Sunday 25 October, 2020

Digital learning, SEA and special needs tops Minister's focus

There is no doubt that post-COVID the education system cannot return to its old way of functioning.

The pandemic and the necessary lockdown measures implemented to curb its spread has forced the system to fast-track its path to digital learning as households and educators have had to adapt to a virtual classroom education.

With almost every household now armed with a digital learning device, the Ministry of Education has to centre its plans for the sector around the digital age.

Leading this charge is education minister Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, who was appointed to lead the Ministry of Education with junior minister Lisa Morris at her side.

This is Gadsby-Dolly’s first stint as MoE, thrust into the depths of a sector at the beginning of a new school year fraught with many challenges for parents and teacher alike.

As she navigates the challenges this new term has brought, Gadsby-Dolly is also keeping her eye on the road ahead.

She is hopeful that physical classes could resume in January, and if that is the case, she foresees it may be in a hybrid operation with physical classes combined with virtual learning.

“Face to face in January may have to be done with social distancing as we may not be able to put all children back in school. We have to plan for it and we have to continue the thrust into planning for the digital age,” she told Loop News.

Noting that e-learning is among the discussions the MoE is having with stakeholders, she added: “People have made significant investment in devices, companies in donations, so the use of devices has to be the standard of what will be the education system going forward.”

Among the issues to be considered for the Ministry is a standard, central platform for the education system and the implementation of policies to guide online learning.

Nyan-Gadsby said the Ministry had a learning management system built in-house that was used as a resource when the country first went into lockdown in March and teachers used other platforms to complement their delivery.

“We were in the situation where we expecting to come back face to face and then we were told we have to go online so people continued with whatever they used. If there were a fully built out learning management system it would record attendance, what they learnt, teaching curricula and so on. That digital solution is what we want to move towards but we are not there yet. That is where we would want to get to,” she said.

The integration of technology into the education system was among the many recommendations of the report emanating from a nationwide consultation on education which the last Minister of Education Anthony Garcia undertook in his first year of office.

Also in that report, which Nyan-Gadsby is utilising as a guide with targeted consultations and conversations planned, is the thorny issue of the Secondary Assessment Examination (SEA).

The SEA, she revealed, was among the top items on the report but surprisingly, the results of the consultation on the exam did not yield what seems to be the prevailing opinion that the exam should be eliminated.

“Coming out of that consultation there wasn’t the consensus to get rid of SEA, it wasn’t the majority opinion. I think what is the conversation is the mental trauma and the inequity of the schools where people can be placed. With the streamlining of society coming from this one exam, what needs to be dealt with is the trauma and the perception that an excellent education cannot be found in every school,” she explained.

“Not passing for a certain school does not relegate you to the bottom of society so it really means schools has to be of a particular standard and people need to feel they are going to a school and they are not at the bottom. It is a societal issue, it is very deep, and it speaks a lot to the status quo. It is extremely complex and any attempt to change it really has to be multipronged, it is not as simple as saying you want the SEA to go.”

Another area the report speaks to is that of children with special needs.

Gadsby-Dolly has shown that she is determined to create an environment that works in favour of special needs children by featuring autistic teen Rowan Bartholomew on the first episode of the MoE  Conversations.

“Having a child with special needs on first is an indication that we need to speak to children with special needs first…this is a target audience that needs our express attention. We need to deal with the awareness and with those outside of regular school system who can’t afford to attend private special school, the issue of aides, the number of children waiting on aides and make headway for those in the backlog. We are putting a focus on dealing with this vulnerable group,” she said.

Speaking on support for children with special needs who are high-functioning but struggling with teachers who do not recognise their particular issues, Gadsby-Dolly said that is where aides come in as they can interface between the children and the teachers 

She said: “There are teachers who are trained in special needs and that also has to be rationalised, and all of this is bearing in mind our financial situation as well but where critical hires are necessary we have to engage that.”


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