As Timor-Leste prepares for its first-ever information and communications technology (ICT) and innovation in education conference, the country’s Minister of Education and UNICEF Timor-Leste’s Representative provide some food for thought on the importance of digital learning, technology and innovation in ensuring equal access to quality learning for all children.
By; Armindo Maia and Valerie Taton
The year 2020 has been a year of learning.
A year of learning that a pandemic can stop the world, literally, in its tracks.
A year of learning that innovation and change is important.
And a year in which we discover that a new normal is not just possible, it is essential.
There is no going back.
The tentacles of the COVID-19 pandemic first reached Timor-Leste in March this year. Two days after the first case was confirmed, the Government decided to close schools as a precautionary measure to protect students and contribute to the wider effort to stop any transmission of the virus altogether.
Almost overnight, close to 400,000 children in Timor-Leste were no longer able to go to school.
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the learning crisis globally. The impact on children’s learning due to school closure for three months Timor-Leste, is not yet known. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, close to 40,000 children were estimated to be out of school in Timor-Leste. School closure only added to existing challenges in providing quality education to the hundreds of thousands of school-aged children across the country.
As schools reopen, we are now looking at lessons learned during school closure. We are determined to see how we can build on the successes we achieved. We can be proud that within a week of school closures, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, with support from UNICEF, developed the ‘Eskola Ba Uma’, or ‘School Goes Home’ initiative, with television programmed, radio and online learning being set up in record time.
While there is much to celebrate, there is also much to ponder. Only a small fraction of the 400,000 students affected by school closures were able to access online learning on a regular basis. Poor internet connectivity, high costs and lack of knowledge around how to use online platforms for learning were some serious challenges.
Yet, this is an aspect of education we are attempting to explore more of in a changed world. We are trying to reimagine how we can leverage the internet and technology to help all children get an education or continue learning.
Many people would, justifiably ask, how can we focus on introducing ICT and innovation in the country when there is little or no infrastructure to support this, or when many children in the country do not even have access to proper classrooms or textbooks. Perhaps these are the very reasons why blended and hybrid models of education should be explored to accelerate change in children’s education.
Technology could also be the answer to make learning more inclusive. For example, digital learning materials can be easily translated to local languages. Universal Design for Learning approaches could also be adopted to produce formats that are accessible to children with disabilities, such as e-books with sign language or audio-assisted reading.
The conference, ‘Reimagine Education: ICT and innovation in Timor-Leste on 26 and 27 October is that first step to critically assess lessons learned from the country’s first real nationwide foray into online-based education solutions. We believe that despite the challenges, the delivery of accessible and quality education through blended approaches to learning can be achieved by taking some key steps: exploring partnership opportunities, scaling up connectivity, reducing the costs, developing suitable content based on the national curriculum and capacity building to allow teachers and students to make full use of available tools and resources.
We have the opportunity to move away from a model of the school of the last century and reimagine the school of the future. In this school, learning will be happening not only in the classrooms. Teachers would know how to use technology and teach differently. Children would be exposed to using technology to learn and address present and future challenges.
We owe this to the children of Timor-Leste. We owe it to them to bridge that digital divide, to harness global initiatives and re-imagine learning, to enable each and every child to fully realize their right to quality education and fulfill their potential, and enable them to compete on a global platform that is ever more connected, technologically driven, and online. (*)