By extent, this new reality has also greatly affected the education sector, while putting it at stake.
For the first time since the Second World War, many countries around the world had to simultaneously close down their public and private schools and education institutions.
This was also the case for Cyprus as its education community was rather shocked by being forced to transcend (literally overnight) from face-to-face teaching to distance learning without clear and specific guidance. The possible detrimental consequences of Covid-19 on Cyprus education have been extensively discussed by the media and various societal actors over the last two months. However, any crisis in education – despite the initial disorganisation and disorientation it involves – may help us redefine the meaning and content of learning. Arguably, Covid-19, in the role of educator, may teach us how to teach and learn in the post-Covid era.
To begin with, driven by the slogan ‘The Development of a Digital Cyprus’, the Republic of Cyprus, throughout the past five years, has focused on the design, implementation and evaluation of an integrated national digitalisation strategy. In this national strategy, special mention and reference is made to the digitalisation of learning and education, aiming at cultivating educators’ and students’ digital skills and strengthening participation in civil society through the development of digital citizenship. One of the most important goals discussed in the proposed strategy for the digitalisation of Cyprus education is the development of distance-learning applications and the digitalisation of the content of all modules of the curriculum across all the levels of basic education. These applications and digitalised materials concern both synchronous (live virtual classrooms) and asynchronous (access to pre-recorded visualised lessons and digital education materials) modes.
If these have been the goals of our strategy for digitalising education, then why we were totally unprepared to transcend to digital modes of learning due to the Covid-19 crisis? The Ministry of Education had not have an already developed clear plan neither for digitalising education, nor for facing the Covid-19 crisis, but rather made (and still is making) decisions along the way. It is worth-mentioning that it was only after the official closure of schools, that the Ministry called a number of teachers for online training in using the new technologies for distance learning, asked teachers to explore the technological needs of their schools and students (i.e. internet access, equipment, etc.), and initiated the development of digital education materials.
What we thus argue is that there is an urgent need for the Ministry of Education to join forces with the newly-constituted State Department of Research, Innovation and Digital Policy in order to bridge this gap between policy rhetoric and practice with regards to the successful digitalisation of education. The Ministry should develop a tangible, rigorous and clear plan for distance-learning education, which should include the following components: curricula specifically-designed for distance-learning education; pools of digitalised education sources and materials; support services for teachers, students and their parents; extensive training for digital skills provided not only to teachers, but also to students and their parents; and mechanisms and indicators for evaluating the outcomes of distance-learning education.
Moreover, the Ministry should reflect on the challenge of digital inequity in education, which negatively influences students’ equality of access to learning and knowledge, and thus their academic success. Digital inequity refers to the gap between people or groups who benefit from the use of new technologies, and people and groups who do not benefit because of various socio-economic factors. In developing its plan, the Ministry should figure out how to best address challenges such as inequity in access to necessary equipment, inequity in autonomous use of new technologies, inequity in digital skills, and inequity in social support. To this end, the Ministry should also tailor its digitalisation plan to the needs of students with disabilities, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and emerging bilingual students.
Beyond the aspect of digitalisation, various other issues arise that may inform the ways we educate future generations in the post-Covid era. The last education reform that took place in Cyprus in 2010 focused on ascribing a humanistic orientation and character in education arguing for the development of a humanistic and democratic school. A decade later, the Covid-19 crisis rather teaches us that we should re-orient our education system towards the paradigm of techno-humanism which aims to effectively integrate technology in furthering all societal functions. The techno-humanistic paradigm is incompatible with the knowledge-centric approach that still characterises our educational system. Such approach will make our children fail in a world mastered by AI and technology. Future generations should be taught soft skills (and not knowledge) such as resilience, flexibility and adaptability, independent and critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence and empathy, values and teamwork.
Re-orienting the focus of education prerequisites re-orienting teachers’ role from knowledge-holders to agents and facilitators of their students’ development as active citizens – citizens whom sociologists characterise as ‘moral’. The ‘moral’ citizen voluntarily assumes responsibilities and duties, but also acts collectively by forming socio-political action lobbies. Arguably, teachers should work methodically to empower students as ‘moral’ citizens who are capable of boldly and responsibly fighting for their rights (including the right to be protected by the state from any visible or invisible future threat such as a pandemic). The ‘moral’ citizen also leverages fear-based media by critically examining news and information. What the ongoing Covid-19 crisis teaches us is that the widespread of fake news and hoaxes leads to uneducated knowledge that threatens democracy and its institutions. In this context, what we argue is that education of current and future generations should promote critical media literacy in order to ‘shield’ young people against populism and misinformation. Last but not least, the ‘moral’ citizen is a citizen of an interconnected world. Our prolonged and entrenched lockdown during the Covid-19 era, along with the instrumentalisation of the ‘stay home’ moto, have cultivated societal phobias and suspicion. Education should thus focus on educating young generations to work in solidarity across the globe, while leveraging their differences.
In conclusion, education may and should become the means for creating a better world for current and future generations.
- Dr. Christina Hajisoteriou, PhD in Education, University of Cambridge, Assistant Professor in Intercultural Education, School of Education, University of Nicosia
- Also publishes In Depth Newsletter, Volume 17 – Issue 3