As they wait for the Education Ministry to decide if the September school term is on, educators are preparing for a shift to online learning, but say the ministry must implement a policy on the way forward in an a pandemic era.
In interviews, educators from early childhood care and education (ECCE) to tertiary level, all admit that switching teaching styles to online is difficult, but necessary.
On March 13, the Prime Minister announced the closure of all learning institutions to stop the spread of covid19 and they were due to re-open on September 1 to begin the first term of the 2020/2021 academic year. The onset of community spread of the virus, led Dr Rowley, on August 15, to announce the extended closure of schools which may last until December 31. He said the incoming minister of education will address the issue. Four days later, on August 19, Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly was appointed as Minister of Education and Lisa Morris-Julian, a minister in the ministry.
After the SEA exam on Thursday, Gadsby-Dolly told reporters, during a tour of the Gandhi Memorial Vedic Primary School, Aranguez, the ministry engage stakeholders to “prepare a new way forward, with respect to online classes.”
“The ministry is in the process of finalising those new protocols based on the new emerging situation we are in. That should come to the executive of the ministry and we will take a look at that for finalisation on Monday,” she said. She was due to receive some of the measures on Friday for discussion this week.
UWI School of Education lecturer Dr Vimala Kamalodeen agreed there is a need for a policy on online learning to guide teachers, students and parents. She said the School of Education held two webinars on the issue and developed proposals to share with the ministry. In order to shift from “brick and mortar” classrooms to online learning, Kamalodeen said proper teaching etiquette and infrastructure are required. She said there must be collaborative effort to move to a digital platform as there will be a need for internet connectivity for students and teachers in remote areas, as well as devices.
Private Secondary Schools Association vice president Anthony Mc Collins said his members have been preparing for the re-opening of the school term for some time. Different options on online learning have been made available to teachers, he said, but noted most schools in the association are capable of offering the services. He expects the term will begin in October.
“Some clarity from the Ministry of Education is needed with regards to what is happening with the school term but we are ready and looking forward to October.”
Cost is a factor for private schools, he noted. Mindful that parents and guardians may have reduced incomes because of the pandemic, Mc Collins said his school is offering a 10 per cent reduction in fees. He said not all private schools can afford to cut fees adding that even though schools will be digital, they still had to pay teachers and ancillary staff, and cover other expenses.
ECCE educators' concerns are more about the ability of small children to adapt to online learning, rather than about the financial cost.
An ECCE teacher, who did not want to be named, said she is in several social media teaching groups and almost all of the ECCE teachers have the same issue – a lack of information. She said she would not recommend to parents that children move on to primary school in 2021 because of the months-long lag in teaching-time.
“That will be unfair to the children, the teachers in first year and the parents to have a child graduate and they are not ready for primary school, and you know who will get the blame, me.”
The teacher, who has taught pre-schoolers for over two decades, said online teaching for young is difficult as they need supervision to make sure they do the work. She also queried how can motor skills be taught to children through a computer screen.
But Kamalodeen assures children can learn motors skills online.
“There is VARK, which stands for visual, aural, read and write and kinaesthetic. Kinaesthetic is about movement, the motor skills that a child will develop from learning to write and holding objects. That can be taught through online learning because a teacher can tell the child to write for them or pick up an object.”
She added that with both synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (recorded) online teaching styles, teachers will be allowed to be interactive with their students. The main issue for her was the absence of policies to on the proposed system. Screen time duration, she said, should be addressed, as well a dress code for the teacher and the student who will be in the comfort of their homes, yet be “in school.”
“We have been preparing for September like a real September but if we are shifting to this online learning, we need clear policies and guidelines that are based on evidence. Screen time for children dependent on their age, for example....We need to help both the parent and the teacher because they both have to reconfigure their personal space to facilitate this.”
“We also have to address internet connectivity. Are all the students able to access internet? Do they have devices? Some parents are working from home and there may be cases of them having to share devices, or in some cases the only device is the parents or guardians’ cell phone and that is why we need corporate TT and civil TT to come on board. This has to be a collective effort. Now the bond between parent, teacher and child needs to be even greater.”
In April, an inter-agency exercise between the Ministry of Public Administration and the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) resulted in the award of additional capacity to service providers, among them TSTT, Flow and Digicel, which announced upgrades for customers including free data and zero-rated websites.
In September last year, TATT reported that the number of mobile handsets in TT used for basic calls continued to soar with a penetration rate of 155 per cent, however, just 49 per cent of mobile users have an internet data plan, a four per cent growth over 2018. The fixed internet penetration rate for the same period showed some 20 per cent of households lacked internet service. The Central Statistical Office (CSO) estimated there are 401,000 households without internet service.
Former minister in the Education Ministry and lecturer Dr Lovell Francis said the ministry began the process to roll out online learning and had built its own platform to facilitate it, but raised the issue of lack of connectivity and devices for students and, in some cases, teachers.
"We can't allow a virus to ground education to a halt. Education is so fundamental, so whatever required, we should make sure we do that. I expect the Ministry of Education to keep innovating."
Adviser to the board of the Home-schooling Association of TT, Dr Fiona Rajkumar agreed with Francis' position saying there is now a "wonderful opportunity" for parents and teachers to work together.
"Teachers can do their best to utilise whatever resources they have to stay connected with their students. Teachers also need parents to be involved in the education of children during this time, as much as is possible, and in this way, they can have a type of "home-schooling" mentality where they work along-side their children doing as much as they can to help them come through this season. It is this type of cooperation that will help our nation's children, especially those who may have more pronounced needs, come through this daunting period in the world's history."
Rajkumar said the time can be used to focus on the developmental needs of children, in addition to academics, with emphasis on character development and skills building.
She was clear to point out that there is a difference between home-schooling, which involves the involvement of the parent and guardians and a child learning from a paid tutor while at home.
She said since the lockdown, there has been a marked increase in requests for Education Ministry forms to register children to be home-schooled, and for information on how home-schooling is done.
Some secondary school and tertiary institution educators said they were prepared for a transition to online learning.
Acting principal of Naparima Girls High School Karen Bally said they are prepared to begin classes online from September and to help students who do not have devices to get access to them. Teachers will take continuous professional development courses, which the Ministry of Education began and is continuing, to assist them. The school will conduct its own two-day online course on August 27.
Automation Technology College principal Dr Sandra West said her school built an online platform two years ago but never used it until the pandemic hit.
“Both teachers and students have been taught to use the platform. We will have live interactive teaching. This entire thing is very challenging for both the teachers and the students,” she said.
Kamalodeen said covid19 has forced the School of Education to adjust its curriculum to include online teaching. She said lecturers had undergone training for online programmes before the pandemic but students, who would have had in-person classes, would have to adapt. She students were being taught how to use technology within classrooms which, she said, is not the same as online teaching.
TT Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) president Antonia De Freitas said teachers were ready to move to online teaching as they received training since schools closed in March. She did not have information on how many teachers accessed the training.
De Freitas said teachers must learn that the new way forward required a change in teaching styles and was not just a transfer from the classroom to computer.
“There is a need for system planning. We have to meet with the Ministry of Education and the discussion must include work from home guidelines for students and teachers. There is a need for more stakeholders discussions.”