virus. As the UK and Italy hesitated a bit, the UAE took decisive action.

But faced with this new reality, educational institutions around the world are now scrambling to find best practices in online learning. They urgently need to consider making policy adjustments in academic delivery and assessment. While not exhaustive, such policy actions could include:

• Decreasing the teaching load

• Revisiting pass percentages

• Reviewing the weightage of internal and external assessments

• Pushing forward practical submission dates

• Looking for alternative assessments

• Offering clear communication and support to parents

• Offering concessions and financial support for students who don’t have access to resources

The onus is not just on schools and universities. It rests more critically with regulators and education ministries around the world. Not just them, politicians, policymakers, tech giants, device manufacturers and internet service providers (ISPs) should also come together to battle the disruption in classrooms and work towards a plan that can take care of the current contingencies.

A sharp rise in social distancing and learning from homes could translate into a clarion call for free internet access to be considered a basic human right.

- Dr Percy Fernandez, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Dubai

Companies in the US have already announced free wifi for 60 days to students and low-income households. ISPs and cellular data service providers in the US are lifting the cap on data and lowering monthly bills, and have pledged not to terminate connections if customers fail to pay their bills in the next 60 days. Other countries need to adopt similar measures if they haven’t already.

Not just ISPs and free broadband, several technology companies have rolled out free services for up to three months on their platforms — whether it’s live classrooms or learning management systems. Some schools and universities, who already had a contingency plan in place, hit the ground running immediately after the closures were announced. Students and parents were sensitised and clearly told that we are all in this together. For those who were already exposed to online learning, exploring new platforms was easier and faster — whether creating virtual classrooms in Google Classroom to delivering online lectures on Webex to having a strong online and offline engagement for mobile devices and collaboration platforms that support live-videos.

But this is the easier part. The difficult part is to adapt to the changes in behaviour.

Challenge of teaching and isolation

The closures have come with a massive increase in workload for teachers at home. The very nature of the classroom has changed and, suddenly. Sending voice notes, recording lectures, staring in front of the screens for long periods, preparing and evaluating assignments and monitoring each student’s progress — when everyone is isolated — is a Himalayan task. Then there is the challenge of teaching subjects such as certain aspects of engineering, design and animation virtually. Combined with all this is the physical isolation — the absence of a chuckle, a joke, discussions and the warmth of being together in a classroom.

The change in policies on academic delivery should also keep in mind the possible attrition of teachers and their home conditions — without which it will collapse like a house of cards. While most teachers will tell you that it’s a challenge to get students’ attention in classrooms, memes and jokes on social media testify how difficult parents too are finding it to keep them engaged at home.

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And finally, even with free internet access, it can still be a struggle if there is no infrastructure to match. For instance, smartphones and reliable internet access remain out of reach for a large section of the population in China. The same is true in India and the whole of the African continent — where even physical infrastructure is absent in many parts of the country, leave alone seamless online delivery.

A sharp rise in social distancing and learning from homes could translate into a clarion call for free internet access to be considered a basic human right. In fact, Citizens Online, a digital charity in the UK has urged Boris Johnson’s government to make the internet free during these times. Not just for parents, students and teachers, free internet access would mean keeping much of the older population engaged in these grim times of social isolation.

— Dr Percy Fernandez is the chairperson at the School of Media & Communication, Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Dubai