School or no school, epidemic catches education system off guard

By Dang Huong Giang   February 26, 2020 | 12:45 am PT
Studying from home is not a choice for Vietnamese students since schools and teachers do not know how to run online courses.
Dang Huong Giang

Dang Huong Giang

My younger sister is a fifth grader. For the past few weeks she has been receiving a mountain of homework sent by her teacher every day.

My sister has to finish the homework, submit and wait for until she returns to school for her teacher to correct it all.

She has been following this routine for three weeks now after authorities decided to extend the Lunar New Year break for students on February 2 to avoid the spread of the Covid-19 respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

At first the extension was for a week, and then an extra week was added before it was decided that students will stay home until the end of this month.

At first my mother agreed wholeheartedly with the extra break.

She said: "Just let the kids stay at home for one more month. There's no need to worry about a knowledge gap. Her teacher sends me her homework every day and I have registered for some online learning packages for her already."

During the first week of the holiday extension, my little sister was over the moon since she did not have to go back to school.

The week after that, she was still excited about staying home but now had to do homework through the online platform. Every morning at nine her teacher sends my mother "a mountain of homework," as my sister describes it, and she has to work on it all day.

Just three days into that online course designed by her school, my sister started to get bored.

"Our teacher gives us assignments on lessons we have already learned," she told me.

The course does not enable them to study online. There are no videos for lectures, either live or recorded, there is no homework system, there is no evaluation and there are no tools or interaction to arouse students’ interest in learning.

And these are usually the strong points of studying online.

Mother is not too excited about the online course these days. "If only the teacher sends the kids some videos on physical exercises it might be helpful," she said with a sigh.

My older cousin, Hue, has two children studying at a private primary school.

She and her husband insist that while studying is extremely important children's health is the top priority, and so letting them stay home is the best choice.

The couple, however, could not stay home and look after the two kids, and their parents, my aunt and uncle, had to travel all the way from their hometown to the city to take care of them.

Every day my aunt and uncle urge the two to go to their school website and do the homework. The two seniors almost have no technological skills, and so that is the best they can do for the kids.

The argument my mother and cousin have been using to justify letting their children stay at home is similar to what millions of other parents are doing: Safety first.

Like Hue, my mother, and maybe many other parents out there, set high expectations for schools, which they believe hold the main responsibility for their students' study affair.

As long as schools can give their children some assignments, parents will breathe a sigh of relief.

Yet, the problem is: we do not have the technological infrastructure to properly connect all the components in the education system.

The most effective solution to solve all educational problems these days is online teaching. Students can attend classes from home, discuss with friends via interactive tools, complete their assignments, and wait for their teachers' feedback. This is the ideal educational scenario, but only for developed countries.

Primary students in Ben Tre Province in southern Vietnam clean their hands on February 7. The province is one of just a few provinces letting students to go to school after the Tet break before deciding to let them all stay home from February 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Primary students in Ben Tre Province in southern Vietnam clean their hands on February 7, 2020. The province is one of just a few letting students go to school amid the Covid-19 outbreak, before deciding to let them all stay home from February 8. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

In Vietnam, for schools and teachers, preparing lesson plans for online classes is like a sprint which is beyond their capability.

Making traditional lesson plans requires a lot of efforts, and now teachers have to design lessons to make them suitable for online classes along with activities to help the lessons interact with students and make sure they all meet the standards set for online courses.

Vietnamese teachers have not been well equipped to make that switch.

An effective online teaching model does not mean merely changing the location from school to home and watching each other on a screen rather than face to face. It needs a smooth technological foundation and software for managing progress and a framework for designing tests and assessing results. And what is more important is that the knowledge resources must be made diverse and intensive but appropriate for students’ ages.

Technology is just a tool, but to use it for teaching teachers need to be trained properly.

But now teachers are unprepared for teaching online since all these factors cannot come true instantly unlike an announcement that students should stay at home.

Online teaching has become the new normal around the world, and its efficiency has been recognized for more than three decades.

In Vietnam, when I graduated from one of the top pedagogical universities three years ago, the educational technology available was zero.

Our close relationship with technology in this modern age is undeniable, and therefore instead of arguing about or questioning its values and impacts, I think we should move on and get teachers prepared for a technology ecosystem since in the near future online teaching will replace all traditional educational methods we have ever known.

Now that February is coming to an end, people are continuing to argue whether students should get back to school and how long any further break should last since the epidemic shows no signs of going away.

Amid that debate, I have an insecure feeling about the education system's ability to respond and react.

Schools are an important link in society. All decisions made by schools have an impact on families and ultimately society. When there is no cogent or consistent plan for a school break, parents have no choice but to make their own.

This epidemic is a chance for us to take a serious look at the education system and plan for all scenarios that could occur in future.

It needs more than urging people to improve their immune system so that they can get ready for the epidemic. The entire system needs its immune system to be boosted so that it can cope with unstoppable changes in an age when humans have become more and more vulnerable.

*Dang Huong Giang holds an MA degree in science education. The opinions expressed here are her own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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