Carlos Rojas: Before we proceed with our talk, has the Covid-19 crisis affected you personally so far?
Griet Samyn: I was lucky, I had just arrived back in my native country when the pandemic struck and was forced to undergo the period of quarantine and social distancing in a region with a good social health system. Many people and friends are not so lucky and I sympathize with their hardships. On a professional level, I could also continue my daily activities, although of course I had to temporarily halt my life as a digital nomad.
As to e-learning, the amount of assignments and activities did not increase right away but the prospect of more to come was there from the start. A friend wrote pointedly: “You are engaged in a strategic sector”. Several of my acquaintances are teachers at different levels of the educational system, and they were forced, for the first time in their life, to apply e-learning tools. They came to acknowledge the kind of work we are actually doing. We decided to not actually scout for more opportunities but continue delivering good quality education for our current clients and partners.
Griet Samyn: What about you?
Carlos Rojas: Same as you, when the pandemic struck I was forced to undergo the period of quarantine in my country. My work as a marine biologist has a strong ‘presential’ or face-to-face component because I deliver training directly to fishermen and farmers. Due to Covid-19, I have started to explore online courses. For the moment only basic introductory online courses are a possibility. The transference of real farming knowledge can only be done outdoors, face to face, and with our bare hands. The forced application of e-learning tools by traditional teachers involved in distance education was a concern detected in our study on ‘The Tutoring Influences in Distance Education at El Oro Province Ecuador’. We noticed that pedagogical expertise was not a guarantee for a good distance tutor. The learners made subjective judgments with preferences of social skills over teaching expertise, so, boring tutors were disqualified.
Griet Samyn: When you talk in your article about ‘distance learning’, do you mean education through the internet, or do you also refer to previous methods of distance education (paper-based, television…)?
Carlos Rojas: In Ecuador and Mexico, distance learning is poorly structured, without transparent plans, just as a copy-paste of international tendencies. Therefore, the global ICT corporations pose a threat to the delivery of quality e-learning solutions in these countries, more than in others. At the same time, they challenge a country to retain enough sovereignty over their educational resources. To confront this threat and avoid inferences and corporate vigilance, distance education models must isolate themselves from the global influence and operate only locally, through a totally independent portable OS that could offer alternative educational software and work in any computer from a portable memory without the need to be online.
Distance education by open television broadcasting has been used in Mexico for decades, and it seems that the Mexican education plan will be based on television. This is just a pragmatic solution due to the lack of ICT infrastructure and software platforms, but most importantly, the highly expensive internet with poor performance. Right now, television could be good enough to deliver basic education but higher education is another story.
2.1. Society and government
Carlos Rojas: Does e-learning lead to democratization of education?
Griet Samyn: I agree that e-learning is no automatic path towards democratization of education and the need for equipment poses many challenges. This goes from basic infrastructure such as electricity to internet or data connections, and electronic devices. Democratization is a political decision, it does not depend on the tools being used.
Carlos Rojas: Good example. The distance education model most likely has not been properly implanted in some countries, while in other countries generic models were applied correctly. (I am thinking now of the National Institute of education in Singapore).
Key aspects for ICT integration for a distance education model in an emerging country might be the desire to consider socio-economic aspects and pedagogical ones. However, right now the wiser approach is to shield the naive e-learning models against the corporate ICT. That means a focus to avoid to any cost the delivery of educative contents into the WWW, but instead create local intranets for official distance education, and the most urgent task, to create their own e-learning platforms. If the dependence of millions of users on Google, Microsoft, and 5G does not change, the distance education fate is condemned.
Carlos Rojas: What is your experience with the digital divide in Africa?
Griet samyn: Well, the digital divide is there, of course, no denying that. There are fewer households who own electronic devices, and if there is internet, it is expensive and bandwidth is poor. On the other hand, the digital divide is not this one big ravine that is impossible to cross on an individual level, as was the case with other material divides in the past (such as industrial output). It exists of many different disparities that are always in movement. That is why, in general, there is also a solution to be found. We have been setting up e-learning courses for African adult learners since 2007, and until now, really very few of the learners dropped out due to material challenges. There is always a place, a moment, or a device that can be shared, and with the help of a family member or a colleague, course content can be accessed and progress can be made. Of course, we are talking here about motivated adult learners who are actively interested in obtaining a certificate in their professional field. It is a different situation compared to the Covid-19 forced homeschooling by e-learning on primary or secondary level in many countries. Or to the education by television chosen by the Mexican government. I have my doubts here. I think that this solution promises little for the future of education in the country, and testifies of little creativity. But even where the choice for e-learning is made, it is often done hurriedly and without a broader plan.
Another thought on the digital divide: too often one talks about places and things as if they are monolithic blocs (“Latin America”, “Africa”, “digital divide”, “electronic solutions”) while the differences are often more interesting and telling. For example, in many countries in East-Africa, mobile money is a lot more developed than in Europe; people switch easily to smart phones and use their features more creatively and extensively.
