(First published on beyondchalkandtalk[dot]com on 3rd of April 2020)
Malaysia entered its second phase of Movement Control Order (MCO) to curb the spread of COVID-19 on the 1st of April 2020. Schools have been closed for the past 14 days and now will continue to be closed for another 14 days. Teachers are instructed to conduct remote teaching to help students keep up with lessons. This has evoked diverse responses from teachers. Some see this as an opportunity to hone in on their technological skills and to experiment with different e-learning and digital tools. Some approach it with a lot of apprehensions and anxieties. This is an unprecedented time - a truly challenging time for many.
There are already lots of articles and resources out there which offer advice and tips on how to conduct e-learning effectively. Lots of people have shared digital tools and resources for teachers to utilise during this period, so I'm not going to touch on that. In this post, I feel moved to share some thoughts on remote teaching in situations where digital technology is not an option.
What makes it work
There are two main factors affecting the use of digital technology in remote teaching and learning, i.e. the teacher factor and the learner factor. Each factor is further influenced by aspects such as digital literacy, tools, and access. Digital literacy for remote teaching and learning refers to one's ability to deploy and manipulate online and offline digital tools to deliver and receive instructions. Tools refers to the availability and suitability of devices, apps, software and platforms for delivering and receiving lesson contents. Access deals with issues of connectivity, i.e. availability of Internet connection and whether or not users can afford them.
In an ideal e-learning or online remote learning situation, we expect all three aspects to function at their optimal levels, both for teachers and also for learners. Teachers should have the digital literacy required to deliver effective instructions through digital platforms, and learners should have the skills necessary to receive instructions and to act upon them. Both teachers and learners should have the tools, devices, apps, or platforms necessary for delivering and receiving lesson contents. It is crucial for both teachers and learners to have access to the Internet, and to be able to afford the cost.
Many have taken the opportunity offered by this unprecedented period in history to point out how e-learning is de rigueur for education in this 21st century, and that it should be more enforced by schools since a long time ago. Some go as far as suggesting how this pandemic can act as an 'eye-opener', a long-awaited catalyst that can potentially move education from its current traditional physical classroom-based mode to a more predominantly virtual, online mode. There have been a lot of debates going on for and against this argument, but I'm not going to discuss them here in this post. I believe it's important to point out that the decision to move to online teaching and learning during this period is triggered more by necessity and urgency rather than by choice. I know many teachers who would love to do more online teaching, who would love to experiment with more digital tools and e-learning platforms, - but not like this. Not in this manner. Not when everything feels so forced and ad hoc and unplanned and unsupported.
In an ideal online teaching and learning situation, the teacher factor and the learner factor should reciprocate one another. But the reality is often very far from ideal. To provide an illustration, a teacher might have the technological skills necessary for conducting online classes using Zoom, but she can't do it if her students have never heard of Zoom before. Although making an effort to introduce students to Zoom during this time is perhaps possible, not all students in the class might have the tools needed. Those who have the tools might not have Internet connectivity that is strong and stable enough to run the platform properly. Some students have to rely on a mobile device that's shared with seven other members of the family. In many cases it could be the only mobile device that the family owns, the only device that connects the whole family to the world during this quarantine period. Would it be wise to use up the precious Internet quota on a Zoom session with the teacher?
The illustration I offered is just one of the many examples of challenges that need to be faced by teachers in conducting online teaching. There are many more.
But please don't get me wrong. I'm not against e-learning in any way. I have conducted technology-based projects in my own classrooms. I've spent years trying to promote technology-enhanced teaching and learning to my fellow teachers. People close to me would know how passionate I am about educational technology. I appreciate the 'publicity' this pandemic has given to e-learning. I'm inspired by teachers who are doing it so wonderfully, despite the many constraints. I enjoy witnessing the tech-averse to tech-savvy transformations that some of my colleagues are undergoing at this moment.
What prompted me to write this blogpost are comments made on my Facebook page by teachers experiencing situations that are not that far different from what I've described in the illustration above. These are teachers who feel lost for not being able to jump on the bandwagon. Teachers who are enthusiastic about online teaching, but are not able to do so due to limitations faced by their learners. Teachers who feel a pang of envy for their peers who seem to be having the time of their lives using Google Hangout or Schoology or Edmodo with their students.
