On Brick-and-Mortar and Virtual Spaces of Learning: Pedagogy, Exigencies of COVID-19 and Equality of Educational Opportunity
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the whole world for several months. Even in countries that have successfully brought it under control, there is still concern that unless strict measures are observed, it can make another wave of devastating reoccurrence. In the United States, Brazil, India, and many countries across the African continent, there is no indication that it is abating. Amidst the ongoing havoc and uncertainty, there have been raging debates about many existential issues and one of them has been the education of the youth. Various governments have cautiously, sometimes with creative means, reopened schools or are still engaged in the debates as to whether they should resume classes at the elementary/primary and secondary school (K-12 in the United States) levels. The discussions about institutions of higher learning have variations and similarities compared to aforementioned levels and by regions. Various stakeholders, primarily political leadership, education authorities and administrators, teachers individually and through their professional associations, parents in their diverse social categorizations, are advancing convergent but also sharply divergent arguments. Higher education and younger students through social media, are creating spaces where their voices can be heard after the abrupt interruption of the 2019/2020 academic year and planning for the immediate moment and the long term. All agree that learning is a right for the youth and institutional spaces should be provided for learning. Securing safety is the responsibility of families, teachers, and political and administrative authorities. The disagreements arise, whether it should be a return to the traditional brick-and-mortar mode, via distance learning or a hybrid mode.
Before attempting to appropriately assess the educational and broader societal challenges posed by COVID-19 and reflect on the future, it is important to provide a broader background in order to appreciate the processes and antecedents. Thus, some aspects of the nature of pedagogy, the meaning of the learning space and the introduction of technology are referred to in historical perspectives.
For decades, I have been working on several papers, contributing to conference presentations and a book project that pertain to the increasing prevalence of information and communication technologies in teaching, learning, and knowledge production, circulation and access . In the past few decades, I have taught courses on distance learning and higher education especially in developing countries. I was interested in how technology is engaged in the educational sphere as an almost inevitable phenomenon and at the same time called for the need to apply critical perspectives on the impacts of ICT. Based on my interests, I made a presentation “Cyberspace and Learning Space: Re-conceptualizing the Academic Community in the Context of Mega Universities”.  I was then working on my edited book Cyberspace, Distance Learning, and Higher Education in Developing Countries: Old and Emergent Issues of Access, Pedagogy and Knowledge Production that was published by Brill (Assie-Lumumba 2004).
When the editor of WCCES Chronicle, Professor Kanishka Bedi, asked me to share some reflections in a paper to be reviewed for possible publication, given the abrupt shift to virtual mode of functioning due to the Coronavirus/COVID-19, I thought of the aforementioned works. Of even more relevance is another presentation, I made on “Cyberspace and the Dynamics of Academic Communities: Proximity, Social Distance, and the Transformation of the Pedagogical Space in the Era of Information and Communication Technologies.” While the emphasis in aforementioned presentations was higher education, I have also been working on the technological impact on learning and issues of democratization.
As part of the responses to the Coronavirus/COVID-19, the whole world has been compelled to resort to technology to mitigate the disruption in communication in institutions and their functioning with acute implication for education at all levels and everywhere. The main purpose of this short paper is to raise broad questions regarding the significance of the ICT in the educational space, the possibilities it offers and the major problems it creates and/or may exacerbate in terms of uneven access and its disruption and the misleading power that might be expected from it that may lead to abdication of human agency with the assumption that technology has a mind of its own when addressing critical questions and require the human mind. Addressing different levels of educational systems, policies and practices in historical perspectives and contemporary realities, the paper is a reflective essay aiming to raise some of the lingering and pressing issues and contribute to the debates. It is structured under three headings. The first section raises broader questions of the significance of human direct interaction in the learning process and space citing a few historical cases creating the learning space and community. The second section deals with the possibilities offered by the technology. The third section addresses some of the pedagogical and social issues when aspiring to achieve equality of educational opportunity by means of technology considering the social implications of the digital divide and its impact. Other social issues relating to traditional versus using virtual delivery mode are raised. Of critical relevance is the fact that when COVID-19 was ravaging the world across the globe, alongside were massive protests accompanied by powerful voices of outrage and revealing the unequal societal structures that led to the assassination of George Floyd at a time when Black, Latino and other socially disadvantaged groups were also disproportionately being ravaged by COVID-19. The conclusion, calls for continued engagements from comparative perspectives in the debates and a practical search for solutions to promote a different world of equality. In nutshell, the purpose of this short essay is to contribute to raising issues in the ongoing debates in search of solutions.