In short, the digital divide is not this one path with a canyon that can only be bridged by one contraption.
Carlos Rojas: What will be your advice for building an efficient democratic digital education?
Griet Samyn: I would split up this question, and ask what is needed to build a democratic education first, and then digital education can be set up to assist this and make it efficient. For democratic education, there is a need for a long-term political project sustained by enough sectors of society, and enough financial means to implement. In my feeling as a political outsider, very few countries think any longer about their educational systems as one of the fundamental pillars of their own society, something that they own and can strengthen; there is little vision as to what they want. If there are international comparisons and they score badly or worse than before, they short-time panic and look for quick flashy solutions – which nowadays come in the guise of digital learning. They spend a lot, and later conclude ‘we tried, but it didn’t work’.
Now, this does not mean that digital learning is necessarily inefficient or undemocratic. But it can only work towards set goals if these goals have been clearly framed and are part of a long-term educational policy.
Carlos Rojas: What risks does the Covid-19 pandemic pose in regard to e-learning and the privatization of learning?
Griet Samyn: Governments feel the need to do something, to add decisively, to show that they are strong and working towards solutions. This is risky, because difficult periods are not the best times to implement sustainable changes. The new measures are taken too hurriedly and are often too costly. Big companies wanting to sell their products, take advantage of this. They juggle with big words and statistics, and lure decision-makers into contracts that are not to their advantage nor to the advantage of the students.
Privatization is another risky business where politicians simply want to get rid of their responsibilities in education and collect money in the process. It is a very short-term gamble that can have very nefarious results for their countries. This does not mean that I am against all private initiatives in education. I do think that they are a guarantee of innovation and diversification. But they should exist next to a well-funded, well-governed public educational system which aspires towards equity for all. It is interesting to read that there are talks of renewed ‘nationalization’ in some sectors of society as a result of the Covid-19 responses. But I have little idea what is happening in countries where private education has gained a foothold. Are these private enterprises receiving money from the government to cover their losses? If so, what does this mean in the longer term as to ownership and policy?
Carlos Rojas: Is cybersecurity overestimated, or is it an intrinsic aspect of digital culture?
Griet Samyn: In my opinion, cybersecurity cannot be overrated, it is hugely important for the digital world as a whole, and for digital education. On the other hand, we should not address it by a reaction of retreat and entrenchment in old learning cultures. The dangers will never disappear but they can be met with a number of measures, and regulation is a forceful first step. Let us not talk here about cybercrime, but about the threat of data theft and misuse for commercial purposes. You have probably heard of the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation implemented by the European Commission in 2018. It is a European law with global implications, as it protects the data privacy of European citizens on all sites that store and use digital data even outside the continent. The fines are huge and the reasoning behind the regulation is a total overturn of the practices that governed the digital culture to that moment: from 2018 all digital data belong to the users, not to the companies or organizations that offer the software.
The educational open-source software Moodle that we use in our organization, addressed the consequences of this regulation straight on, adding code, changing the software, and making it easy for the data protection officer (a GDPR imposed newly created position) to act as a protector of the data privacy of the learners and teachers. Since 2018, the state of California has come up with an even stringier data protection regulation, and Brazil is following suit with a data protection act that will be enforced in 2021, later than originally scheduled due to the pandemic.
Carlos Rojas: So you think that regulation and supervision of digital learning is possible?
Griet Samyn: Yes, there is still much to do and it will not be easy. On the one hand, there is a need for political effort and will to collaborate on an international level as digitalization is by its nature hard to contain inside physical borders. On the other hand, each country or region has to set its own long-term educational policy and objectives and put the well-being, development and safety of its own children and citizens first.
Carlos Rojas: As long as the digital culture and literacy among parents and students this issue will disappear. Self-regulation and self-supervision meaning civic and ethical conducts will prevail.
2.2. Pupils, students, learners
Carlos Rojas: Do you consider e-learning suited for all levels, all students?
Griet Samyn: If I am correct, Carlos, you have been mostly engaged in the education of students of the primary and college level. For the last ten years, our participants have basically been working professionals in the public health sector in Africa. In-service training is an urgent need in many countries and professional domains. It forms part of the continuous professional education that is talked about a lot, and is seen as an essential component of learning for the future. Here, it is its flexibility in place and time that makes e-learning a good tool to use.
As for these courses on the health supply chain, our completion statistics are excellent, with more than 90% of participants meeting the requirements for certification. Of course, we work for an NGO and not an accredited educational institution. Our main objective and role is to guarantee that everybody learns something that is, or will be, useful in their lives, be it professional or personal. All participants of our online courses also become alumni and do continue to have continuous access to the content and to the means of communication on the course. This way we are trying to build a community of practice and learning where professionals can vent their worries and questions, and interact with colleagues and experts elsewhere.
