Education and Covid-19

June 8th, 2020

This blog is a slightly modified version of the blog published by Robert Schuwer.

Last week the collectively written article "A Global Outlook to the Interruption of Education due to COVID-19 Pandemic: Navigating in a Time of Uncertainty and Crisis" has been published in the Asian Journal of Distance Education. Initiator of the article was Aras Bozkurt from Anadolu University, Turkey. The article outlines for 31 countries (see below) what the Covid-19 pandemic has meant for education and what lessons could be learned.

Robert Schuwer and I were asked to describe the Dutch situation. The first version was submitted on the 3rd  of May, and after we had received comments from a reviewer we submitted a reworked version on the 23rd of May. What follows is this version which has been published as part of the article (pages 79-82).

Overview

According to World Population Review (2020), The Netherlands have a population of 17M inhabitants. In the academic year 2018-2019, the number of students were: in primary education 1.45M, in secondary education 970K, in vocational education 500K, and in higher education 650K. According to Eurostat, 98% of the households in the Netherlands in 2019 have broadband access to the internet.

The first official case of Covid-19 contamination was on February 27, 2020. After initially being referred to as a 'minor flu with few consequences' the number of infections increased exponentially in the first two weeks of March. This forced the Dutch government on March 12, 2020 to announce several measures, amongst which: people were called upon to work from home as much as possible or to spread their working hours. Their rationale was to strive for a minimum number of patients on intensive care units, to have this capacity manageable.

All higher education institution locations were closed. Schools in primary, secondary and vocational education and childcare remained open, since social consequences of the closure of these schools would be considerable and closure would do little to limit the spread. However, there was strong opposition from teachers and institutions. Therefore on March 15, 2020 Dutch government decided to close down all schools. Only children of parents in what were called ‘crucial professions’, such as those in health care, police, public transport and fire brigades, were allowed to attend Kindergarten and primary education schools.

In the beginning of April Dutch government decided that both national assessments for the final year of primary schools and national exams for the final year of secondary schools were cancelled. Instead, the advice of teachers in primary school had to be decisive for admission of learners to the level of secondary education (either pre-vocational secondary education or general secondary education). For those leaving secondary education, the diploma would be based on the results of the local school exams (in a normal situation these would decide the final grades for 50%).

The number of infections continued to increase and there was a threat of a shortage of intensive care units in hospitals. Stricter measures were called upon by the government. On March 23, 2020 a so called ‘intelligent lockdown’ was decided. Almost all professions with human contact were prohibited, except for (para)medical professions. The lockdown allowed people to do their daily shopping, have a stroll (but preferably close to home), keeping a 1.5 meter distance, and only when you had no signs of a cold or (worse) had a fever. Gatherings in public space of more than 2 people were forbidden. Households were only allowed to receive visitors with a maximum of three people, with a minimum distance of 1.5 meters. All educational institutions, from Kindergarten to university remained closed.

Except for a few occasions, there was great understanding for these measures by Dutch people and they were followed rather strictly. All measures of the intelligent lockdown taken together have led to a steady decline of the contaminations and, as a result, less pressure on the intensive care capacity.

On April 21, 2020 Dutch government announced to partly reopen schools in primary education starting May 11, 2020. Pupils were allowed to go to school for half of their teaching time, but in smaller groups. The other half of the time they were expected to receive emergency remote education. Kindergarten and schools for primary special education reopened fully from that date. Institutions for secondary education and higher education were to partly reopen in the beginning of June. Most institutions will then give priority to learners taking (practical) assessments, in order to prevent as much as possible any impending study delay.

Reflections from the educational landscape 

Within a week after the closure on March 15, 2020 most educational institutions had pivoted their education to emergency remote education (in a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous delivery modes). For many teachers, from primary to higher education, it was their first encounter with providing education online. They quickly experienced that different time and group arrangements were needed compared to face-to-face education, e.g. by noticing that attention of learners declined quickly during lecturing without interaction.

As a result, teachers and institutions began to make grateful use of the support sites of national educational ICT- organizations and mutual help on a fairly large scale. In a very short period of time, these websites popped up to guide teachers in remote teaching with tips, tricks and overviews of safe tooling. Both individual institutions and the two Dutch public organizations for Education & ICT, SURF (for higher education) and Kennisnet (for the other sectors) were active in this area  respectively.

SURF regularly organized webinars on specific topics, e.g. online proctoring, using OER or alternative methods for assessment. In primary education, several schools arranged for weekly physical lesson packages to be worked through at home, preferably supervised by the parents. Teachers were available online for a daily group instruction and for feedback during the day, providing some structure for the pupils (and their parents).

Dutch Open University (OUNL) developed a website containing guidelines, manuals, tips, and directions for developing, setting up, and supervising online education. Insights and experiences of OUNL with online education and digital didactics have been brought together and made accessible to everyone involved in the switch to providing education online.

