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Here's a closer look at the abrupt transition which is currently overwhelming students and faculty around the world

COVID-19 has compelled a shift in education but has that solved the problem of access or exposed new ones?

May 19, 2020

By Skendha Singh


In this article for BrainGain Magazine, Professor Charles Pascal discusses online learning for schools and universities. He noted to OISE News that "any extension of on-line learning in Ontario must begin with support for teachers and professors, local educational leaders, students and experts to build capacity to do this well. Top down pressure from government needs to be replaced by careful implementation planning that thoroughly involves our excellent educators who are at the front line of delivery."

COVID-19 has forced many institutions and individuals to leap headlong into online/remote learning. According to the World Economic Forum, over 1.2 billion children are out of schools globally. While in countries like Norway and Denmark, 95% students have access to a computer, only 34% do in Indonesia, as per the OECD’s PISA report (2018).

Neither is this an East versus West divide. IT inequalities are rampant even in countries like the US where 25% 15- year olds from disadvantaged families do not have access to a computer (World Economic Forum).

To take a closer look at this forced shift, challenges along the way, and understand how we can continue to optimise education in these times, BrainGain Magazine spoke to Charles Pascal, Professor of Human Development and Applied Psychology at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. 

Photo of Professor Charles Pascal

Professor Charles Pascal, an internationally respected human development expert, teaches applied psychology and education at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education


1. A decade ago, we believed the digital medium to be the great equalizer. Now, we are starting to confront again the truth of its inherent inequalities in terms of the digital divide. How do you define the concept?

The “divide” normally refers to income disparity regarding who has access to quality digital devices and internet and who does not.  As well, there is a capacity gap even among the “haves” regarding the ability to properly use the digital world regarding the knowledge and skills necessary to separate good information from bad.

2. What are the top 3 challenges confronting us as we switch to online/remote learning models?

Because of the remote/distance learning required as a result of Covid 19, the digital divide has become clearer. As schools and post-secondary institutions move forward, there is no doubt that there will be a need for more remote learning. The problems include the need to totally close the gap regarding access to quality devices and internet; the need to ensure that the quality of the pedagogy is high. Educators at all levels need to understand that digital learning requires a totally new skill set to ensure this quality. This will take time for re-tooling and educators [will need to be] willing to learn how to do new things. It will also take time for all learners to feel comfortable and effective. Learners vary widely regarding their ability and inclination to work independently. Ensuring there are built in expectations about when to do what with whom regarding learning activities, will be key.

3. Are we wired to engage better in real life settings such as classrooms or study groups? If yes, how can online/remote models hope to cope?

I have been leading a doctoral program for a number of years. Once students get to know each other through initial face to face experiences, the use of webinars and new technologies can bring students together from far away into an intimate experience. Small group work, problem-solving learning can all be enabled through digital pedagogy. This brings us back to why teachers at all levels will need to learn new ways of ensuring high levels of interactive learning, availability of continuous feedback both to the students and the educators about the progress of each student, and how the educators use student performance to improve their teaching to ensure shared success.

4. In terms of pros and cons – how would you assess online/remote learning?

First, I prefer distance or remote learning to ensure that the learning can be enabled by more than digital processes and can include self-instructional modules, group problem-solving kits and the like.

In 1988, Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff wrote In the Age of the Smart Machine. Way back then, she warned that if the new technologies were simply layered on to systems that were already ineffective, the new technologies would have no positive effect. The best early example was the use of instructional television that allowed a bad lecturer to lecture to more people at the same time. The lecture itself, is a very ineffective teaching method to begin with. ] Dr. Zuboff argued that for “smart machines” to make a difference the underlying assumptions about quality learning need to be changed.

It is a question of how well the individual differences of learners are understood and their capacity is developed accordingly and how well educators learn how to use remote learning tools effectively.

Multiple approaches or a “blended” approach will likely be part of students’ learning experiences going forward.  Again, what is required is thoughtful systems design that takes into consideration the individual differences of students and what approaches are best for different types and levels of learning outcomes.

5. There is speculation that faculty will probably find it harder to switch to online than the students who are digital natives. Would you like to comment on that?

I agree that faculty need to be re-trained on how to properly use remote/distance learning approaches. But remember, not all students are equal regarding being effective “digital natives.”

6. How can we teach ourselves to be mentally agile?

Start with a pre-school approach that is a play-based, curiosity driven, problem-solving approach and reinforce this throughout formal schooling.  In Ontario, we have such an approach in pre-school and it has shown tremendous results as students enter grade one. But the gains need to be reinforced throughout the education continuum. Too many “drill and kill” approaches remain in which a central core of knowledge is transmitted to students without regard to their own intrinsic interests, prior knowledge and without enough active and interactive opportunities to learn through creative problem-solving.

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