COVID-19: Lessons in remote learning from China and Europe

The COVID-19 crisis is forcing the education sector, globally, to adopt innovations and technologies to continue delivering the curriculum. Pervasive inequalities in the education system before the pandemic are now exaggerated, with marginalised learners excluded from learning due to disparities in access to remote learning infrastructure, digital content and basic learning material. The challenges of inequality have already surfaced in Europe. The HSRC hosted a webinar in which panellists from China and Europe shared ‘lessons from the future’ with South African educators. Five important takeaways about remote learning emerged from the webinar. By Prof Sharlene Swartz and Krish Chetty.

Photo: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

Video conferencing technology has given people across the globe the opportunity to get to grips with remote learning. While e-learning, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and virtual learning have had varied uptake throughout the world, the COVID-19 crisis has prompted an enormous leap forward in appreciating future possibilities.

However, we need to distinguish between remote learning in a crisis and various online modalities of learning. Once the pandemic has passed, we need to think carefully about how our practice should change into a new blended mode of teaching and learning. We need to do much more work on questions surrounding young people’s ability to learn remotely, their engagement, the anxiety levels and levels of online expertise of educators, and the best combination of online and real-life learning and teaching.

Remote learning as a potential equaliser
The key questions participants asked before and during the webinar concerned the issue of inequality: How does a country such as South Africa even begin to compete with countries such as Italy and China in terms of students’ access to technology, the price of data and the resources of the institutions themselves? How do we address the huge divide within South Africa regarding access to internet connectivity, devices and online resources?

While remote learning has the potential to become an equaliser by ensuring the same quality of education for all, access to the tools to make it possible is a matter that needs urgent policy attention.
While online access in China and Italy is more widespread and cheaper than in South Africa, an urban-rural divide still exists in China and a North-South divide in Italy. In China, cheap data and device costs enabled a rapid transition to online learning during the height of the COVID-19 crisis. In some European countries, governments provided physical devices to ensure learning occurred. In South Africa, where many students have to travel and be accommodated at high costs, remote learning offers potential if issues of access to data and devices can be overcome.

In other African counties such as Kenya, remote learning was supplemented by radio and television access, while in Egypt a centralised platform was created for students and teachers to interact, free from data charges. Ubiquitous internet connectivity at low or no cost seems to be the key to equality in accessing e-learning globally.

E-learning may be the first step to changing society
The COVID-19 crisis is possibly a catalyst to critical thinking in a long-overdue focus on content in education. In addition, new learning skills need to be taught in a world where information is in huge supply, but critical thinking is not. When comparing online learning with classroom learning, one may find better exchanges and interaction online. But these possibilities have only just begun to be explored. There is much more work to be done including incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality into the learning experience and devising intentional online pedagogies that depart from passive learning methods and promote active learner engagement.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis gives us an opportunity to leapfrog outdated technologies. The traditional routes to advanced technology applications need not be followed. Thus, 5G mediums or AI applications in online practicals could be made available to South Africa’s poor, if suitable policy choices are made. Anxiety about these changes are natural, but as experienced in China, can be quickly overcome as people become familiar with the technology and appreciate the advantages it offers. China’s preparation in terms of available infrastructure, devices and educators with the necessary skills supported their almost seamless transition. There were benefits experienced with remote learning, over real-life experience: one could, for example, watch a missed lecture although without the benefit of real-life interaction.

Beyond access to support and quality
Teachers carry the burden of successfully navigating current infrastructure limitations. To better prepare for this challenge, they need access to free data and free resources just as much as the learners. However, it is important to support educators, beyond access challenges for themselves and their students. In Italy, for example, teachers required rapid, intentional training to adequately use the appropriate tools to successfully manage online learning. This steep learning curve is frequently one that learners are better equipped to manage than teachers, a phenomenon that requires reflection. The role of power in education has frequently been a topic of discussion, and now more than ever it is in play, but with the imbalance reversed.

We are only beginning to support teachers in delivering quality online education, as well as learning what requires a physical experience. The quality of online platforms varies greatly and is in danger of perpetuating the inequalities of real-life institutions. So, for example, in South Africa, while Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) college websites are 0-rated by Telkom, thus allowing free access to resources, many online platforms of TVET colleges and historically black institutions are of poor quality.

Beyond teaching to creating learning communities
At the University of Bologna, in Italy, while the transition from real-life teaching to remote teaching was relatively easy, and facilitated well using Microsoft Teams software, it soon became apparent that formal teaching content was only one part of the educational enterprise. Shortly after online teaching began, the university set up a holistic programme to support learners, not only focusing on delivery through technology but on building and maintaining a community through remote learning. To this end, it provides social spaces for students to meet online, offers exercise videos produced by the real-life gym staff, and has curated a cultural programme offered by staff and students in music and drama departments.

Another key learning from the University of Bologna’s experience is that, as weeks went by, the teaching staff began to share experiences and expectations. This mutual support ensured the mental health of lecturers as they struggled to maintain the same online pace as they could do in real life. Expectations of managers had to be redrawn, so that educators did not burn out from an “always on” and “everything new” mode. Unique to the COVID-19 crisis, was the expectation that we would “soon go back to normal”, which will clearly not be the case. Helping each other to settle in for the long haul and an uncertain future has all become part of the remote-learning experience.

After the COVID-19 crisis, South Africa, as with the rest of the word, is likely to experience increased economic inequalities as jobs are lost and economies slow down. The time to innovate with regards to accessible and quality mass education is now, in the midst of the pandemic, so that once the crisis has passed there can be no going back to how things were, pedagogically and economically.

Authors: Sharlene Swartz, division executive of the HSRC’s Inclusive Economic Development research division, and Krish Chetty, chief researcher in the same division

Panellists: Joshua Kobb, the vice-dean of Zhejiang University’s International Business School in China; Paolo Motta from the European Institute for Political, Social and Economic Studies, an Italian think tank with a focus on BRICS development programmes; Prof Peter Herrmann, a research fellow at the Human Rights Center in the Law School of Central South University in Changsha, China; and Dr Ilaria Pitti, a senior assistant professor in the Sociology and Politics Department at the University of Bologna in Italy.