Education in the Time of Pandemic



by Uwe Wieckenberg

The following considerations reflect the experiences in an corporate technical secondary school in Egypt with about 850 students in eight different programmes, each of a duration of three years.

The vast majority of educational institutions operate on the attendance principle: students meet regularly at certain times and places to learn together in class under the guidance of a teacher. We are all used to this and do not question this principle. That's how school and university work. 
But what do schools and universities do if the students - and possibly the teachers as well - are no longer able or allowed to come to the same place at certain times so if they are in quarantine and are not allowed to leave their homes?
The answer is quickly obvious: then let's do e-learning! But that is easier said than done, because the difficulty lies in the details.
In the quarantine situation described above, e-learning can be understood as a form of distance learning. This is a big difference compared to the use of the corresponding technology in the classroom during face-to-face situations.
In this case the students or participants must learn much more independently and acquire knowledge by themselves, what they are usually not used to do and not have to do to this extent when they learn together in class.
Minor problems that occur cannot even be clarified with the person sitting next to you or the teacher. A "formal" e-mail or message must be written and finally wait for the reply to solve the problem that has arisen. The main change to the new learning methodology lies in the predominant asynchrony of communication between teacher and student. Teachers and students have to get used to this, too.
In order not to implement a quick and dirty solution with low effectiveness, one should analyse the following aspects in order to then pursue an adapted e-learning solution:

1.    Accessability of the target group
The target group, i.e. the beneficiaries of educational efforts, determines the choice of methods and technologies. Directly connected to the target group is their predominant accessability to necessary hardware (computer, tablet, smartphone), software and to their available internet connection with corresponding bandwidth. So if you choose an e-learning methodology or technology (e.g. videos) that requires specific software and requires a relatively high bandwidth, we exclude those students who do not have it. This can easily happen if you have distance learning in a technical secondary school, where students are between 15 and 18 years old and might come from underprivileged families. 
In schools we work with age cohorts and have to "train" them 100 percent and may not exclude anyone because of technical defects. Consequently, in this case we have to take a very low-threshold approach, for example with methods that are also accessible via smartphone. One low level offering is WhatsApp or Telegram, which are familiar to most, if not all, students in this age range.

2.    Distribution of the content
Of course, the distribution of the learning content also has to do with the accessibility of the target group. The higher the available bandwidth, the sooner larger data packets can be distributed. 
In former times, before the Internet age, learning contents were sent to the participants in printed study letters by mail. Famous examples are the Open University in Great Britain and the Fernuniversitaet in Germany. Later the printed products were replaced by CD-Roms. Nowadays the study texts can be downloaded, videos be streamed and the communication can be arranged in different ways, e.g. text chats, video conferences, messengers, e-mails etc.
Many e-learning providers focus exclusively on the offer or distribution of learning content that increasingly consists of video recordings of lectures or films of a teacher or presenter giving a lecture. Of course, these offers are justified, just as there are still very good textbooks available.
But - and this question should be asked - is watching a video or reading a textbook enough to inernalise the content? It certainly is the first important step in the learning process. However, in order to turn the new information into lasting knowledge, the content must be processed, for example through discussions, self-compiled summaries and by working through corresponding tasks and other processing techniques more.


3.    Communication
One of the most important issues in a sustainable learning process is the targeted communication with and among the participants. At the beginning of the Internet age in the 1990s, many people still thought that the more content available on the Internet, the more teachers would be unnecessary. Today, when almost all learning content is available on the Internet, we know that it is not the content itself that makes learning, but rather the selection and orientation by the teacher, the practical application of new learning content and the communication with the teacher and among students. This communication can be made very interactive, e.g. by assigning tasks that have to be solved individually or in the group. The solutions presented are in turn the reason for the teacher's feedback.
We know that two-way communication between teachers and students is an important part of any educational event.  However, the higher the number of participants in e-learning, the less use can be made of this important communication. Several MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with several hundred participants illustrate this very vividly. In general: the more participants, the more one-way communication. 
Of course, attempts are made to make up for this shortcoming with interactive learning programmes, but this usually only works with highly standardised content.
Detailed knowledge or lexical knowledge can of course be googled quickly. The understanding of theories or concepts as well as problem solving skills require a deeper examination of the learning content, which is promoted by the professional communication between teacher and student.
To make a long story short: the more content is available, the more important the function of a teacher is.

What does this mean for education in times of crisis?
All the considerations described above are of little use if the participants have no access to the (virtual) classroom. For this reason, and to avoid demotivation of students who for various reasons cannot meet the technical requirements for participation, it is recommended to start at a very low level (for example with a WhatsApp group) and to increase the requirements during the online learning and teaching process if applicable.
Starting at too high a level can very easily lead to frustration with the result of a negative attitude towards e-learning. It is not the provision of more or less sophisticated learning content that is decisive, but the guided (intellectual) examination of it.
In the field of higher education, these explanations apply only to a limited extent, as higher education usually means better access to information and communication technologies and more experience in self-learning.