, 18 September, 2020 / 8:05 PM
Virtual learning, though handy in filling education gaps created by the COVID-19 restrictions across the world, poses the danger of denying learners the important in-person learning and interaction with other students and their teachers, a missionary Cleric ministering in Uganda has told ACI Africa.
According to Fr. Lazar Arasu, Director of Don Bosco Palabek Refugee Services in Uganda, the education sector remains the biggest casualty during COVID-19 pandemic, much as focus is placed on the plunging economy that has been characterized by massive job losses in many countries.
“Media has exposed the challenges of thousands of teachers who have lost their jobs and sources of livelihood. But not much has been said about the myriad of struggles faced by the learners,” Fr. Arasu says in a reflection shared with ACI Africa Wednesday, September 16.
The Indian-born Cleric observes that various forms of technologies that have been adopted to make up for time lost during COVID-19 lockdown are not suitable for younger learners.
“Online or virtual education is just a novel idea and doesn’t offer practical solutions to learning. This modern method of education may be good for mature learners but is not good for those who are still in primary or even in secondary level of education,” he says.
He notes that the remoteness of relationships presented by virtual learning tools is unhealthy for learning.
“The question is very simple,” he says and poses, “How can a slow learner or even an average performer who struggles to learn in a class through a concrete physical environment manage to learn and grasp complex theories in a remote person-less teaching environment?”
“Education is real, not virtual. Education will always remain a ‘relationship of exchange’, rather than just imparting a set of knowledge or skill,” the Cleric asserts.
Fr. Arasu refers to a “thought-provoking document” released on 9 September by the Department of Education in Vatican on the challenges of education during COVID-19 which, among other issues, highlights the importance of relationship, communal sharing, need for cooperation between the Church and other Faith-Organizations and various governments in respective nations.
The document, the member of Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) says, insists on making education inclusive for all sections of the society, and places caution on difficulties posed by distance learning and more emphasis on technology rather than human person.
“As the history of education has shown, the Christian thought and practice places the human person central in all questions; the Church invites all stakeholders to place the human person, in this case the young learner, in the center of the teaching and learning process,” Fr Arasu says, and adds in reference to the Church, “It insists on relationships rather than any other concern.”
“The Vatican reaffirms the direct and interpersonal relationship of exchange and dialogue between teachers and students as indispensable for the learning process despite the world’s educational system taking a battering under the COVID-19 pandemic with distance learning,” he says.
The SDB member who has ministered in East Africa for three decades makes reference to the Vatican department of education document saying that although digital platforms have allowed for education to continue, “they also have brought to light a marked disparity in educational and technological opportunities.”
The document also notes that several millions of children will not be able to access education in the coming years, increasing the already existing educational gap.
In Uganda where Fr. Arasu has been working among refugees for years, stakeholders are still discussing and preparing to open educational institutions while many schools and institutions of higher learning around the world have already begun a new academic year, relying on remote learning.
“The children from the poor and lower income families do not have means to facilitate their children's digital learning,” he says, and explains, “For instance, in Uganda there are millions of families without electricity and facilities for telecommunication. Teachers too are not trained to handle this type of education. This will surely widen the gap between the richer/urban and the poor/rural that the country already has.”
Besides the educational disparity, Fr. Arasu expresses concern about the loss of in-person learning and interaction with the students and teachers, which he considers, in the words of the Vatican document, as “indispensable for the formation of the person and for a critical understanding of reality.”
“While we adapt to remote learning through digital platforms and keeping physical distancing, we should keep in mind the real objectives and values of education, that is, bringing people together and learning to interact and building a human family,” he says.
The SDB Cleric notes that in classrooms, lecture halls and laboratories, learners grow together and build a sense of identity in relationships.
He says that at all ages of life, especially in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, the process of psycho-pedagogical growth cannot take place without an encounter with others, and that the presence of the other provides the necessary conditions for creativity and inclusion to flourish.
“Relationships which are vital in education cannot find sufficient home in the interaction mediated by a screen or in the impersonal connections of the digital network,” the Cleric asserts.
He notes that the Vatican “Circular Letter to Schools, Universities and Educational Institutions” brings out clearly the mission of the Catholic educational institutions especially during this time of COVID-19 lockdown.
“The Vatican instructs that while distance learning to control the spread of the epidemic is widening, the current educational gap within society should be removed,” Fr. Arasu says, adding that due to a lack of economic support from the state, Catholic-run schools risk closure or radical downsizing.
The Vatican document insists that education and relationship go hand in hand. It affirms that the process of psycho-pedagogical growth cannot take place without personal encounter with others.
While appreciating the teachers for their selfless service, the Vatican calls for a robust continuing-formation programs for teachers that can meet the needs of our time without losing the synthesis of faith, culture, and life.
“(The) purpose of education is to put each other at the service of others, promoting common good and overcoming divisions of all kinds,” Fr. Arasu says.
He adds, “More than ever before, this period of epidemic we need a strong commitment to form a community of networks which will form an educational alliance whose team effort aims at renewing the passion for a more open and inclusive education.”
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa