On Brick-and-Mortar and Virtual Spaces of Learning: Pedagogy, Exigencies of COVID-19 and Equality of Educational Opportunity
Specific occurrences or situations within or across nation-states, and in localized specific socio-geographic spaces have shaken core values that give significance to our common humanity. Thus, massive protests and outrage sparked by the assassination of George Floyd were expressed globally. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the structural inequality that the Black, Latinx, Native Americans and other socially disadvantaged communities have suffered from. However, like in so many other cases before, the outrage eventually quiets down, as people get exhausted, and life resumes with its deep-seated injustices. The changes that are activated by the rage are not commensurate with a vital shake-up to uproot the problem and ensure its permanent eradication.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed in-built structural inequalities, affecting families and communities along social lines in nation-states and between economically powerful nations and the others. Currently in the United States, Brazil, India, and many countries across the African continent where the most vulnerable population are concentrated, no comprehensive statistics offer a definitive indication of the actual state of the pandemic, especially considering the successive mutations and new variants. The pre-existing social and biological ills have affected education systems at all levels. In the numerous debates, all agree that learning is a fundamental right for the youth and institutional spaces should be provided for the purposes of learning. However, disagreements occur about whether to return to the traditional brick-and-mortar mode exclusively or a hybrid mode. The debates about the introduction of technology existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has been intensified given the need to develop immediate and long-term policies that the situation requires.
Reflecting on educational and broader societal implications of COVID-19 and the future, it is important to provide a broader background. In this essay, the first section raises broader questions of the significance of human direct interaction in the learning process, space, and community by citing a few historical cases. The second section deals with the possibilities offered by technology. The third section addresses some of the pedagogical and social issues that arise when aspiring to achieve equality, educational opportunity through technology considering the social implications of the digital divide impact. Additional social issues pertinent to traditional versus using virtual delivery mode are raised. The conclusion calls for continued engagements from comparative outlooks in debates and a practical search for solutions to promote a different world that embraces equality. In a nutshell, the purpose of this short essay is to contribute to the ongoing debates of education and its resolutions.
1. The Meaning of the Learning Space in Historical Perspectives
Through colonization in recent centuries Western educational traditions have become predominant in many parts of the world. The subsequent organization of the learning space, the nature of the learner-teacher and learner-learner interactions within that space have been on homogenizing trends as educational programs have shared and implemented similar common features.
In her seminal article, “The "Hidden Curriculum" of a West African Girls' Boarding School”, Vandra Maseman (1974:494) stated that : “although the school is an imported institution which seems to have little relevance in its formal curricular content for the lives of these female 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 emerge from those 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 privileged dominant class are generally disadvantaged. A distinction is imperative vis-à-vis what schools do to ensure social reproduction and what alternate philosophies are put in practice while challenging and modifying the existing archaic practices. In the education system, there are many complex dimensions at play in the learning domain referred to as school. Several authors have also written on different aspects of the implication of educational spaces such as Space, Curriculum, and Learning (Edwards and Usher 2003), Changing Spaces of Education: new Perspectives on the Nature of Learning (Brooks, Fuller, and Waters 2012).
The major question is: Is technology a disruption, or an inevitable saving tool for education and its stakeholders, which the pandemic has precipitated? Another key question is whether the technology could contribute to closing or widening the quality learning gap.
2. Possibilities offered by the Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and Democratization of Education
Globally, there has been a push to use 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 inclusion of technology as a learning delivery tool had been steadily increased but not forcefully. Certainly, ICTs and its application to education were gradually being incorporated in the education model as a cost-effective apparatus in response to the high demand for education including at the tertiary level, both in developing and industrial countries. Many eUniversity programs, comprise of a dual-mode in which distance learning is envisioned 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 and distance education institutions of higher learning that operate entirely as virtual portals.
Nevertheless, no one in any country or institution anticipated, let alone prepared for, the abrupt switch to the virtual user interface in instruction and learning across the globe since March 2020 as well as adhering to the directives of social distancing and hygiene imposed by COVID-19 mandates worldwide. Industrial countries with a high level of technological development and impoverished nations with dismal technological infrastructure were forced to shut down all educational facilities with the objective of flattening the curve related to the pathogen.
In some cases, the decisions by stakeholders, educational policy makers, and political leaders were impromptu and educators were expected to, in one form or another, leapfrog to distance learning. While the immediate concern was on physical security, concerns about the immediate and medium-term provision of continuity in educational learning required pressing and practical responses.
Daniel Boorstin (1978) argues in The Republic of Technology: Reflections on our Future Community, (p. 3) that technology is a democratizing tool, while Gerald Sussman (1997: 21), further states that “The modern history of technology is tied to the quest for markets, market power.”
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 addressing 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 with educational implications and 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 scrutinize, understand, and address the many aspects of education processes presently impacted by technology.
Although many of the issues raised are not new, education systems across the globe have been hard-pressed 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 in the global South namely: Southeast Asia, Africa, central and south America, the Caribbean and many Island countries in the world, that are met with issues of Internet connectivity, accessibility and exorbitant prices for wi-fi. Similarly, in some of the industrialized and technologically advanced countries, social inequality is inextricably linked to efficacy of the learning space and use of technology.
In “Online Learning Communities in Africa: The UNISA Case Study,” Philip Higgs, Van Niekerk and Heydenrych (2003) contend that the recent advances of technology in the global context and its application to education, have unique, specific, and major implications for higher education, for instance, especially on the African continent. They argue that the process of the democratization of education is pegged on an increasing social demand for higher education that requires creative ways and innovative responses. Their study focusses on University of South Africa (UNISA) as a case in point because of its longest experience in distance learning and technology. Higgs et al, state that the subsequent adoption of online-distance and open-learning approaches enhances education processes. According to the authors, the African philosophy of uBuntu shaped the pedagogy and learning experience influenced profoundly by constructivism in its education platforms. As reflections on technical policy and analysis perspective emerge, ICTs in the education process and distance-learning paradigms are contextualized within a power-relation framework. The local quest for ownership challenges the notion of technology as a neutral tool in assisting developing countries. This argument is also relevant for marginalized communities in industrialized 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 lockdowns and mandated school closures. Online instruction hastily implemented and adopted at all levels of the education systems, has posed different challenges that arose in part because students as well as teachers had been accustomed to the deep-rooted paradigm of learning and teaching face-to-face were totally surprised and unprepared. Lack of devices and access to Internet connectivity among students belonging to the lower strata of the society, had their studies further disrupted by remote learning, when adopted through administrative decision. The reality for some students is that school is not only utilized as a learning space but has other functions associated with other needs and services such as access to food for students from economically disadvantaged households. Thus, even with virtual learning at home, the basic necessities of food and social services were significantly lacking.
In many African countries and other developing countries in Southeast/South Asia and Latin America, many communities and families particularly in the rural areas and urban peripheries were not well equipped with the necessary technology and Internet functionalities needed to adequately pursue their education remotely once schools were closed. Furthermore, the factor of (trained and qualified) teachers in the education process cannot be overlooked.
African countries that were formerly colonized by France inherited and practice a highly centralized system, were further disadvantaged with practically no secondary schools in the villages. Therefore, students with a rural background attending post-primary school in urban areas had few options when they were compelled to go back to their villages with no real provision for them to continue learning. The major question is: How can technology function to close such glaring gaps? What possibilities can technology offer to benefit the students in these spaces?
In the United States, the race dimension is even more complicated, as Black, Latinx, and other disadvantaged minorities in general, including youth of undocumented migrant parents, often suffer from racial discrimination, poor learning conditions, and prejudice from some teachers, factors which increase high drop-out rates leading to the phenomenon of school-prison pipeline, especially for the males. Most of them belong to underprivileged households, and some are a paycheck away from being homeless, while many succumbed to COVID-19. There is no end in sight, as by fate or virtue of living in impoverished communities, the cycle of poverty is reinforced as students attend public schools adjacent to their neighborhood which are typically underfunded. How can structural transformation address these issues with technology as a support?
Amidst the contingencies of the pandemic and the subsequent closure of education institutions, a pressing issue was first posed in terms of how to salvage the lost year of 2019/2020 and plan the 2020/2021 and future academic years, amid all the drastic changes in the education landscape. The technological gap and the suitability of technology in lieu of teachers are twin problems and are at the center of the debates In the edited book Gender and the Information Revolution in Africa, Rathgeber (2000) wrote a chapter titled “Women, men, and ICTs in Africa: Why Gender is an Issue” in which she cautioned against ineffective policy matters which directly or inadvertently promote gender digital divide generating negative consequences for development agendas, considering women’s productive (and also reproductive) roles in African societies. Another concern was the transfer and reproduction of inequality from brick-and-mortar settings to the distance learning mode.