Carlos Rojas. Another readily adopted myth of e-learning is that it will change the approach from a monolithic ‘one for all’ highway towards many individualized learning paths. Do you agree with that?
Griet Samyn: Yes, I am convinced that e-learning not only allows for individualized learning paths, it will also require them if we want to implement general, quality-assured online learning.
As I have explained, the main experience of many teachers with whom I talked during the Covid-19 crisis, was basically one of surprise: “hey, yes, it works!” They were able to give an explanation through videoconferencing to a group of pupils, they could send out a test and receive the answers online. They could even ‘control’ the process while observing them filling in the questions. But this was all done rather haphazardly and the organization of these activities placed too much burden on the parents or adults at home.
If you want to use e-learning as a systematic learning tool, you will depend on the self-discipline of the students. And this is a huge challenge. Many youths find it already boring to sit eight hours in a classroom doing what a teacher tells them to do. Exponentially how much more boring is it to sit at home, alone before a screen, doing what a teacher tells them to do?
That is why there is a need for personalized learning paths. We all have activities that we like to do and we feel rewarded when we are doing them. If asked by a teacher “What do you want to learn this week?” most of us will come up with an answer. Some will be overambitious, others under-ambitious, but that is not the point. A first main challenge is to turn this aim into a systematic learning process with a method of evaluation. The other main challenge is to find convergences between the individual learning goals and the objective criteria that are required to pass certain exams.
Another essential requirement for successful online learning is giving the learner confidence in his or her own abilities. Not so long ago, I perused an article on e-learning that had as a subtitle ‘Do not make me think!”. This made me think as this is indeed a recognizable reaction in many people when set before a difficult task. In my opinion, the ‘Do not make me think!” expresses not so much laziness, as fear of failure. What if I put in effort, and I still do not understand and come up with the wrong answer? That is why online content should always start with an activity that is easy and attainable, and only engage the learner to ‘think’ when this no longer seems like a big effort. Also, a wrong result should not be felt as a personal failure, but more of a surprise. Hey, what am I still not understanding? Who can explain me better?
Good teachers have been doing this before, of course. Online learning gives the opportunity to build this into the structure.
2.3. Teachers, parents, tutors
Carlos Rojas: Is there a future for our teachers?
Griet Samyn: There is no doubt in my mind that the job of a teacher is not at risk. On the contrary, there will be more learning going on as ever, and teachers’ jobs will be more focused and more flexible at the same time.
First of all, classroom teaching or face-to-face teaching will not disappear. I told you earlier that I received many comments with a note of surprise from teachers during the Covid-19 crisis. I was in my home country at the time, but even in Belgium where most households do have enough infrastructure and financial resources to set up online homeschooling, there was a considerable margin of pupils who dropped out (mostly in the bigger cities). Or better, they just didn’t appear online and teachers were not able to locate them, nor their parents. These were, not so surprisingly, mostly students from the lower percentile of the academic success curve. The Belgian state took the step to set up special summer classes for these pupils. This seemed to me an excellent idea. The classes were set up less rigorously, for smaller groups, with pupils receiving more personalized attention from the teachers and their volunteer assistants. I am sure that at least for some of them, this was an eye-opener, an experience that will make them reconsider their attitudes towards school and learning.
In addition, once an e-learning system is set up and operational, it can free up time for teachers which, ideally, can be spent with those students who need them most. An easy example here is the time saved up when it is not the teacher but the system that grades mathematical tests. Compare the time saved when doing this manually for 40 pupils, with online software performing this same task instantly. It is also this immediate and objective score that offers scope for positive feedback. The grade is no longer personal, it is no longer an element of power between a student and a teacher.
Furthermore, the role of the teachers will become less monolithic. This is something else as saying that there is no future for them. On the contrary, e-learning will require more teachers doing more different things; preferably, doing what they are best at.
Compared with the past learning environments, e-learning is the first environment that offers a systematic tool for social collaboration between educators. Quality education online requires this social collaboration. Here is a quick break-up of the roles of teachers: 1) Those who continue implementing face-to-face teaching, probably to smaller and more targeted groups (underperformers, over performers …). 2) The content creators, who use their educational and ICT skills to create new online activities and content. With e-learning this becomes a continuous process compared to text-book methods. 3) The tutors or facilitators who accompany the learners during the implementation of online teaching sessions. 4) The educators who do learning analytics, analyzing the activity and responses of the students to improve the activities and ensure feedback is given that helps them forward.
