România post-pandemică și antidotul digital

Mihai Magheru: Education for vulnerable children in post COVID-19 digital era

Education for vulnerable children in post COVID-19 digital era
Paths for digital transformation to support the Romanian students lacking the necessary digital resources or capacities to access the online education
Mihai MAGHERU, Sociologist of education, International consultant

All children should be equipped with the resources, including remote learning and technology, to continue their education, even if they are not physically in school. In the COVID-19 pandemic context, most of the world’s children were affected by schools’ closure and for many of them distance learning was not possible because of the lack of or low technological resources, internet connectivity, or digital literacy. Romania opted for a country-wide school closure till the end of the academic year, affecting over 3.48 million students. Similar sets of measures were implemented across most European Countries. In the meantime, some of these countries have already moved towards a localized closure of schools or complete reopening. This article does not question the quality of measures taken by the Romanian Government to continue the education through online means during the COVID-19 outbreak but proposes potential improvement paths of the ongoing measures, capitalising on the experience of some European countries, such as France or Spain, to be further adapted in order to better address the educational needs of vulnerable children  within the current digital challenge and transformation and the return to the new normality.  

A global lockdown – countless ways to (be able to) react to it

The lockdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has, at its maximum, dramatically impacted the children and youth education worldwide by closing the schools in more than 190 countries, affecting 1.57 billion pupils worldwide, adding up to 90 percent of the world’s student population. 

At the end of May 2020, the Global monitoring of school closures by COVID-19, a UNESCO real time monitoring tool, indicated that 1,190,287,189 learners were still affected by lockdown, which is 68 percent of the total enrolled learners. At the same date 150 country-wide closures were in place. According to UNESCO, as children are kept apart from the classrooms, 826 million students do not have access to a computer and 706 million do not have internet at home while the (digital) distance learning  was the only way to ensure the continuity of education in the vast majority of the countries.

In the European Union, Austria, Croatia, Estonia, France, and Norway had already opened their schools as of June 1st, 2020, whereas about half of the remaining countries maintained a localised lockdown and the other half kept a country-wide closure, including Romania and Spain. A total of 3,483,465 learners are affected in Romania (49.35% female) whereas in Spain the total was 7,996,895 (49.23% female). Both countries have announced school closure until the end of the academic year and continuation of classes through distance learning. Spain is, however, moving towards localised opening and in the case of France, on a regionalised basis, schools already started opening in mid-May.

A challenging digital transformation even before the COVID-19 pandemic

To better understand the distance learning challenges engendered by the coronavirus outbreak, it is also necessary to contextualise the digital educational challenges in the pre-COVID-19 pandemic context, where digital transformation came at a much faster pace than the adaptation capacities of various groups of population. 

According to the last study of the European Parliament carried out in 2019, “traditional roles, content and methods of education are being challenged – education today needs to prepare students for changing tasks and roles both in the labour market and as European citizens. Simultaneously, today’s adults need reskilling and upskilling opportunities to enable them to tackle tomorrow’s challenges”. However, this statement solely expresses a desideratum, in a context where digital skills are developed in a starkly uneven manner across the EU. 

The figures are striking in terms of distribution of the level of digital skills across the European Countries, based on the European Digital Competence Framework, and Romania should deploy tremendous efforts in order to address the digital gap of its citizens. Concretely, Romania is at the bottom of classification among all the EU countries with barely 19 percent of the population with above-basic digital skills (France and Spain are both at 62 percent), 33 percent with basic-digital skills (France 23 percent and Spain 24 percent), 41 percent with low-digital skills (France 12 percent and Spain 11 percent) and the remaining 7 percent with no digital skills / no Internet usage. 

Similar solutions to ensure proper distance learning, one remaining challenge

Therefore, the various COVID-19 management measures impacted differently European Member States, not only in terms of social, cultural, and economic impacts, both at government and population levels, but also in terms of numbers of affected students and characteristics of digital preparedness.

Overall, the distance learning tailored measures also considered other interrelated aspects such as the care and wellbeing of pupils and their families, with focus on the emotional or psychological impact of the outbreak and the means to address it. The Ministries of Education in the three selected countries took measures in the following key areas: (i) adjusting school calendar and learning activities, (ii) tailoring educational resources for online learning and teaching, and (iii) adapting the requirements per each grade in terms of learning and evaluation. These measures mainly aimed to ensure a smooth continuation of education activities on-line, or, in cases where schools reopened, to ensure a safe return to school for all. 

However, the situation of pupils without digital resources proved to be quite a challenge. In the midst of adjusting the curricula to online requirements and preparing the teachers to deliver classes in a completely new format, from one day to the next, the issue of no-response from a determined number of students came into attention. This occurred once the first reporting procedures were established and data centralisation indicated that certain students did not attend any of the virtual classes. As a consequence, a set of governmental or non-governmental initiatives saw the light in the benefit of these students in order to help them cope (mainly) with the lack of digital resources. 

