Learning in self-isolation: experts discuss lessons learned from remote education

афиша эфира о дистанционной учебе

On May 16, UNESCO IITE, UNAIDS and Odnoklassniki hosted a live discussion of challenges faced by children, parents and teachers in the context of remote learning. Popular Russian psychologist Larisa Surkova, teacher Dima Zicer, UNESCO experts and other guests examined some of the mistakes parents and teachers made during the school closures and shared their perspectives on what education may look like in the near future. The livestream was viewed more than 1.6 million times, and its recording is now available.

Remote learning: lost in transition

Why was transition to remote education so painful and difficult? What do school teachers and film directors have in common? Why is it a bad idea for parents to try to find time for everything, and even worse – to worry about their children’s final grades? The guest experts discussed what could have been done differently, how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the remote learning environment and how to make the next transition to remote education – should this situation recur – as smooth as possible.

According to UNESCO, as of 15 April 2020, more than 1.5 billion students in 189 countries, including over 45 million in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, were not attending educational institutions. When the lockdown measures were introduced in Russia, one in four students and one in five teachers found themselves to be unprepared for online education and other challenges to the learning process caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, one in five parents in Russia was not happy with the transition to remote learning, while more than one in three families complained that the burden of responsibility for their children’s education had been shifted from teachers to parents.

  • How to cope with increased stress in the online learning environment?

    Larisa Surkova, Ph.D., practicing psychologist and mother of five, explained why parents may experience burnout when their children attend classes remotely. Very often, parents take up too much responsibility both for their children’s academic success and for managing their everyday life in coronavirus lockdown.

    “It is your child who is a student, not you. Why should you feel the need to be a better version of school – or perhaps of the entire education system – all on your own?”, says Surkova.

    Jioulnar Asfari, creator and executive director of the SOL Center promoting innovation in society, and mother of six, shared her secret to combining full-time work with helping her children’s learning.

    As long as my husband and I randomly switched from one child to another, stumbling on what we forgot or failed to do, we used to have conflicts. But once we established a fixed schedule indicating who was responsible for each part, this immediately made life easier for everyone.

    Teacher Dima Zicer advises everyone – parents, teachers and especially children – not to over-dramatize the transition to remote learning and to avoid measuring success in terms of how much of the material – or how fast – the students are able to learn.

    First, we are facing an entirely new situation and should not treat it in the same way as the old one. This is not ‘the way it used to be, only worse’. This is a totally different system of coordinates, and we are now living by different rules. And second, we are not running late. Absolutely not at all.

    Likewise, Larisa Surkova suggests that parents need first to think about their own emotional and physical well-being, because it makes a lot of difference for how their child feels.

    Study should not come first, because if Mom is happy, then everyone is happy. No matter what your child has or has not learned during remote education, it is not the end of the world.”

  • Remote education: what teens think

    According to guest experts, high school students have been particularly stressed out by the transition to remote education and now they may need support more than others. Specially for this livestream, teens from the Teenergizer Eurasian Youth Union answered a few questions about their impressions of the remote education [ENG subs available]:

    Teenergizer also offers online counseling to help teens with the problems and challenges they may face during social isolation. It is an opportunity for teens to access professional advice from psychologists and peer counselors on issues concerning their physical and mental health, their rights and available services, free of charge and confidentially.

  • What parents need to remember?

    According to the guest experts, the lockdown and remote education have significantly increased the risk of conflict between parents and children.

    “We hear many people warning about a possible rise in divorce rates and increase in domestic and partner violence against women, but no one, unfortunately, has raised the issue of a reported escalation of verbal and physical violence against children in the family. And we are going to suffer the consequences of it for a long, long time to come,” Larisa Surkova warns.

    She believes that in this already stressful situation, parents should not create even more stress and anxiety for themselves and their children, but instead they need to be even more caring and compassionate towards each other.

    Dima Zicer advises parents to avoid taking up the functions of teachers (which they may not be in a position to live up to) but focus more on their immediate role as parents.

    The parent’s role is to support the child and try to make their life easier and better as much as possible in this challenging situation. Perhaps offer a nice treat to the child when they are sitting at the computer. Or perhaps make a funny face at them from the other side of the screen to make them laugh and feel happier for a moment.

  • How to support student motivation in a distance learning environment?

