With the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing mega-experiment in distant learning demonstrates that no country has been properly prepared for such a challenge. Schools and universities in both developing and developed countries struggle with the complexity of providing equitable access to education. Owing to a dearth of international leadership in education suggesting “best practices” and “countries as educational models,” self-organized local communities of teachers and educators at the grassroots level are stepping up.
To address the educational crisis, the most inspiring actions have been taken by individual teachers in both rich and poor countries. Many teachers across the globe have taken the initiative to switch to a distant education mode with whatever tools and competencies they had. Teachers enthusiastically have come into the forefront of emergency teaching and learning with strong sense of self-reflection and self-management. By creating informal, participant-driven groups in social media, teachers experiment with new technologies and build new partnerships to exchange resources, teaching ideas and methods. Independent from the governments, teachers have found new ways to shape their local educational environments.
Within national and international communities, some enthusiastic teachers recorded tutorials on how to use interactive platforms for online education; others created lesson plans and methodologies, and shared them with each other. Yet others became involved in brainstorming policy options of how to reach out to students in remote villages without internet connectivity, or discussed educational solutions for minority populations or students with special education needs. Many of them initiated partnerships with local charities to help socially disadvantaged students receive internet access, laptops, or mobile phones. Some enthusiastic teachers got involved in designing and developing programs for nation-wide TV lesson broadcasts.
This experience showed vividly that when educators were given freedom and autonomy, they came up with context-appropriate solutions; when existing hierarchies lost their power, albeit temporarily, teachers improvised, thus becoming the agents of change. Most important, such actions have strengthened local capacities, which will be more sustainable in the future. We demand so much from teachers, but often forget to trust them.
It is not an easy path, though. Switching to online modes of teaching has not been stress-free for teachers and it has taken its toll on the mental well-being of educators. Moreover, initiatives at the grassroots level are also filled with risks, disappointments, and frustrations, but they are democratic in nature, empower educators, and have lasting effects.
The pandemic might be a factor that is changing the nature and logic of globalization according to which knowledge production and education innovation takes place in the developed world; global peripheries are seldom a source of educational inspiration and borrowing. With education systems’ diverse and context-specific responses to the pandemic around the world, now we see global plurality in actions and initiatives.
This pandemic has shown that the world needs new partnerships in education to ensure more equitable educational provision. However, such global coalitions should recognise diversity of educational systems more seriously and broaden the understanding of education beyond the few subjects assessed through international assessments. UNESCO’s recent effort to create a Global Education Coalition reflects the necessity of collaboration among multiple partners, including grassroots movements and civil society actors, multilateral organizations, private educational companies, charities, and the media. Also, OECD’s latest framework to guide an educational response to the pandemic demonstrates diverse ways that countries took.
Multilateral organizations may help create distance education readiness index, which could assess not only the availability of various technological infrastructures but also skills and competences of teachers and students. The index should allow for a variety of approaches (high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech), which will be evaluated based on contextual factors and effectiveness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about momentum for countries to create more resilient education systems. To ensure continuity of learning during difficult times, countries need to develop comprehensive plans for distant education. Pandemics, natural disasters, and other emergency situations will again take place in the future. Diversification and a combination of approaches are needed to bridge the digital gap and address widespread inequalities.
In the era of major disruptions in education systems worldwide, I hope there will be major shifts in the ways we think about education and change, critically rethinking “one-size-fits-all” models and top-down global policy reforms. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world needs bold grassroots educational initiatives, and teachers to become chief drivers of change.