COVID-19: A Gap in Learning?

Ajmain Zahin | 31 January 2023
No image

As we near the one-year mark since most schools resumed in-person classes, it might be worth examining the effects that Covid has had on education. When the first cases of Covid were seen, it did not take long for governments to take action and close educational institutions in order to control the spread of the disease and protect students. These closures, intended for a short period of time, would end up getting extended for numerous months and any attempt at proper reopening would get hampered by announcements of new closures due to rising cases. As such, learning would not resume as normal for almost a 2-year time span from around March of 2020 to February of 2022, with around 37 million children suffering in Bangladesh and over 600 million students suffering worldwide according to a report from UNICEF titled ‘Situation Analysis on the Effects and Responses to COVID-19 on the Education Sector in Asia’ published on 19th October, 2021.

The Online Alternative

When it became apparent that classes would not resume physically for a long time, many schools and universities, mainly private ones, resorted to taking online classes. Teachers would essentially conduct their classes on apps like Zoom and Google Meet which students would join using their laptops or phones. 

This allowed students to do classes from anywhere and the use of apps and devices in some ways helped the process of learning as well. For example, teachers could prepare slides and upload materials on software like Google Classroom, whereas students could use note taking apps on their devices to note down points easily. While the use of devices and apps is common in Western schools already, online classes introduced these methods and its benefits to schools of other nations like Bangladesh. 

Despite this however, most students still preferred in-person classes with many stating it was difficult to grasp important concepts over the screen. The inability of teachers to also properly monitor the class meant that many students were inattentive as well making the classes a waste. Internet problems would often hamper the classes themselves as both students and teachers would get disconnected and be unable to join class. Having to stare at a screen for so long would also mean many students would get headaches or have their eyes start to hurt halfway through their school day. It was clear that while the online alternative was necessary for the time being, it was not a perfect replacement for the physical classes being missed.

Digital divide

Unfortunately, students in many schools and universities (mainly in public schools in rural areas) did not even have the option to resume classes online. Some educational institutions which did offer classes online could not carry on these classes regularly leaving its students with insufficient support to continue their learning. Poor network infrastructure in many areas meant classes could not be taken and even if they were, students who did not have Wi-Fi to connect to these classes were left to fend for themselves. A survey conducted by BRAC over 4-7th May of 2020 indicated that over half the students in Bangladesh did not participate in online classes, mainly due to logistical problems like electricity, internet, etc. Thus, these students essentially experienced a 2-year gap in their education.

Improper Examinations

A major talking point during this time involved how to conduct examinations during the pandemic period. Some exams were taken online and then grades were predicted as in the O-Levels and A-levels. What this meant was that exams were taken over the internet by teachers who then gave exam boards what they thought the individual students would get if they sat the actual exams. This lead to grades being inflated to the point where the proportion getting  A* and A grades rose by 75% in the UK from normal exams in 2019. Similar inflation was seen in the ACTs. In some cases, any form of examination was completely scrapped such as the 2020 HSC exams and students were given what many considered a ‘free pass’. This now poses a problem for exam boards and governments worldwide as they attempt to return things to pre-pandemic levels without changing things too fast and making it unfair on future examinees.

Long term Effects

While the shift back to normal is already underway, the lasting effects of the pandemic can still be felt. The disruption to studies for students worldwide for such a long period of time has made it difficult for them to now keep up with their syllabus material. The 2020 BRAC survey showed that around 13% of students felt they had become unfocused and lazy during Covid which is causing them to struggle in class currently. On top of this, many had faced different sorts of mental health problems like anxiety, stress and depression over the last 2 years which has severely harmed their mental growth. Students who completely missed education over the last 2 years have now fallen behind others, especially University students who are experiencing a delay to their entry into the workforce. Those who overachieved during inflated grading are now struggling to cope with higher level studies and may need to take extra courses to keep up. All in all, the effects of Covid are still being felt and will take some time to fully recover from. 

Another question involves the future of online learning. While it has potential, its current lacking does not make it fully viable as a replacement to normal classes. On top of this, the role of a school in providing a place for children to socialise and participate in sports and other activities is often ignored. School lunches in rural areas are often a very important meal for kids in poorer families as well. These are things which long distance learning is unable to replicate. However, the addition of apps and devices to physical classes is an option schools could take, similar to those in Western nations. They may serve as a way of making studying more efficient and engaging. Nevertheless, only time will tell how educational institutions respond all around the globe as education attempts to return to as it was before while also continuing to evolve. 

Ajmain Zahin, Junior Intern, Centre for Governance Studies. 

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.