The Malta Independent 14 July 2020, Tuesday

Learning opportunities

Owen Bonnici Friday, 26 June 2020, 07:22 Last update: about 17 days ago

On the basis of a Croatian Presidency background note, ministers responsible for education this week exchanged views on the lessons learnt from the crisis as a basis for future informed decisions. Croatia presently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

We were also invited, during an Informal EU Ministers of Education virtual meeting on the implications of Covid-19 on education and training, to discuss possible innovations in education and training as well as plans on preparations for the next school and academic year.

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I actively participated in this meeting and gave an overview of our experience in Malta.

I stated that in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures, Malta had to shift to e-learning and ensure a seamless transition to remote learning on our already established digital platforms. This has provided an opportunity to further evaluate our online education systems on a national level. I am happy to say that the majority of educators transitioned to online teaching in a prompt, effective and efficient manner. Moreover, their commitment has often extended beyond delivering virtual lessons by way of being evermore present for our students.

I echo my Croatian counterpart’s view when she said that: “A crisis can also be a learning opportunity. Lessons learnt during the past months should inspire us to turn challenges into opportunities. Online learning activities will only grow and we have to explore how to use innovation and technology to achieve quality and inclusive education.” Bla?enka Divjak, Minister for Science and Education of Croatia also said that our efforts should be focused on further digital transformation, at the same time ensuring equal opportunities and wellbeing.

In my intervention, I said that the shift to digital education, however, quickly revealed issues of inclusion, specifically access to digital information and tools. Our virtual exchanges, the multiple webinars for experts and the Government’s efforts to bridge this gap proved very fruitful. In fact, use of the Government-provided tablets to students in year 4, 5 and 6 tripled since the closure of schools in March. A total of more than 1.2 million hours of tablet-usage was clocked. Inclusion issues were especially prevalent in students with disadvantaged backgrounds.

In order to support students, helplines were set up to continue providing counselling assistance. Online support was also provided to parents for inclusion purposes and special education. Students with disabilities were also further supported by learning coaches through one-on-one online sessions. Additionally, vulnerable students in State and Church schools, who usually benefit from lunches at school, kept receiving their lunch at home.

Malta has also been providing free support to students who do not have access to a computer or internet connection at home; and families who do not have an internet connection were assisted with installation so that students can follow online lessons like their peers. Our educators were also given additional training on online pedagogy and exchanges of best practices were provided via webinars, which will continue to run during the summer recess on a voluntary basis.

Within the tertiary education sector, the University of Malta is currently conducting online examinations. This may prove very useful in the long-term and facilitates the utilisation of future online efforts such as blended learning.

The pandemic has made it clear that online learning platforms should be streamlined into one online platform. To this end, we launched a more user-friendly website, teleskola.com.mt, which contains a wealth of online educational resources, with more than 2,000 lessons for students from kindergarten to Form 5.

Furthermore, a 20-minute educational programme called TeleskolaTV is also being broadcasted twice a week. This complements the good practices implemented by educators, students and their families through the various internet tools.

Malta’s digital sessions with children of all ages is a solution that facilitates both the continuation of the learning experience, as well as the growth of the students as independent learners. The strengthened cooperation between the school and the families of the students fostered a renewed relationship of understanding, both in terms of the needs of the student and of the family as a whole.

From a vocational point of view, it is clear that not every aspect of the curriculum of programmes lends itself to distance learning - especially work-based learning. However, we learned that we need to look beyond the COVID-19 and adjust our education system to include blended pedagogies that combine the potential of online learning and in-person practice sessions. Timetables, amongst other measures, have been shifted online. Although technology will not substitute the real experience of work and human interactions, technology has proved support accessibility of our education. Augmented and virtual reality can offer viable solutions to VET courses and we are working to make the best use of these technologies.

The plan with regards to the re-opening of schools has been a joint effort together with the health authorities and stakeholders, with the strategic planning for the re-opening of schools planned for September. This is being done in accordance to the framework suggested by the United Nations. The Government is currently executing the scenario which includes the re-opening of institutions such as childcare centres, summer and language schools with the necessary safeguards. 

The protection of our students and the provision of continuous learning and growth opportunities is vital and will continue to be our aim. I am also pleased to report that we managed to safely open more than 100 childcare centres, and summer school in Malta will kick off in a week’s time.

At the end of my intervention, I thanked my colleagues for their input and our invaluable exchanges during this period. Particularly, I commended the Croatian Presidency for its hard work and continuous efforts to ensure European coordination and support in Education and training.

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