1. The Meaning of the Learning Space in Historical Perspectives
Through colonial expansion, educational traditions of the West are predominant in the world; for this short article the issues raised relate more to this tradition. However, at the higher education level, African historical experiences are mentioned. While learning in the basic level in education has been related to the socio-spatial organization and the community that the learners belong to, what was then the equivalent of modern institutions of higher learning drew learners from their respective communities.
Historically, institutions of higher learning have attracted learners from near and far to partake in the knowledge, becoming part of a community. Referring to the African context from the Ancient Nile Valley Civilization, a part of Ancient Egypt, to the Afro-Islamic universities such as Karawiyyinn in Fez (Morocco) in 859 AD, Al-Azhar created in Cairo (Egypt) in 970, considered the ‘oldest continuously operating University in the world’ (Arab Information Centre 1966:282), and Sankore in Timbuktu from the twelfth century, in the book The African Experience with Higher Education” Ajayi et al. stated that “the roots of the University as a community of scholars, with an international outlook but also with responsibilities within particular cultures …” (Ajayi et al. 1996:5). They refer to monastic systems which have also existed in Asia and many other parts of the world. Western European systems that started with the Parisian and Bologna models in the Middle Ages shared a common religious authority and a common learning space and a site of convergence.
The organization of the learning space, the nature of the learner-teacher and learner-learner interactions within that space had far-reaching implications. There are variations and differences from context to context, between the different types and levels of education from pre-school to post-secondary education, especially in universities. However, all these educational programs have shared and continue to share some common features. Thus, historically, education has been associated with a functioning social space where people from distinct geographic distances meet and form an institutional learning community. While members of this community have always created and sustained networks off campus, their activities and the vitality of their relationship have been mainly on the site of the institution.
In her seminal paper, “The "Hidden Curriculum" of a West African Girls' Boarding School”, Vandra Maseman (1974:494) wrote: “although the school is an imported institution which seems to have little relevance in its formal curricular content for the lives of these females students, the school experience contains valuable lessons in anticipatory socialization for their future roles …” In On What is Learned in School, Robert Dreeben (1968) argued that more generally, the formal content of the curriculum that is designed to be taught pedagogically is only a part of a broader learning that takes place. While social bonds are loosely enforced, values such as the implications of citizenship in democratic participation and bureaucratic workplace expectations are acquired with significance to shape the adults who come out of these systems. Obviously, these values are not neutral as they tend to reflect the power structure of society. Thus, the social groups that do not belong to the dominant class are generally disadvantaged. However, there should be a distinction between what schools do to ensure social reproduction and alternate philosophies if when put in practice can contribute to challenging the existing practices. In any case, the main point being made here is that, in the education system, there is more that takes place in the learning space called the school. Several authors have also written on different aspects of the implication of educational space such as in Space, Curriculum, and Learning (Edwards and Usher 2003), Changing Spaces of Education: new Perspectives on the Nature of Learning (Brooks, Fuller, and Waters 2012).
Is technology a disruption, or an inevitable saving tool that has positive and negative implications for the various components and stakeholders of education? In the next section the introduction of ICTs in the solutions necessitated by the specific case of COVID-19 crisis are discussed.
2. Possibilities offered by the Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and Democratization of Education
Globally, there has been an evolution of more utilization of technology in the formal education system at all levels. Approximately from the middle of the 20th century to the first quarter of the 2020 calendar year, the pace of the inclusion of technology as a learning delivery has increased steadily but not intensely. Certainly, the ICTs and their application to distance education were gradually being adopted as a cost-effective means in response to the high demand for university and other types of tertiary education, both in developing and industrial countries. The programs of many eUniversities, for instance, comprise of a dual-mode in which distance learning is designed as a supplement to, or side-by-side with, the regular face-to face learning within classical, brick-and-mortar institutions. In addition, there has been an increasing number of single-mode programs of distance learning in open universities that operate entirely as virtual institutions.
