Reinventing South Asian Education in the (Post)-COVID Era

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Education in Crisis: Re-thinking Education in (Post)-Pandemic South Asia, Published by Education. South Asia, University of Oxford, 2021

The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest challenges the world is facing today, has affected every aspect of human endeavor and none more so than education. As South Asia, which has a sizeable population of school going children along with college/university going youths, is facing the devastating second wave of the pandemic, its education systems are likely to confront a crisis greater than ever before. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the poor quality of education in this region, as reflected in low learning levels, has trapped many of its young people in poverty. Moreover, South Asia has the highest youth population (30 per cent) not in any form of education, employment or training in the world. According to UNICEF, millions of children in South Asia complete primary education without mastering the foundational skills of basic numeracy and literacy, let alone the 21st-century skills, required for meaningful employment, personal well-being and active participation in society.

The ‘Education.SouthAsia’ is a very timely initiative (based at the South Asian Studies Programme of Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford) that aims to bring together academic and non-academic perspectives on education in South Asia. Recently, the initiative organized an online conference titled 'Education in Crisis: Rethinking Education in (Post)-Pandemic South Asia’, held on 23-24 July 2021. This two-day virtual conference attempted to explore a simple, and yet crucial question of our times – in what ways do we need to re-think education in South Asia? The publication – Education South.Asia Conference Report – presents a comprehensive summary of the research paper presentations and round tables discussion in the conference. As the pandemic COVID-19 has exposed existing economic, social and political fault lines as well as the enduring societal inequalities in South Asia, it argues, the recovery and rebuilding of the education in this region will require ‘Rethinking Education’, in terms of its contents, methods, and governance.

The conference takes the (post)-pandemic context of South Asia both as a lens to understand this crisis and a site to explore the contemporary challenges in education. Throughout 4 round tables and 32 research presentations across 8 paper panels, academics, researchers and practitioners attempt to find out the answers of the some crucial questions: What are the political and economic fissures that have emerged as a result of the pandemic? Has the situation led to innovation in technology and created positive changes in the system? What is the long-term impact of a crisis of this scale, and is this a critical inflection point that will determine the future direction of education? How has South Asia in particular reacted to the challenges posed by this ongoing adversity?

The first roundtable of the conference, titled ‘Re-thinking research in education’, brings together distinguished scholars on education from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to explore the challenges and opportunities for research in education. The roundtable discussion focuses on the ways in which COVID19 has posed new challenges and exacerbated the existing issues in education in South Asia. The panelists put emphasis on the importance of rethinking both the ways in which we approach knowledge production in education and the methodologies through which the knowledge is produced. Given the new and changing context within which education is being delivered and experienced, they argue, we need new ways to understand the meanings of education and its impact on people’s lives.

The second roundtable highlights the lessons learnt for education policy and calls for collaborative work during the pandemic. The panelists draw attention to the increasing number of out-of-school children in South Asian countries and the move to online teaching-learning, in order to understand the pedagogical challenges as well as the issue of education governance.

In roundtable - 3 titled ‘Rethinking education practice’, practitioners from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan bring  their diverse experiences and discuss the lessons learned and best practices in South Asian education during the pandemic COVID-19. They mainly focus on how the pandemic altered the direction and approach to education practice across the region, and the future of education in South Asia. It is also discussed that in the future, the word ‘online’ will have to be dropped from ‘online education’. Virtual learning is the future of education and needs to be seen as any other kind of education, just through a different platform. The fourth roundtable investigates how existing gender disparities have exacerbated during the pandemic, specifically with relation to the education of women in South Asia. While the digital divide exists across genders, it is more pronounced in the case of women who don’t have access to technology in a household, where men’s work and education is prioritized over that of women. The session ends with a discussion on alternate forms (i.e. hybrid model) of education in the pandemic, and how particular mental health issues faced by women during the pandemic can be addressed in educational ecosystems.

In the first panel of research presentations session, four papers are presented that  reflect on the ideas of learning in ‘shared space’, ‘working from home’, assumed ‘safeness’ at home, and negotiating space for online/offline learning. Together all four papers bring together various perspectives on the politics of space and its impact on educational experiences. The second panel brings together papers by scholars who explore the impact of the pandemic in conflict-affected regions such as Kashmir and the North East of India, as well as amongst a refugee community in Bangladesh. The papers address the failure of the state to deal with these crises adequately and propose solutions to overcome these challenges in the future. The third panel has a set of 4 paper presentations on the theme of ‘Teaching and Learning’ which reflects on the issues of deficit perspective of learning, re-thinking temporality in pedagogical practice, the importance of information sharing and strategic action in learning outcomes and teacher training for inclusive education.

The papers presented in the panel-4, attempt to address the issues of digital divide in detail, exploring terms such as ‘digital elite’, ‘digital poverty’, ‘hyper digitization’ and ‘techno-subsystems’. There is a stress on blended modes of teaching-learning and free online access of education as the way forward, and a proposal for South Asian nations to come together and solve issues in the education sector through a partially uniform curriculum catering to the needs of South Asian students. The fifth panel of the conference presentation is on the theme of ‘Private and Non-State Schools’ that reflects on the issue of tutoring, challenges in private education, problems faced by teachers in private schools, and the issues in incorporating virtual learning in traditional schools. The papers presented in the sixth panel explore the virtual learning initiatives in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and acknowledge the pandemic as a historic crossroad that looks on an uncertain future.

The seventh panel of the research presentations is on the theme ‘Gender’ that shares insightful reflections on the gendered experiences of female university teachers, experiences with reconciling care-work at home with online teaching, spaces of inclusion for female indigenous students and the importance of diverse contexts for learning outcomes. The 3 papers presented in the eighth panel employ various forms of research methodologies to study the impact of pandemic on the education sector in South Asia. This session includes a study of the spatial experience of online learning, students’ shift in perceptions of online learning, the integration of art in STEM research, and the role of outdoor learning during the pandemic. The conference concludes with contemporary slam poetry and rap performances by young poets from South Asia reflecting on their experiences related to education.

The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail: smrayhanulislam@hotmail.com

  • Published by Education. South Asia, University of Oxford, 2021
  • Re-thinking Education in (Post)-Pandemic South Asia
  • Education in Crisis
  • Pandemic
  • Covid-19

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