This does not mean that all is rosy in the future for teachers. A lot is expected of them and they will have to manage a lot of change. Compared with previous learning environments, their performance will be a lot more scrutinized by colleagues, students, and authorities. The power they had as educators with their pupils will also diminish, there will definitely be a tendency towards democratization. And lastly, the physical requirements of the job will be different. With e-learning, teaching becomes more of an office job, with many hours behind the computer screen and thus more vulnerable to the typical ailments of office staff (pain of the back and the wrist join, deteriorating eyesight).
Carlos Rojas: The forced implementation of distance education during the quarantine will end someday, most likely in a couple of years when everybody gets vaccinated to speed up the acquisition of the global community immunity against Covid-19. Certainly, e-learning will gain terrain into the education model of each country. However, there are still a lot of skills and practical knowledge that can only be taught to face-face. It will be very interesting to see how the “academia” will be adapted or replaced.
Carlos Rojas: The utmost life principle of life is to adapt or to die. What do you recommend to face-to-face teachers?
Griet Samyn: Well, I must admit this sounds a bit dramatic, it would be a good title for a Mexican telenovela. Luckily, daily life of most humans does translate this credo into more digestible choices and activities. As I told before, I do not fear for the jobs of face-to-face teachers, but yes, there will be many changes. The worst for them that can happen is that these changes go accompanied with a threat to their job and pension security. When people are worried about their income, they are not in a mindset for change. I do not know a lot about the Mexican situation at the current moment, but from the little I read, I got the feeling that this is unfortunately the case. So in my opinion, it is a bad idea to privatize and even worse to let this privatization go hand in hand with new requirements and expectations towards teaching.
Also, with e-learning there is a loss of power for the teacher position and an intrinsic democratization of the environment. But loss of power, should not mean loss of respect. On the contrary, the less objective power there is, the more each other needs and deserves respect.
Thus, my recommendation for face-to-face teachers? Make a distinction between your economic situation and the evolution towards digital teaching. Both are not necessarily linked. You can fight for job security and still try to be flexible and slowly adapt to some of the changes that are part of this new e-learning approach. Respect yourself, focus on what you are good at in teaching, and then look for what you could learn or use with the new approach.
Carlos Rojas: Do you consider we are witnessing the end of the old pedagogy due to edtech?
Griet Samyn: No, very few things in society totally end, or totally start from zero. There is evolution, no doubt, and sometimes the curve is steep. But many elements of the old pedagogy have proven their worth during centuries, and will still be around in the future where perhaps even e-learning will become obsolete.
Carlos Rojas: You have talked about the tutor. Is it an essential role in e-learning?
Griet Samyn: Tutoring or ‘facilitating’ is indeed essential. You cannot build on intrinsic motivation alone. Every learner needs to know that somebody follows his or her progress. Good feedback, at the right time, targeted towards a good aim, is key. Cognitive independence helps, but should not be a requirement. So yes, the problem of the high withdrawal percentages can be solved by good e-tutoring.
Carlos Rojas: And what about the parents? What sort of basic learning path for parents are required?
Griet Samyn: You talk correctly about a ‘learning path’ for parents too. During this sudden and premature surge of e-learning due to the Covid-19 crisis, the challenges have been huge for parents. Not only were the parents forced to switch from the work floor or office to the home without notice, they were expected to spend the time at home uninterruptedly with their children plus assist them with their school work and academic assignments. It is not hard to imagine how impossibly demanding this was and is. Luckily, some governments and employers made special arrangements for parents of young children. Now, as to e-learning and homeschooling, my recommendation for parents would be to each week set a learning objective for themselves, and share this with them children. Learning about learning. This could be a way to offer examples and collaborate with the children.
Carlos Rojas: An idiosyncrasy rooted deep in Mexican society is the tendency to laugh and cheat about everything, but the Covid-19 crisis has shocked people to respect online education. The Mexican government has decided to adopt a massive TV education model using sports stars as educator actors. How that could happen is bizarre, and most likely a result of a lazy Ministry of Education. I believe this is totally wrong, because the inspiring role of big scientists and intellectuals is infamously neglected in education by TV. However, the youth is not stupid; sooner or later they will identify the historical geniuses that will inspire their careers. Everybody must keep deep in mind that there is not an easy way to obtain success in life. Remember that personal computers and internet service dependencies were created by a bunch of college deserters that found an easy way to make money. The truth is that our planet needs true scientists, humanistics, and engineers to overcome future problems and preserve human existence on earth.
Carlos Rojas: Tutor empathy is important, but what do you think about using sports stars as educator actors? Is this correct?
Griet Samyn: It is hard to tell. Are these famous people the only ‘educators’ who appear on television? Or are they considered as extras to enliven the materials? In my view, there are no truly correct or incorrect teaching methods as long as one method is not overpowering and monolithic. I agree with you that children are clever enough to see the difference between knowledgeable teachers and those who just play the role. And yes, children and young people need role models, teachers who motivate them and broaden their world. And these do not have to be geniuses, just good educators.