While schools may offer different and unequal outcomes for different social categories, at the lower levels in the “modern” occupational structure, they also play a critical role as unofficial babysitting agencies to families that work outside the home. In the debates, questions have surfaced such as, how can education be monitored if it takes place in the home settings, what if the guardians are not tech-savvy, how prepared are the families of the students from different socio-economic backgrounds? How will the digital divide be managed?
In a nutshell, a fast-paced motion shaped by the pandemic has emerged, and there is no turning back to the old ways as the education dynamics have changed. Hence, equality of education, quality education and opportunity across the board must be deliberately adopted and bound by a new actualized value of basic human right and common humanity.
In terms of new possibilities, and whether it is a dual method or single virtual mode that is adopted, there should be an obligation for the system to fill any glaring ICT gap by providing technological access and Internet connectivity for the digital gadgets to be functional. In his article “Makings of a New World Order through COVID-19” Muxe Nkondo (2020) argues for 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 states:
“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”.
On a positive note, COVID-19 contingencies have provided technological learning tools for groups that had no prior access and brought to light new possibilities for advancing new frontiers of knowledge.
The world had already gradually been witnessing the impact of technology and the accessibility for people to learn and interact even in the most remote 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) since “expanding access to education is a matter of both economic development and social justice” (Haddad & Jurich, 2002, p. 29).
The call by Ivan Illich (1971) for Deschooling society may not be realized yet, even in this unsettling situation. Indeed, formal education, with the relevant disciplinary contents and values, by all means which include technology, has a role to play towards critical thinking, technical skills, scientific discoveries, imagination and actualization for the new society that acknowledges our common humanity. The fundamental question is how to equalize opportunity for quality education, regardless of major issues including equality in contents and relevance.
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Boorstin Daniel. 1978. The Republic of Technology: Reflections on our Future Community. New York: Harper & Row.
Brooks, Fuller, and Waters. 2012. Changing Spaces of Education: new Perspectives on the Nature of Learning. New York. NY: Routledge
Dreeben, Robert. 1968. On What is Learned in School. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
Haddad, W. D., & Jurich, S. (2002). ICT for education: potential and potency. In W. D. Haddad & A. Draxler (Eds.), Technologies for education: potentials, parameters, and prospects (pp. 28-40). Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Edwards, Richard and Robin Usher (eds). 2003. Space, Curriculum, and Learning. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publ.
Higgs, Philip, L. J. Van Niekerk and J. F. Heydenrych. 2003.”Implementing Online Learning Communities in Africa: The UNISA Case Study.” African and Asian Studies 2 (4) : 421-474
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Masemann, Vandra. 1974. “‘The Hidden Curriculum’ of a West African Girls' Boarding School.” Canadian Journal of African Studies. 8 (3): 479-494.
Moseley, S. F. 2002. Foreword. In W. D. Haddad & A. Draxler (Eds.), Technologies for Education: Potential, Parameters and Prospects. Paris: UNESCO & Academy for Educational Development.
Murati, R. (2015). Conception and Definition of the Democratization of Education Journal of Education and Practice 6(30), 173-183.
Nkondo, Muxe .2020. “Makings of a New World Order through COVID-19” https://www.ortamboschool.org.za/2020/06/30/makings-of-a-new-world-order-through-covid-19-by-prof-muxe-nkondo/
Rathgeber, Eva M. 2000. “Women, men, and ICTs in Africa: Why Gender is an Issue” in Rathgeber, Eva M., Edith Ofwona Adera Gender and the Information Revolution in Africa. Ottawa, Canada: International Development Research Center.
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 I have been involved in some of those scholarly debated and academic outputs. Several invited and conference presentations, my edited book Cyberspace, Distance Learning, and Higher Education in Developing Countries: Old and Emergent Issues of Access, Pedagogy and Knowledge Production published in 2004, and my book project Technological Transfer and Democratization of Education in Africa: Prospective Inquiry on the Educational Television in Côte d’Ivoire from the 1970s to the 1980