These teachers are not doing it, not because they don't want to. Not because they're not able to. Most of the time, it's because their students are not able to.
Things to do - first and foremost
So, when digital technology is not an option, what should teachers do? Most of these teachers, as helpless as they are, refuse to treat this movement restriction as a vacation. The pressure that results from seeing other teachers doing it is just too much to bear, not to mention having to deal with added stresses imposed by school administrators eager to "ensure that teachers are doing what they're supposed to do," and to prove that "teaching and learning will go on as usual" despite this crisis.
If you're one of these teachers, I would urge you to, first and foremost, do the following things:
1. To acknowledge that it's not your fault. The last thing a teacher should do is feel guilty about students missing lessons. Nobody wants this to happen. Nobody wants a virus to force schools to shut down. We all want to go back to our classrooms and to see our kids and to teach like we always do.
2. To accept that it's beyond your control. No matter how advanced the technology you're using for your remote teaching, no matter how impressive your skills, the truth is that many students have already missed a lot of lessons, and many will definitely miss a lot more. This is not something that anyone can control - not with technology, not with anything.
3. To realise that there's no such thing as "teaching and learning will go on as usual." There's nothing usual about what we're currently experiencing. Everything in our world is very unusual right now. People who can claim that they're doing everything "as usual despite the pandemic" are either lying, or are in denial, or have no idea what's going on.
4. To stop thinking of yourself as a bad teacher. Not being able to do what others are doing doesn't make you a bad teacher. The fact that you're thinking about this and are feeling guilty for things beyond your control is proof enough that you're indeed a good teacher who cares a lot about your students and your responsibilities as a teacher.
I know this statement is so ubiquitous that it has become almost a cliche, but I still want to write it down because it's so important to me. Here we go: COVID-19 has exposed the reality of digital divide in unprecedented ways.
Sabah, my beloved home state, is not spared. Earlier this year, a video of an 18-year old girl staying overnight on top of a tree in the middle of a jungle so she can take her online examination went viral. Her story even made it to the BBC. But we know that this girl’s experience is not exclusive. In resource-scarce areas where Internet access is more a luxury than an everyday necessity, millions of children are falling behind in their studies. A recent UNICEF-ITU report pointed out that this is true even before 'pandemic' becomes a household word. For many years, hundreds of children in Sabah and Malaysia have had to endure unimaginable things for access to education. It's sad to think that it took a viral video of a girl studying on a makeshift treehouse for local politicians to finally take notice.
Scholars such as Warschauer contended that digital divide is more than an issue of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Digital divide is clearly a sociological problem, and technocentric solutions are not the best answers. The question that I've been pondering upon is this: what will I discover if I try to understand digital divide by making sense of the realities within the social spaces that occupy it?
Bourdieu describes these realities as struggles between an evolving set of roles and relationships in a social domain. I have to embody these struggles in my years of service as a teacher in Sabah rural schools. In this social space, I've tried my best to address learning inequity by utilising digital resources at my disposal to the fullest. I have to learn how to manage the interplay between my knowledge of technology, pedagogy, and the curriculum content. I have to be ingenuous in adopting classroom approaches that make full use of 'anachronistic' digital equipment and snail-y Internet connections.
When I moved to a new social space as a district supervisor, my roles and relationships changed. My struggles in this new space consisted of assisting other teachers to manage the interplay between the three knowledge domains. These struggles inspired my study on ESL teachers TPACK mobilisation and enactment which I did as part of my MPhil. Through the findings, I learned that even teachers who had to teach in the most challenging situations thrived when their knowledge appropriation was properly facilitated.
McKinsey’s report which states (among others) that the quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers may have been a bit over-quoted (and have also sparked some debates - here's an example, and here's another one). But I think it accurately highlights teachers' true 'location' in this social dimension. It shows that teachers are at the centre of this sociological melee - whether we like it or not.
I truly hope this project can serve as a small first step towards understanding this better.
Will write more soon.
~ccj, Duvanson, 3.41pm