Dig­i­tal di­vide and school­ing strug­gles

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION - The Gleaner.

TEACH­ERS, STU­DENTS, and par­ents are tread­ing un­charted wa­ters as they try to nav­i­gate a new aca­demic school year marked by re­mote learn­ing.

It has been a rocky start for many, par­tic­u­larly those in ru­ral Ja­maica who do not have the tools to learn re­motely. Many young learn­ers are said to be strug­gling to find their foot­ing.

We truly be­lieve in our teach­ers’ abil­ity to find cre­ative ways of fac­ing the chal­lenges thrown up by the coro­n­avirus. We have seen time af­ter time the in­no­va­tive strate­gies they have de­vised to over­come re­source gaps, the clever ways in which they have hur­dled bar­ri­ers cre­ated by short­ages, and the ag­ile man­ner in which they have jumped through hoops to en­sure that they de­liver to their stu­dents.

In the con­text of the coro­n­avirus, teach­ers need lots of help to meet the de­mands of the mo­ment. The Govern­ment must quickly fig­ure out how to di­rect re­sources to the schools in great­est need. School boards are val­ued part­ners in this equa­tion, and they have a ma­jor part to play by help­ing schools gain ac­cess to the enor­mous re­sources of alumni com­mu­ni­ties. The Ja­maica Teach­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion (JTA) needs to be more co­op­er­a­tive in help­ing to bridge the home­school learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment and be part of the solution.

TECH­NOL­OGY PROB­LEMS

One of the most press­ing prob­lems in the schools is how to get the tech­nol­ogy needed to sup­port re­mote learn­ing. As we write, there is a scram­ble for tablets and lap­tops, which stu­dents must have for vir­tual learn­ing. Stu­dents on the Pro­gramme of Ad­vance­ment Through Health and Ed­u­ca­tion were re­port­edly promised tablets in Novem­ber of last year, and many are still wait­ing.

Did any­one think about the cur­rent cir­cum­stances and seek a solution to these is­sues? What hap­pens when classes move on­line be­cause of the coro­n­avirus? What hap­pens when there is no In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity in a com­mu­nity?

No one ought to be sur­prised that ru­ral ar­eas are not well served by the In­ter­net, for there has al­ways ex­isted an ur­ban-ru­ral re­source di­vide. The dig­i­tal de­fi­ciency is more acute in the ru­ral ar­eas where In­ter­net ac­cess, if it ex­ists, is spotty at best. By the look of things, im­prov­ing broad­band in­fra­struc­ture in ru­ral Ja­maica does not ap­pear to be a pri­or­ity of the ma­jor In­ter­net providers.

ES­TAB­LISH­ING WI-FI HOTSPOTS

For the stu­dents who now have no ac­cess to the In­ter­net, es­tab­lish­ing Wi-Fi hotspots would be a solution. Some of the other reme­dies could in­clude pur­chas­ing cel­lu­lar data for stu­dents and iden­ti­fy­ing lo­cal com­mu­nity ar­eas where there is free In­ter­net ac­cess.

We urge the Uni­ver­sal Ser­vice Fund to do more to es­tab­lish com­mu­nity ac­cess points where they are needed most. The fund is sit­ting on a pile of money, and it should do more to help poor chil­dren ac­quire de­vices, boost band­width ca­pac­ity, and cre­ate more hotspots and even home routers where prac­ti­cal.

This pan­demic has shown up many in­equities – large seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion in ru­ral parts of this coun­try re­main out of reach of re­li­able In­ter­net ser­vice or hard­ware, while well-off ur­ban chil­dren are given ac­cess to de­vices lit­er­ally from birth.

Like the econ­omy and health ser­vices, ed­u­ca­tion is deeply im­pacted by the virus. Even with low rates of trans­mis­sion among chil­dren, school clo­sure was im­ple­mented to mit­i­gate com­mu­nity spread by ful­fill­ing so­cial-dis­tanc­ing re­quire­ments. But our stu­dents can­not re­main dis­en­gaged from the learn­ing process for much longer. Im­por­tantly, ru­ral stu­dents can­not be held back any fur­ther. We should emerge from this pan­demic with a vi­sion of ed­u­ca­tion that is more in­clu­sive, more flex­i­ble, more re­spon­sive, and, above all, more mean­ing­ful.

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