REIMAGINING DIGITAL CLASSROOMS IS OUR POST-PANDEMIC EDGE INTO THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION PLUG, BUT…

Gopolang Ditlhokwa

In a world full of new mobile technologies being developed daily, there is a great potential for education to expand coverage of learning activities to fully utilize the digital classroom even post COVID-19 pandemic. With evidence from the recent COVID 19 pandemic, one could argue that mobile learning (or even online learning) has grown at an explosive rate. Indeed, the pandemic while a painful history, has brought some light into the education system(s) although to some, it exposed huge gaps that need retrospection. Before COVID 19 still, there were instances of mobile learning in schools but to a lesser extent. However, the magnitude of the pandemic has awakened m-learning to aggressively replace face-to-face interactions. The academia has also immensely contributed to exploring the growth of online learning, where mobile learning applications have become more fashionable to liberate the education sector from the devastating effects of the pandemic. With the popular advocacy by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), advancing the need to recognize the right to education for every citizen, this time around, the pandemic would attempt to keep all the children out of school, mainly because one of the preventative measures for the pandemic were social distancing, that is, avoiding physical contact at all cost. That is why the now popular m-learning became a household name worldwide (based on the mobile device affordances anyway). 

Nonetheless, for countries in the global south, it remains a challenge as most of them continue to grapple with the high cost of Internet connection, let alone provide these learning devices across all the schools. Similarly, in September 2020, UNICEF reported that at least 463 million learners globally, could not get access to the digital classroom for various reasons, among them being an imbalance in geographical inclusivity and distribution of resources to capacitate for such. On the other hand, fine digital skills also remain a challenge in all efforts to fully converge learning activities into the digital classroom because learners have to grasp the basic skills of applying themselves to these learning applications. Based on the numbers presented above, they directly speak to a mindset change and chatting of pro policies that could reinvigorate the perspicacious approaches to the entire education system. As it has been said in the past, access to education should not only be restricted to a group of members belonging to a particular social class, rather, it should be made ‘easily accessible to all.’ For the most, preparedness by the systems that be, in instances of public emergencies like the current is of paramount importance. 

In many countries, both educators and researchers have raised concerns regarding the ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor, even exposing some flawed education systems. When Flores (2017) looked into “the persistence of educational disparities in the United States,” to explore why these gaps keep expanding, especially in 21st-century learning, one of the overarching concerns was the fashion of putting charismatic policies on paper without proper implementation strategies. She gave two prominent examples of a well-tailored 1983 report titled “A Nation at Risk,” under the guidance of the then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and another one written by a Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman titled “Public Schools: Make Them Private”, published in 1995. According to Flores, these blueprints led to the U.S government passing the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act in 2001. However, it could not address its mandate as would have been expected. One of her arguments was that “while in theory the NCLB Act was supposed to provide access to a high-quality education for all children, the Act had the opposite of effect, and in fact in most cases ended up lowering standards and the critical education skills that children needed to become effective and innovative citizens and adults” (p. 11). This could be an issue of unequal distribution of resources, lack of funds to keep and maintain public schools because of the geographical demands, or quite obviously, the infrequent relationship between teachers and parents in the education system. This derives from the repeated educational reforms and calls made by governments for accountability from schools through their districts and regional education offices. Under this arrangement, it would possibly be the upshots of outcome-based education (OBE) rather than a knowledge-based system. Although the OBE has worked in the past, it might not be relevant today. Technology has taken over in every aspect and we have to align and adjust to such a paradigm shift in the way we operate. Thus, the overarching need to eliminate any learner gaps that exist in our systems with particular emphasis on taking services such as m-learning to remote areas. Some of the challenges that are outside the education system emanate from other infrastructural inconveniencies such as lack or limited access to electricity connection, telecommunications, and others.

It is against this background that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 1990 adopted and declared the ‘education for all campaign in support of counteracting the premises of learning barriers of any sort that could lead to unequal access to educational opportunities across. The lack of resources or thereof impedes the success of many students who are subjected to poverty. Furthermore, in 2006, the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU)’s contribution to ‘policy on education’ had raised a concern about the significant imbalance especially during the early years of primary school, citing among other things a discrepancy in the provision of education to persons living with disabilities and people from remote areas. However, following the Revised National Policy on Education (RNPE) in 1994, another great milestone hatched, in form of the Education & Training Sector Strategic Plan (ETSSP 2015-2020), which became the blueprint for a knowledge-based system of education, having involved several sectors of the economy to contribute ideas towards the outlook of the pragmatic development of knowledge from the early stages of in schools. The plan is still derived from the Revised National Policy on Education (RNPE) and tried to address a greater part of concerns such as the one mentioned above. Bringing this knowledge-based education, with a foundational emphasis on a learner-centered and knowledge-sharing structure, could become our messiah in liberating the education system, as it is now an ongoing process that is being implemented. There is a great potential in yielding the best results, resource permitting.  It is through the availability of resources that m-learning stands to be our final resort.

In any educational system everywhere, there has to be an extensive overhaul in the early childhood learning in public schools, to enforce the introduction of smartphone learning. Currently, in some instances, even in our country, there is a burning desire to improve learning through the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) program in schools, and there is evidence of targeted computer learning at this level. However, a shift from computers of if not, the addition of smartphones or tablets in the learning process is necessary to induct the young minds into the full digital classroom. This could also be in line with the Government of Botswana’s Digital Transformation Strategy (SmartBots), which aims to transform Botswana into a knowledge-based economy through varied innovative approaches. All these resonate well with investing more in digital technologies (through mobile learning) for learners at a young age in our schools. Although this could be highly recommended, there are still some possible challenges associated with the move. For example, close monitoring is highly endorsed, especially with the times we live in where people can be easily scammed online, or maliciously attacked by ransomware, etc. Moreover, whenever these learning devices come into context, the joint monitoring also has to take effect from both the school and parents at home, to ensure that our children do not get access to harmful content online, especially explicit content that would victimize children under the legal age in any manner. At the moment, the U.S. tops the world with around 30% of the content categorized under child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The data released by Internet Watch Foundation in 2022 revealed that during the first phase of lockdowns immediately after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, there was an exponential increase in the distribution of such content online, mostly involving girls aged between 11 and 13 years. However, the possible theory behind this could also be that, from the beginning, the close monitoring of how children use mobile devices and their possible interaction with such materials online could have been overlooked, including the partnerships between parents and teachers. The ownership of smartphones by the younger generation cannot be ruled out as a contributory factor to the growing online distribution of the CSAM. Of course, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of them using smartphones for learning purposes, if properly monitored. By and large, this also goes to the design of mobile devices to be used for learning purposes to be customized in a way that senses any obscene material and it is possible in the era of machine learning or artificial intelligence. 

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