In Kindergarten and primary schools teachers sought virtual contact with their pupils as much as possible on a daily basis. Parents started massively teaching their children at home using commercial online programs like Squla, Basispoort and Junior Einstein.

Because more and more institutions for higher education were counting with a scenario where also the first semester of the academic year 2020-2021 will be online, there was a growing interest of teachers in a more thorough approach, including redesign of (parts of) their lectures to realize a better quality online education and learning. Judging by the questions for more information that reached one of the authors, many teachers have become interested in available Open Educational Resources (OER) as addition to or replacement for the learning materials they were using in their regular teaching.

Items in the daily news created a picture of acceptance that there is no other way, but also a growing desire to return to a normal face-to-face situation. A first study in primary and secondary education by Bol (2020) indicates that differences in parental support are driven by the ability to help: parents with a higher education background feel much better able to help their children with schoolwork than low-educated parents. Also, children from privileged backgrounds have more resources (e.g. their own computer) to study at home. Parents also indicate that schools offer more far-reaching education to children in general secondary education than to children in pre-vocational secondary education. There are also clear signs of gender gap: parents feel much better able to support their daughters than their sons.

The national Education Inspectorate (Inspectie van het onderwijs, 2020a) published a monitor for all educational sectors, based on interviews with staff and management of a sample of institutions. From this monitor and a letter to the Parliament from the PO-Raad (the sectoral organisation for primary education), the following issues where staff, teachers, learners and parents in primary and secondary education are struggling with were mentioned:

  • feelings of uncertainty about danger of contamination for or by young children, with the schools in primary education reopening;
  • concerns about pupils falling behind and how to solve that without putting too much pressure on teachers who already did a tremendous job the first months of the Covid-19 crisis (so preferably no shorter summer holidays). More specifically a lack of sufficient digital equipment for learners at home and inability to get into contact with hundreds of learners in less privileged families are mentioned;
  • need for extra attention for children who need specialized (primary) education who often cannot comprehend what is happening.

Several higher education institutions were confronted with concerns from student organizations about privacy and violations of GDPR using online proctoring surveillance in exams. These concerns have even led to questions in Parliament (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, 2020). In (Inspectie van het onderwijs, 2020a) other issues with regard to vocational and higher education experience are: the inability to continue internships for students, concerns about students in a challenging environment (part-time students or international students, workload for teachers, social isolation among students and the financial consequences for the institution (e.g. because of less enrollments from international students).

Many students in vocational and higher education experienced stress due to the crisis. Anxiety about a delay of their study and financial issues (e.g. because they have lost their job due to the economic depression caused by the pandemic) were among the causes. A survey study from the Dutch Student Union (Crabbendam & Goes, 2020) into experiences with emergency remote education had as main findings:

  • 66% of the students were worried about the consequences of the crisis;
  • 48% of the students in universities of applied sciences and 27% of students at research universities expected study delays (e.g. because practical exams cannot be taken);
  • 42% of the students in universities of applied sciences and 31% of students at research universities experienced the quality of distance teaching as being low. The numbers for those experiencing the quality as high were 23% and 25%.

These findings were based on responses from 427 students of which 53% were from a university of applied sciences and 46% from research universities.

Some groups of students and teachers were directly involved in fighting the pandemic. Nursing students and teachers provided much needed hands-on support in hospitals and houses for caring elderly and vulnerable people. Within a month time a group of students and professors at Delft University of Technology has developed a safe and relatively easy producible ventilator that can be used when a shortage occurs due to the coronavirus pandemic, sharing their documentation as open source

Lessons learned

There are several lessons learned. Because it was the only option available, the pivot to emergency remote education was accomplished fast and received broad acceptance from both teachers and learners, despite the concerns mentioned earlier. For most teachers – the ‘early’ and ‘late majority’ in terms of Rogers’ theory of diffusion of innovation (Rogers, 2003) - this has been the first comprehensive introduction and experience with online education. E.g. reuse of freely accessible resources (with or without rights of adaptation under conditions prescribed by the open license) has undoubtedly grown considerably because teachers and students will experience the rapid availability of these resources as an added value in the current context.

In (Crabbendam & Goes, 2020), students rate the following aspects as characteristic for good online education: easily accessible teachers, having available the appropriate means and the ability to organise the day yourself. As aspects leading to mediocre online education the following were mentioned: bad internet connections, difficulties in creating an effective study environment at home, missing the social environment with fellow students, insufficient communication from the institution about the situation, online education does not always help to comprehend the content and does not offer sufficient different ways to take education. Students with disabilities experience even more difficulties:54% experienced obstacles against 27% in a normal situation. This group of students therefore needs extra attention in online education.

