Orin Gordon

Last February, at the end of an interview about the pandemic-catalysed future of schooling with Brian Seemungal, principal of Presentation College, Chaguanas, the small talk turned to favourite textbooks. Over the course of moving countries three times and moving house countless more, I regret not hanging onto my old high school tomes, I told the principal.

At Queen’s College in Guyana, the two defining high school textbooks for me were New Biology for Tropical Schools (Stone and Cozens), and my favourite, Chemistry in Context (Hill and Holman). Seemungal rose from behind his desk, went to a cabinet at the side, pulled out a well-thumbed Hill and Holman and handed it to me. “No, I can’t,” I protested, but he overrode my objections. The gift of that old book is special.

Our chat had included the vision of pupils who wouldn’t need thick books. They’d go to school with a bag that contained only a laptop loaded with the text of books to which the Ministry of Education had bought distribution rights; rather than a bookbag filled with textbooks. Seemungal felt that could have been pursued in the original distribution of laptops to high school pupils in 2010.

“The future of this nation lies in the schoolbags of our children,” Dr Eric Williams famously said; and the then-prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar had repurposed that message to “the future of the nation is in the laptops”, in her government’s laptop distribution initiative.

“Less than a decade from now, the physical textbook will be a thing of the past,” Seemungal told me.

Universities worldwide have long supplemented physical reference books with purchase and distribution agreements to locked content—academic research papers, chapters of books and even whole books. Whether the pupil can hold the content in perpetuity like they can a physical book, is another issue.

Back in February, Seemungal supported going all-in on virtual. More recently, I’ve talked with a number of teachers, some from schools in deprived areas that have lower pass rates than Presentation Chaguanas. Seemungal, whose school is near to where I live, is the only one I’ve spoken to, extensively and on-the-record—a kind of case study on the future of schooling. They all agree that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed schooling forever.

“Because of some of the experience gained, we can’t see ourselves going back to old practices,” one head teacher told me. “We’ve made a quantum leap into the future”.

The pandemic is forcing teaching staff everywhere to re-imagine schooling, in physical and in technological terms. In Seemungal’s tech re-imagining, he turned to Dave Ramlogan—a Pres alumnus who runs a high-tech international data services company, Informatics Engineering Services—to help to wire and equip the school for the future. They’ve set up what the principal calls a “mesh network”, in which the signal is reliable across the sprawl of the school buildings.

The MoE has recognised that there are legal restrictions on capturing video of children in the course of streaming classes, but nevertheless, Pres now has the means to stream reliably. In school, pupils can access a strong, robust signal anywhere on the compound. In time, the Caribbean Examinations Council, CXC, wants to take all exams fully online. Seemungal is preparing his school for that future.

It helps Presentation Chaguanas that Digicel has given them a year of free broadband, but pupils at less well-endowed schools don’t even have the hardware to get online. There are stories of children taking part in online classes through their parent’s mobile phone, to which they have only limited access. In some parts of the country, the signal from mobile phone operators is inconsistent and unreliable.

Thousands of children are having badly interrupted education, and that’s something from which they may never recover. That is a separate issue that I don’t have the space to get into now, but it’s a problem that requires an urgent fix. For all pupils, the re-imagining of teaching is urgent and necessary.

Once the distribution rights to the contents of the virtual books are bought by the ministry, the online content could be integrated into a curriculum that serves physical and virtual teaching. The two teaching methods could then have a happier marriage than they do at present.

That’s the hard part, as the MoE and teachers have been finding out. The delivery of teaching crafted for a physical classroom, can’t simply be transferred to virtual teaching. Virtual and physical delivery are chalk and cheese. Teachers can’t simply cut and paste. They’ve got to adapt, to and for a totally different medium. For schools, separate classes require more time, planning, teachers and money.

High schools will know, through the next tranche of CSEC results expected from the CXC “early to mid-October” from exams taken last June and July by Form Five pupils, what effect more than one year of virtual classes has had on learning. And that should help them to better understand the task ahead.

The author is a media consultant. He can be contacted at his website, oringordon.com

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