Post pandemic Romania and digital antidote: advanced digital education for all and mainly for the vulnerable children

In this context, before going into the details of potential measures to be consolidated or adopted by the Romanian authorities, some intermediate conclusions emerge:

  • The above brief overview of how the COVID-19 pandemic affected education globally clearly indicates that both the international community and national governments were and are tremendously involved in elaborating and implementing a series of complex measures to best support the students in the outbreak context. 
  • At the same time, it also indicates that some of the affected groups of students require tailored support, since their objective status, such as the lack of digital resources, hamper their capacity to take full benefit of these measures. Moreover, digital literacy preconditions prior to the pandemic consist an additional burden for these groups.

In this context, this article proposes two axis of action to tackle the difficult circumstances affecting Romanian students without or with limited technological resources, internet connectivity, or digital literacy, both during the school closure till the end of the academic year and starting with the new academic year 2020/2021, as means to generate a preparedness plan of action:

Safeguarding European values and nurturing its future global competitiveness 

  • The right to education is a fundamental right of the child, and states should develop appropriate forms of education and make them available and accessible to every child, including free education and offering financial assistance in case of need, and facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods. 
  • Moreover, rethinking and adapting the education to the new digital era will contribute to forming an skilled workforce prepared for future jobs and a changing labour market. In the new context, education is also the proper vehicle to provide the preconditions for social inclusion and equal participation of all European citizens, particularly the vulnerable children, in a digitalised democracy.
  • In this context, Romania also needs to adapt its strategies of intervention and some of its ongoing initiatives, together with initiatives adopted by other countries, could constitute the basis of the “digital antidote” that supports rethinking the education in the digital age as means for safeguarding European values such as equality, democracy, and the rule of law, and also as a prerequisite for Europe’s future global competitiveness.

Universal access to digital resources including for those who need it the most

  • Considering its status in terms of digital skills in the EU landscape, Romania should continue consolidating a broader strategy to address the complexity of the needs, by developing proper digital education policies, providing appropriate digital infrastructure, strengthening digital literacy for all the students, including by addressing the gender gap, and continuing to support the educators and trainers in a changing education system; 
  • Romania should definitely continue and strengthen its Euro200 programme, started in 2004 and aiming to support the purchase of computers by students without financial possibilities and consolidating their digital skills.
  • During the pandemic, the Ministry of Education and Research in partnership with the entrepreneurship community Narada launched the initiative “Reaction for Education” as a digital platform allowing teachers and students to ask for material resources necessary to continue education in the digital context. Reaching over 100,000 students and 1,100 teachers, the campaign also identified 7,000 students without internet access and could be a starting point in developing and consolidating further similar platforms.
  • Smaller scale initiatives, such as the one of the University of agronomic sciences and veterinary medicine of Bucharest (USAMV), through its Foundation, provided hundreds of tablets connected to free internet for a 24 months period to high school students from digitally disadvantaged communities in rural areas. 
  • In France, a joint Ministry of Education and La Poste initiative called “Homework at home” to support the students without digital connectivity to continue their education consisted in (i) sending weekly paper-based homework, (ii) free of charge return, and (iii) digitalising homework. This could be an easily applicable model for the Romanian reality, particularly in rural areas. 
  • Another French initiative aimed to support deaf students by creating “Classrooms at home”, where teachers could virtually teach with Sign Language and, for those without digital facilities, co-organise it with the previous homework at home initiative.
  • In the case of Spain, one of the relevant initiatives consisted in adapting the provision of special care for pupils requiring specific educational support, such as children with learning difficulties, with attention deficiency or hyperactivity disorder, with high intellectual capacities, or other individual characteristics.
  • Another relevant initiative in Spain, in the case of families without technological resources and/or connectivity, consisted in joint actions of local basic services, including the social ones from the municipalities, to make computers or tablets available through a renting system. Where this measure was not possible, communication with pupils was conducted via mobile phones, including WhatsApp and video-calls with teachers. 

The list may continue with many other examples from each of the EU member states but the core idea of this brief review, far from being exhaustive, is that it clearly indicates a tremendous potential for capitalisation and further learning. This wealth of experiment and lessons learnt should inform future strategies in the area of distance learning, with an intentional focus on diminishing the digital gap faced by the Romanian children. Moreover, other valuable initiatives are surely out there waiting to be discovered and offering plenty of lessons learnt that Romania can capitalize on.   

Scurtă biografie: Mihai is sociologist of education, valedictorian at Université de Bordeaux (2003-2004) in Master Research Sociology of Education and Social Problems. He relies on two-decades of professional experience in human rights and social development, with extensive social and child protection experiences and a strong Human Rights Based Approach to Programming and Results Based Management focus. This consolidated a twofold profile combining extensive research and programme management practice in a diverse institutional positioning, including UNICEF, the World Bank, UN-Habitat, Expertise France, and national and international NGOs with a total of more than ten years in the UN system. Starting with 2015 Mihai is based in Barcelona as International Consultant deploying his savoir, savoir-faire and savoir-être in various international programmes in Europe and Central Asia and Latin America though carrying out qualitative researches and evaluations and providing evidence-based policy advice to public sector and CSOs, with a particular focus on cross-cutting areas of urban resilience and gender mainstreaming.

Acest articol face parte din proiectul “România post-pandemică și antidotul digital”, o inițiativă a Fundației C.A.E.S.A.R.

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