However, no one in any institution was anticipating, let alone prepared for, the abrupt switch to virtual mode of education across the globe since March 2020 as a result of the directive of social distancing imposed by the Coronavirus/COVID-19 worldwide. From industrial countries with a high level of technological development to impoverished nations with dismal technology were mandated to immediately shut down all educational facilities. In some cases, the decision was announced by political and educational authorities and was expected to take effect only within a few hours. A common consensus was that even in the middle of the academic year, education would still continue in one form or another with a heavy component on distance learning. While the immediate concern was on the physical security, concerns about the immediate and medium-term provision of education to ensure continuity in the learning were raised requiring pressing and practical responses. As the nature of the problems at hand and the possible solutions vary according to the context and levels of education, given the space for this paper, I would like to focus on institutions of higher learning while also referring to the lower levels of education.
In The Republic of Technology: Reflections on our Future Community, Daniel Boorstin (1978: 3) characterizes technology as a democratizing tool, while according to Gerald Sussman (1997: 21), “The modern history of technology is tied to the quest for markets, market power.” Therefore, its application to educational processes must be analyzed in this context with no goal of either endorsing or rejecting the use of ICTs in education.
In the context of the ongoing debate of the re-organization of education using technology, democratization and equal access for all population segments anywhere is at the center. Democratization involves the process(es) of the “availability of education to as many as possible number of children and the right to upbringing, education and schooling to all citizens of a nation, without discrimination in terms of gender, language, religion, class and race” (Murati, 2015: 174); “…giving social justice and rendering equal treatment for achievement in education” (Madumere & Olisaemeka, 2011: 2).
It is important to critically examine various dimensions of ICTs and distance learning and the educational implications for access for all, pedagogy, and actual learning. Considering the inevitable evolution of the utilization of technology and various forms of distance learning programs, it is necessary for educators, policymakers, and researchers in the field of education, to confront, understand, and address the various aspects of education processes that are being impacted by technology, starting with effective learning.
Although many of the issues raised are not new, the ongoing situation where education systems across the globe have been pushed to embrace technology in the education and learning domain due to the Coronavirus/COVID-19, a dire situation is widespread particularly in many developing countries such as southeast Asia, Africa, central and south America, the Caribbean and many Island countries in the world, who are faced with many challenges as they have to deal with, both the situation of scarcity and inadequate technology. Even in some of the most industrialized and technologically advanced countries, social inequality is reflected with the sudden necessity to leave the learning space and use technology.
In “Online Learning Communities in Africa: The UNISA Case Study,” Philip Higgs, Van Niekerk and Heydenrych (2003) argue that the recent developments of technology in the global context and its application to education, have specific and major implications for higher education, especially on the African continent. They argue that the process of the democratization of education has been translated into increasing social demand for higher education that requires creative ways of responding to it. They discuss latest developments at the University of South Africa (UNISA) as it has the longest experience in distance learning that uses technology. The subsequent adoption of online-distance and open-learning approaches intend to increase education processes. They argue that in an effort to address the issues of educational and cultural relevance, the African philosophy of uBuntu is used to shape the pedagogy and learning experience heavily influenced by constructivism. As reflections and technical policy analysis perspective emerge, they contextualize ICTs in the education process and locate distance-learning paradigms within a power-relation framework. In this context, the local quest for ownership challenges the notion of technology as a neutral tool at the service of benevolent actions for assistance for developing countries.
3. Fundamental Issues of Academic Opportunities and Challenges with ICTs
As indicated before, education stakeholders, primarily students, teachers, and families have been greatly affected by the lockdown including school closures mandated by the various authorities. Online instruction was abruptly adopted and experimented with by schools and universities, and different challenges arose in part because students as well as teachers accustomed to the deep-rooted paradigm of learning and teaching face-to-face were unprepared. Lack of access to Internet connectivity and devices for students belonging to the lower strata of the society, have further disrupted remote learning. Of critical importance is the fact that the school is not solely a learning space; it also caters to other services such as access to food for students from economically disadvantaged households. Thus, with virtual learning occurring at home, the basic necessities of food and social services are lacking.
In many African countries and other developing countries in Southeast/South Asia and Latin America, many communities and families mainly in rural areas and urban peripheries do not have the necessary technological functional means to pursue their education virtually once the schools closed. Furthermore, the factor of (trained and qualified) teachers in the education process is not to be overlooked. Francophone countries in Africa with a highly centralized system and with the legacy of the French colonial system, generally do not have secondary schools in villages. Thus, students with a rural background attending post-primary school in urban areas go back to their villages with no real provision for them to continue learning. How can technology contribute to closing such glaring gaps? So, the question is: What possibility can technology offer and under what circumstances make it work?