    According to a nationwide survey by the Public Opinion Foundation, two-thirds (65%) of Russians report a negative change in student performance since the transition to remote education, as well as school students’ overall dissatisfaction with this format of learning. In the comments, the livestream audience shared their problems with maintaining their children’s motivation for independent and group learning in the remote environment.

    “If you want to motivate, be a motivator. If you want your child to enjoy reading, be an avid reader. Motivation will appear once they get a glimpse of their future. But telling them about a bright future, such as enrolling in a university and earning money, makes no sense while they are in secondary school. Achievement here and now is what motivates them,” Surkova explains.

    According to Skymart, at the onset of remote education, nearly 25% of teachers had no idea of how to motivate their students for online learning. In this context, Dima Zicer invites teachers to go back to basics and reflect on the meaning of education as a process.

    The education system has not changed; it’s the approach that must change. For example, every teacher needs to be able to give an honest answer to the question, why go to school at all. If a teacher does not have an answer to this question, then it does not matter what tools or study formats they use, because they will not achieve any results. All human tools remain the same. Likewise, we need to make sure that a person (i.e. a child) can understand what we are doing and why. When we are driven by something we are passionate about, we can use it as a hook to catch their attention and share our interest with them.

  • What opportunities have opened up for educators?

    According to the HSE Institute of Education, 84% of educators believe that their workload has increased during remote education.

    A variety of reasons may be behind it, such as higher parental expectations, challenges of adapting to online platforms, technical difficulties, additional administrative work, and a lot of homework to check and materials to prepare for independent study. Teacher Dima Zicer reminds educators of the broad autonomy they actually enjoy and of their personal responsibility.

    Since teachers have been conditioned to survive in a very rigid environment where little was under their control, they may find the change overwhelming and begin asking, “What can I do to cope with this new situation?” But we, the teachers, can now feel empowered to reassure the parents and tell them, “We can do it, we are professionals.”

  • What are the outcomes for parents and teachers?

    The first outcome is a recognition that student performance in the context of remote education cannot be assessed using the same approaches as before. This applies to high-stake exams as well as final grades. Tigran Yepoyan, UNESCO Regional Adviser on Health and Education, shared the results of a study conducted by UNESCO in 140 countries. The study findings indicate that most countries are prepared to at least postpone high-stake exams, and some consider introducing alternative approaches to exams and validation of learning.

    Another important outcome, according to the expert, is an emerging understanding of the role and place of distance learning. While no one expects a total transition to a remote education format, the general trend, not only in Russia in but many other countries worldwide, will be towards expanding opportunities for online learning and finding new and better approaches to delivering such learning.

    Remote education is not just about attending classes behind a computer screen. It is also about the teaching and learning content which is adapted to being delivered via gadgets. It is also about teaching methods and systems which support personalized learning tailored to each student’s interests, abilities and potential.

    In turn, Dima Zicer advised parents not to worry too much about their children’s final grades but instead ask themselves the following questions:

    Can they make sure at the end of the school year that their child is happy? Has their child learned something new about themselves and the world around them? Are they calm and confident, does he or she know what is really interesting to them and how to learn more about it? The most important thing for us today is to make sure that we get out of this crisis whole, balanced and resilient. Go ahead and focus on this now. If we worry about grades too much, this most important thing may suffer.

  • Online learning: what do livestream viewers think?

    The audience contributed to the discussion by voting in two online polls during the livestream. The results were as follows:

    “How did the lockdown affect your relationship with children?”

    • We are now closer and spend more time together, 21.4%
    • We quarrel and conflict more often, 24%
    • Nothing has changed, 39.5%
    • No time to think about it, 15.1%

    Which elements of remote education should be retained after the lockdown is lifted?

    • Flexible curriculum, 22.7%
    • Being able to communicate with teachers directly and promptly online, 25.3%
    • Use of interactive teaching and learning aids, 20%
    • Less paperwork, 32%

The livestream with guest experts was part of the Po Pravde Govorya (Telling the Truth) educational talk show series by UNESCO IITE and  UNAIDS Regional Office, with support from Odnoklassniki social network. The informational partner of the project is Letidor.ru, a website for parents. Each livestream features a straightforward, honest and open discussion with experts and celebrity guests focused on one of the pressing issues relevant to our health and well-being in an ever-changing world.