Recent events have shone somewhat of a spotlight on the development of e-learning. Forced to either stay indoors or avoid group contact, COVID-19 saw classrooms move to the digital realm for a time across the world. However, the results were mixed depending on who you ask and where you look at. Is this cause to abandon this platform and call it a failed experiment or just a lesson to learn from and improve upon? We like to think the latter as a pandemic or not, it has great merit for education in the foreseeable future.
A Bumpy Road
Unsurprisingly, places such as the US and EU likely had better results with their e-learning programmes than us. After all, being wealthier, more developed states, their populations are far more likely to possess high-speed internet, faster devices and a pre-COVID history of digital learning platforms. For example, did you know that globally recognized and accepted US-based CompTIA certifications can be acquired entirely online? These certificates are accepted around the world by premier tech companies. All one has to do is study privately, take the exam digitally at an approved local centre and, assuming they pass, have their certificate delivered via mail.
Yet even in the US, there’s a rush to reopen schools if only on a rotated, part-time ‘shift’ schedule. This is because many found that online classes simply didn’t deliver the same degree of efficiency and effective learning as a structured classroom. Indeed, Zoom, the popular application used for these group meetings, became infamous for ‘Zoombombing’ back in April and May. In attempting to be extremely easy and accessible to anyone irrespective of their computer literacy, Zoom allowed anyone to join a call once they had a simple key. Being mischievous, it wasn’t hard for any young high-schooler to simply share the key and have their classes trolled and hijacked continuously. As a result, many schools abandoned Zoom entirely and sought other avenues for e-learning.
The Caribbean Factor
The above challenges may make it tempting to simply write off e-learning in the Caribbean entirely. However, given the rapid pace of innovation and the reality that school for some won’t be opening until 2021, something has to be done both now and for the future. As with all things, it should start simple. Unsurprisingly, if figures from Our World in Data are to be believed, the region actually has a staggeringly high technology adoption rate. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for internet access. As of 2017, Trinidad and Tobago had a high internet access figure at roughly 73% of the population. However others such as Jamaica and St. Lucia stood only at 44% and 46% respectively; almost half that of Barbados’ whopping 79%. There’s a disparity here that needs to be addressed as a region.
It also clearly shows that, in terms of tech, the Caribbean has no shortage of users. However, to properly incorporate technology into a society we require both users and developers. To achieve this, a region-wide, cooperative venture should be initiated with the aim of improving internet and device accessibility for the average citizen. By itself, this could be a useful opportunity for intra-regional investment as companies with more experience and capability from more developed islands assist neighbouring states. In short, there needs to be an onus on eradicating the over-reliance on physical institutions for education.
However doing this for the entire education system, especially on short notice, is next to impossible. Rather, a phased approach, beginning with tertiary education, maybe in order. Where applicable, entire courses and diplomas should be moved to a digital framework and be conducted entirely online. Look at the above mentioned US-based CompTIA certifications for example. Once the initial investment for functional online infrastructure is covered, this may even lead to finances being saved in the long run from maintaining physical classroom facilities.
One Size Cannot Fit All
Unsurprisingly, this won’t work with children and will likely be extremely challenging the younger the prospective student is. The attention span of adolescents and children are infamously short and the expectation of self-regulation and responsibility unless continuously supervised by parents on a largely online learning platform may be too idealistic. Thus, E-learning, particularly at home, should not be seen as the long term primary means of education for minors. Rather, physical presence in classrooms, albeit heavily supplemented by and utilizing technology should be pursued first. This will allow weighty textbooks to be phased out and serve as a foundation for a more STEM-oriented, which we need if we are to adapt, educational structure.
Rather, what should be initiated is E-learning for assessment, assignments and the administering as well as the grading of homework. Thus, rather than take up time in school with these things, teachers could potentially be able to assign and correct these assignments online. As for exams, these too can be done digitally albeit in a supervised institution regardless, for obvious reasons.
Accessing The Means
Not every Caribbean home or student is blessed with a computer or smart device capable of storing or running the workings of an e-learning setup. This would need to be remedied which is why e-learning should first be introduced in schools on devices there. Individual states may pursue a state loaned, subsidized or even wholly funded venture to make devices accessible to homes however this may create a myriad of logistical difficulties as well as other challenges.
Rather, prudent leadership should simply strive to make technology more affordable by means of lowering or scrapping taxes on computers, computer parts and smart devices capable for learning uses. By increasing affordability, the adoption rate of these devices will inevitably continue to rise. A similar process should be undertaken in order to make online service providers able to easily invest, set up the infrastructure and develop high-speed internet systems for local customers. Indeed, such reforms will carry over to commercial and industrial activity as well, benefiting the ‘digital economy’. Thus, it’s clearly in our best interests to continue pursuing and developing our own regional e-learning capabilities.