In the United States, Black, Latino, and minorities in general, including youth of undocumented parents, have often suffered from racial discrimination, poor learning conditions, prejudice of some teachers, all factors contributing to high drop-out rates leading to the school-prison pipeline. Most of them belong to underprivileged households, which survive on daily wage parents, some of whom have succumbed in larger numbers to COVID-19. Many of them have no home support. By virtue of living in impoverished communities, these students attend nearby public schools according to where they reside and are typically underfunded.
The world had already gradually been witnessing the impact of technology and the accessibility for people to learn and interact even in the remotest parts of the globe with an increase to disadvantaged communities of developing countries among them children, women and the disabled thereby enhancing education for all as democratization of education (Moseley, 2002 sic) since “expanding access to education is a matter of both economic development and social justice” (Haddad & Jurich, 2002, p. 29).
Amidst the contingencies of the pandemic and ensuing closure of education institutions the pressing issue has been how to salvage the 2019/2020 and plan the 2020/2021 academic years. Utilizing technology loomed large. But while solving immediate problems, the broader and long-term goal of the democratization of education at all levels using the technology becomes a major issue as it offers hope and constitutes a reason for major trepidation. The technological gap and the suitability of technology in lieu of teachers are the twin problems are at the center of the debates. In Gender and the Information Revolution in Africa, Rathgeber (2000) wrote a chapter on “Women, men, and ICTs in Africa: Why Gender is an Issue” in which she warned against factors and policy matters that would likely engender a gender digital divide with negative consequences for development agendas, given the role that women play as a productive (and also reproductive) force in African societies. That is to say that, as expressed regarding the COVID-19 solution and the use of technology, there is also a concern in the transfer and reproduction of inequality from brick-and-mortar settings to the distance learning mode.
While schools may provide different and unequal outcomes for different social categories, at the lower levels in the “modern” occupational structure, they also provide a critical role as unofficial babysitting agencies to families, particularly where the adults work outside the home. This has been a segment of the debates. Who will supervise, coordinate education if it takes place in the home settings? How prepared are the families of the students from different socio-economic backgrounds?
Furthermore, in different educational systems in industrial countries as well as some developing countries, food is served to all or some of the children from socially disadvantaged homes. How would the absence of school be coupled with the provision of services related with the school concerning food and also health care?
In a nutshell, there is a fast-pace motion that has been triggered by the pandemic. As education cannot be deferred, it is imperative that all the possible means of pursuing education be tapped while raising fundamental and practical issues that work toward equality of opportunity and a new world of equality across the board, bound by a new actualized value of basic human right and common humanity.
In terms of new possibilities, if dual method or single virtual mode is chosen then there should be an obligation for the system to fill any glaring ICT gap by providing technological access supplemented by the internet connectivity in order for the technological tool to be a functional learning tool. In his article “Makings of a New World Order through COVID-19” Muxe Nkondo (2020) argues about a clearer understanding and appreciation of “global solidarity …[enabling] us to gain a complex understanding of the origins and foundations of the existential passion for intense political, social, and ethical bonds” and the need to consider “the way existential crisis emerges as a key site of possibility where different interests and actors can gain access to a common humanity.” He further stated:
The idea is that we all possess some component which is essential to a fully functioning human being. It does not have to do with historical contingency in a narrow sense, but with a global, existential event as deep and fundamental as to break through traditional identities shaped by local historical contingencies. This global reach implies that what counts, ultimately, as being a human being is not relative to local historical circumstance. It is not a matter of transient consensus about what attributes are human and what practices must be inculcated.
Ivan Illich (1971) called for Deschooling society may not be realized yet, even in this unsettling situation, as formal education, with the relevant disciplinary content and values, by all means which includes technology, has a role to play toward imagination and actualization of the new society that acknowledges our common humanity.
 Several papers presented over the years at annual conferences of CIES conferences and New York African Studies Association (NYASA).
 In April 2002 upon the invitation by a graduate student organization called Cornell Education Society.
 Fall 2007 Colloquium series at the Cornell University Telluride House.
 Of particular importance is my ongoing research and book project on Technological Transfer and Democratization of Education in Africa: Prospective Inquiry on the Educational Television in Côte d’Ivoire from the 1970s to the 1980s.