The COVID-19 new normal: Education sector needs to be prepared

August 14, 2020 07:48
Photo: RTHK

Since physical classes were suspended after the Lunar New Year holiday, the Secretary for Education have announced the latest arrangements for class commencement. All on-campus activities and face-to-face classes will be stopped until further notice. Disappointingly – particularly for the education sector, we seemingly remain a long way off from seeing physical classes resume, in light of the risks of contagion and the perennial dangers of fourth, fifth, and sixth waves etc. emerging from the ashes of the previous infection cycle. Public health experts may well have good reason to caution us against resuming physical classes – yet from a pedagogical and educational standpoint, there exist good reasons to think that the current modus operandi is neither tenable nor desirable for our students’ wellbeing and learning.

The past six months have seen schools cross the river by feeling the stones, so to speak. Students, parents, teachers, and schools, have been subject to a haphazard collection of e-learning initiatives and schemes rolled out across scattered schools by the Education Bureau (EDB). The EDB has predominantly focussed its resource and temporal allocation on supporting front-line teachers in implementing the e-learning strategy. Speaking from first-hand experience as an education researcher and practitioner, I’d say that whilst most teachers may not have full training in e-learning, they have indeed tried to do their very best for their students. From signing up for online courses to improvising make-shift assessment materials and homework, our education workforce has picked up the heavy mantle – on their own accord – of trying to make e-learning work in a city that lacks mature e-learning infrastructure.

When the 3rd wave of Covid-19 struck Hong Kong again, the EDB’s strategy was to mass-disseminate mobile computer devices and subsidise internet access, with students returning to schools on a small and limited scale for exceptional reasons. Yet such measures – in the absence of structured, systemic curricular coordination and adjustments – are apparently insufficient. The EDB believes that we could eradicate COVID-19 in the foreseeable future, such that we could return to the “old normal” of mass gatherings and packed classrooms. What if that doesn’t come about? What if COVID-19 persists well into 2021, 2022, with no vaccine or cure in sight? What do we do, then?

There are two key problems that must be addressed, in order for us to adjust to the “new normal”.

Firstly, students’ performances in public examinations must be taken seriously. The results of DSE 2020 have indicated that the performances of students in a variety of subjects have declined considerably as compared with previous years’ cohorts. This could well bear ominously upon our students’ chances in their applications for universities – particularly overseas ones. It behoves the government to review the S4-6 curriculum and assessment arrangements – drawing upon the collective efforts and insights from HKEAA and schools. Junior students should be offered the resources and opportunities to learn (or self-teach) material usually covered in later years. For senior students, the extent to which certain topics feature in the syllabi should be reduced proportionately and appropriately.

Furthermore, the diminished ability of students to concentrate and learn effectively through digital learning, and the deteriorating rates of homework completion, are highly worrisome for schools and teachers. “Teaching to the air” has proven to be very challenging for most teachers, who lack the training and structural support to develop a functional command of digital learning platforms.

Without effective reward and punishment mechanisms – given that all students are staying at home – homework completion and return rates are largely dependent upon the extent to which these students are self-disciplined. This is clearly not good enough. It is high time for education experts and scholars to pioneer learning spaces for the exchanging of insights and experiences between teachers over their experience of e-teaching, so as to facilitate the dissemination of useful knowledge. It also falls upon the EDB to coordinate and ensure that the above occurs.

We must re-imagine the modus operandi of education in Hong Kong, and be duly cognizant of different students’ varied learning needs and patterns. In particular, we should calibrate these reflections against the grim but also perennial fact that we are living under rather unprecedented times. The United Nations has recently published a policy brief about education during COVID-19 and beyond. In its recommendations, it suggested building a flexible education system, and accelerating the change in teaching and learning. Perhaps the administration could take a leaf or two here.

If the Covid-19 crisis is going to last for a few more years, we must have a Plan B for our education system.

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BEd (Chinese History) at EdUHK