The 2020 annual report of the Education Inspectorate (Inspectie van het onderwijs, 2020b) outlines the long-term developments and results of education as a whole. Only the foreword refers to the plausible risk that the global pandemic will have far-reaching consequences for education. The report did not yet address this risk, nor did the Ministry's previous annual reports and multi-year policy plans. Forecasts for the future consisted mainly of extrapolations or trends observed. What this crisis has made clear is that policy will also have to take into account non-linearities because the future is not a simple, not even a sophisticated extrapolation of past trends. Highly improbable events take place. Asymmetric outcomes or Black Swans as Taleb (2008) has baptized them: “I will never get to know the unknown, since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that” (p. 210). 

Suggestions

  1. From the study of (Crabbendam & Goes, 2020), the following suggestions were mentioned for teachers and institutions for higher education:
    • Educational institutions should communicate as clearly as possible about students' study progress. There must be timely communication about graduation, internships and moving on to subsequent education;
    • Students' experiences differ. Lecturers and institutions must be more responsive to students' individual situations;
    • Students with a disability need personal contact just at this moment.
  2. Pandemics and their impact on different education systems must become part of strategic education planning. National education systems need to prepare for the potential long-term consequences, but also to seize the opportunities to change and reposition education and training with a view to sustainable development.
  3. Internationally, countries need to learn from this situation and prepare contingency plans to meet the challenges of the next pandemic. This publication is a good contribution to that end. Partnership and networking will be the key to sharing and learning from each other. UNESCO has an important role to play in this.
  4. How can we ensure that these experiences sustain in a post-corona era and lead to an optimal blend of online and face-to-face education? The key to this lies in determining what added value teachers and learners in a more normalized situation will experience (Schuwer & Janssen, 2018). That added value may then well be different than currently is experienced.
  5. Redesign of education will be necessary, where learning goals, educational activities and assessment are constructively aligned (Biggs, 1996). A promising angle may be a shift to alternative forms of assessment, to avoid dependency on surveillance software.
  6. Also important are concerns about the costs that will be associated with a transition to online distance education, even if only partially. The experience gained by open universities worldwide clearly points in the direction of greater upfront investment, in the creation of materials and courses suitable for distance learning, but also in terms of the professionalization of instructors in the field of digital didactics. One can expect a larger demand for institutional support, so institutions can prepare for this. This may ask for a change in policies to secure this enhanced support. And this in turn will have consequences for the current business and funding models of publicly funded education in the Netherlands.

References

Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education32(3), 347-364. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00138871

Bol, T. (2020). Inequality in homeschooling during the corona crisis in The Netherlands. First results from the LISS panel. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/hf32q

Crabbendam, J. & Goes, D. (2020). Distance education. A study into the experiences of students with distance education in response to the corona crisis (Onderwijs op afstand. Een onderzoek naar de ervaringen van studenten met afstandsonderwijs naar aanleiding van de coronacrisis). LSvB, Utrecht. https://lsvb.nl/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Rapport-afstandsonderwijs-1-1.pdf

Inspectie van het onderwijs (2020a). Covid-19 monitorhttps://www.onderwijsinspectie.nl/onderwerpen/afstandsonderwijs-tijdens-covid-19

Inspectie van het onderwijs (2020b). De Staat van het Onderwijs 2020https://www.onderwijsinspectie.nl/documenten/rapporten/2020/04/22/staat-van-het-onderwijs-2020

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). Simon & Schuster.

Schuwer, R., & Janssen, B. (2018). Adoption of sharing and reuse of open resources by educators in higher education institutions in The Netherlands: A qualitative research of practices, motives, and conditions. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning19(3). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v19i3.3390

Taleb, N.N. (2008). The Black Swan, the impact of the highly improbable. Penguin, London.

Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal (2020). Onderwijs en corona (2020A01750)https://www.tweedekamer.nl/debat_en_vergadering/commissievergaderingen/details?id=2020A01750

World Population Review (2020). Total Population by Country 2020. https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/

Suggested citation

Bozkurt, A., Jung, I., Xiao, J., Vladimirschi, V., Schuwer, R., Egorov, G., Lambert, S. R., Al-Freih, M., Pete, J., Olcott, Jr., D. Rodes, V., Aranciaga, I., Bali, M., Alvarez, Jr., A. V., Roberts, J., Pazurek, A., Raffaghelli, J. E., Panagiotou, N., de Coëtlogon, P., Shahadu, S., Brown, M., Asino, T. I. Tumwesige, J., Ramírez Reyes, T., Barrios Ipenza, E., Ossiannilsson, E., Bond, M.,Belhamel, K.,Irvine, V., Sharma, R. C., Adam, T., Janssen, B., Sklyarova, T., Olcott, N. Ambrosino, A., Lazou, C., Mocquet, B., Mano, M., & Paskevicius, M. (2020). A global outlook to the interruption of education due to COVID-19 pandemic: Navigating in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Asian Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 1-126. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3878572