Exploring alternative learning spaces in times of uncertainty

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The Blue Dot: Reimagining Learning Spaces for Uncertain Times Published by UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development Issue 12, 2020

The spread of COVID-19 pandemic across the globe has been a wake-up call to many, making the notion that we live in a world characterized by uncertainty and vulnerability much more concrete and personally relevant. Available data indicates that, amid this COVID-19 outbreak, as of 30 March 2020, 1.5 billion children and youth – close to 90 per cent of the world’s student population – were affected by school closures in more than 180 countries. However, this situation has given us a renewed impetus for taking actions to make our education systems prepared for and responsive to interconnected global challenges, like the one (i.e. COVID-19 corona virus) we are facing today. The preset crisis offers us to rethink about the traditional face-to-face instruction that takes place in schools, and to explore the alternative teaching-learning spaces.

Under the theme “Reimagining Learning Spaces for Uncertain Times”, this issue of ‘The Blue Dot’, a biannual magazine published by UNESCO MGIEP, highlights how novel learning spaces and modes of learning that emerged in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic can provide valuable lessons for preparing for future shocks and disruptions. In so doing, it draws our attention to some crucial questions: Is digital learning the answer for the 21st century? Is a hybrid learning approach the best answer for the future of education? What principles of universal design need to be incorporated while designing digital content to ensure inclusive and equitable learning for all? How do we reach the most vulnerable children and youth in times of crises and otherwise? This issue of the magazine includes articles, opinions and perspectives from educators, academics, researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and youth contributors on learning from the pandemic COVID-19, and their proposals of novel learning systems for the 21st century and beyond.

This 12th issue of ‘The Blue Dot’ begins with the foreword by Dr. Melina Furman, an Associate Professor at the University of San Andrés, Argentina and a Researcher at the National Council of Science & Technology. She emphasizes on the urgent need for reimagining learning spaces – transforming traditional classrooms into environments where children can thrive and develop the knowledge and tools they need for the uncertain future they will need to navigate as adults. Addressing this goal calls for taking educational innovation to the next level – scaling up innovative approaches – to reach all children and youth in the world which requires a sense of adventure and a big commitment of policymakers, practitioners, academics and the society as a whole. In his foreword message, Dullas Alahapperuma (Minister of Education, Sports & Youth Affairs of Sri Lanka) urges the international community to give a helping hand in unison to the less affluent and digitally ill equipped nations, and create a vision to deal with the global pandemic challenge, create new models realigning priorities and entering a post-COVID in order to rebuild the world not in isolation but in collaboration.

In the feature article “Designing for Care: Hybrid Pedagogy in the Time of COVID-19” the author Jesse Stommel (Co-Founder, Digital Pedagogy Lab & Hybrid Pedagogy)  argues that there is no one-size-fits-all set of best practices for building a learning community, whether on-ground or online. The multifarious challenges of our present moment have made a discussion of hybrid pedagogies even more immediate and practical. He concludes the article by drawing our attention: “Ultimately, our ability to develop hybrid and online community will also depend on our ability to continue feeling joy, have epiphanies, ask hard questions, and share our curiosity with one another. That will only be possible if we start all of our work from a place of care.”

In her opinion piece, Suzie Boss (a writer and educational consultant from the United States) puts emphasis on pushing the boundaries of the traditional classroom through Project-Based Learning (PBL) – an instructional approach in which teachers guide students through in-depth inquiry experiences. However, PBL via remote learning is not without challenges; and becoming proficient at PBL takes time, reflection, and, often professional development to acquire strategies for student-centered learning. She hopes we recognize that PBL teachers are modeling what it means to be creative, flexible, collaborative, and resourceful citizens – everything we hope to encourage in our students.

The cover story titled “Changed Priorities Ahead: Designing for Online Learning Environments” explores how policymakers, administrators, teachers, students, and parents can all be better prepared for different approaches to teaching and learning in the future, even when we return to face-to-face modes in the classroom. First, we need to consider the varied modes of distance and online learning. Teachers and students will have different levels of access to educational tools and technology; and they will also have knowledge and skills about how to use these tools purposefully to create meaningful learning experiences. All teaching-learning experiences – face-to-face, blended/hybrid, or fully online – require design. This chapter sheds light on some key learning design principles that will be very useful for educators and instructors.

In their opinion piece “Scaling Up Environmental Actions through Global Online Learning Communities”, Professor Marianne E Krasny & Dr. Yue Li (Cornell University) share their experiences of conducting a recent Cornell University MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) – Network Climate Action. Learners from many countries across the globe participated in this MOOC, and to prepare to engage their networks in climate action they had the opportunity to access readings, lectures and discussions about how behaviors could spread through social networks. MOOC participants also learned about social norms, social marketing, and the five principles of social mobilization: i) Personal, ii) Accountable, iii) Normative, iv) Identity relevant, and v) Connected. The course participants reported that they felt more optimistic and more capable of helping to mitigate climate change by means of personal actions and social influence. Hence, despite that over 50 national identities were represented in the MOOC, participants in the online community appeared to share not just concerns and interests, but also to develop a common identity as climate actors. The authors firmly believe that online learning environments are not “place-less” but rather create novel affordances which might not be possible in face-to-face environments.

In their opinion piece “Unleashing the Potential of Digital Learning: Framerspace and Libre Pedagogy”, Aditi Pathak, Renuka Rautela, and Shraddha Rawat (UNESCO MGIEP) rightly explore that digital pedagogies, when implemented intentionally, may stimulate imagination, develop critical thinking skills, provide learners agency and allow for self-paced, personalized and collaborative learning, all while allowing the students to take an active role in their own learning and make learning interactive, experiential and immersive. However, they argue, this integration needs to be executed with caution; mere uptake of technology may not help in achieving the much sought-after pedagogical ideas of personalization, collaborative learning, enquiry based learning or continuous assessments.

The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail: smrayhanulislam@hotmail.com

  • UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development
  • Reimagining Learning Spaces for Uncertain Times
  • The Blue Dot
  • Pandemic
  • Covid-19

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