The global pandemic has exacerbated many of Jamaica’s inherent problems. One example is the unprecedented challenge to the island’s education system. But there may be a silver lining. In emerging from the pandemic, the island has an opportunity to make major improvements.
Dramatic change is already apparent. Traditional in-person classroom learning has given way not only to remote learning and virtual reality experiences, but also to live broadcasts and “educational influencers.”
The island has established its own Educational TV station, and according to Colin Steer, director of Corporate Communication for Jamaica’s Education Ministry, “our radio and TV stations recognize their key role in supporting the national education goals.”
Computers are playing a much bigger role in the new system as students rely on lessons and assignments sent via WhatsApp or email.
Steer notes that adaptation to the pandemic has increased students’ and teachers’ digital skills, facilitated access to technological devices and internet service, and enhanced the use of audio-visual learning. And parents have become more involved in their children’s education, he says.
Also, educators now “have a much clearer understanding of the gaps and challenges within the education system related to internet connectivity, hardware, integration of digital tools in the curriculum and effective use of technology.”
Learning could now become integrated into daily routines – a habitual lifestyle that prepares students for success, not only in Jamaica but globally.
But what about the children who still don’t have access to a computer, or the skill required to use one?
“Going forward the government announced that they are embarking on an island-wide Wi-Fi project, which is great, but that alone cannot solve the problem,” says Fredrick Charles Wellington, who retired from the Information Technology Department at Northwestern University in Illinois and now lives back home in Mandeville.
“They will need a collaboration with private sector and NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) to assist in attacking this problem else we will eventually wind up with half of our students below an acceptable educational level,” he warns.
Professor Wellington was active in Chicago Concerned Jamaicans (CCJ), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting education for the island’s children.
He points out that “the at-home learning program works for some, mostly the resourceful urban area schools, but the rural schools that are less resourceful — some with no internet connectivity, and some with parents that are unable to assist their children on how to navigate the internet — is worrisome.”
Almost half a million Jamaican students were unable to access online classes last fall, due to the lack of computers, laptops or Wi-Fi access.
The Diaspora has provided laptops, tablets and similar hardware to help students cope with the new remote-learning environment. Supplies have come from such groups as:
–The Jamaica Diaspora Taskforce Action Network (JDTAN)
–The Jamaica Canada Association (JCA) and Canada Coast to Coast
-Too Small to Fail
-The Clinton Foundation
-The Union of Jamaica Alumni Association (UJAA)
-The Jamaica Awareness Association of California (JAAC)
-The Alliance of Jamaican High Schools Associations in Toronto
-The UTECH Community Service & Development department
-The LASCO Chin Foundation
-Eye on Jamaica
Professor Wellington suggests more can be done.
“The Diaspora can use the CCJ (Chicago Concerned Jamaicans) model to help by directly assisting the students, parents and teachers of the primary/high school they attended,” he says. “In addition, CCJ has around 300 former students who received high school and tertiary scholarships from the organization and are currently working in the US, Canada and Jamaica; CCJ should call upon them to give back to their community schools and students as consultants, or with financial assistance to those students who are now in the position that they were in when we assisted them.”
He suggests that “the government should also look at retired computer professionals who live in the rural areas and can assist students on how to connect and use the internet on an individual basis.”
Steer says the Diaspora “can continue to partner with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information to provide ongoing teacher training, psychosocial support to students and parents through various interventions (using qualified persons with the field), teacher assistant support (volunteer), tools and equipment for primary and secondary schools to aide in the teaching and learning process, assistance with the building/procurement of school furniture and the curation of educational content.”
In emerging countries like Jamaica where education has traditionally been provided almost exclusively by the government, this approach could lead to more cooperation between governments, publishers, technology providers and telecom network operators, using digital platforms.
Now, what about the curriculum?
Over the years, Jamaica’s education has morphed from the old Colonial goal of offering “a classical education… so that students would be properly fitted to take their place in society.” In Colonial and post-Colonial days, schools focused on reading, writing and arithmetic — with religious training and lessons in geography and history. (In some cases, boys were given training in agriculture and other manual arts, and girls were taught sewing and domestic science.)
Increasingly, educators have adopted a more practical approach.
“There is now a paradigm shift from a content/knowledge-based education sphere to a more competency-based system, which embodies knowledge, skills and attitudes,” Steer says. “The NSC is written to promote the development of the 21st Century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, strategic and critical thinking, which will ensure our students will have a more global presence.”
In addition to academic education, multi-disciplinary community colleges in Jamaica offer pre-university, professional, commercial, and upper-level vocational training in a variety of fields, as well as community-oriented courses. And there is a growing trend toward internships.
“Jamaica has long positioned itself to ensure the integration of Technical and Vocational Education and Training in the formal education system,” Steer says.
He notes that “the Apprenticeship Programme was introduced in the Ministry in 2014 and then subsumed under the Housing Opportunity Production & Employment Programme (HOPE) through the Learn Earn Give and Save (LEGS) Programme in 2018.”
This programme facilitates youth participating in internship for a period of one year and a maximum of two years. During the intern’s tenure, students attend in-class training sessions culminating with an assessment at the end for certification.
Students in the high schools are also involved in formal work experience programmes and voluntary service as a means of engagement in service learning.
The Education Ministry’s goals include the ability to use the spoken and written language, Caribbean Standard English, with precision, clarity and grammatical correctness and “the ability to use language effectively for communicating.” Also included is the development of critical thinking and the ability to analyze logical concepts.
The Ministry is guided by the vision of “a customer- centered, performance-oriented education system producing globally competitive, socially conscious Jamaican citizens,” and providing “strategic leadership and policy direction for quality education for all Jamaicans to maximize their potential, contribute to national development and compete effectively in the global economy, as it pursues its developmental goals for the nation.”
This approach has been effective in preparing Jamaican students not only for life at home but also for assimilation into English-speaking societies abroad. The success of Jamaicans in countries like Britain and the US demonstrates the value of this approach.
But times have changed, and even more drastic changes are ahead in the wake of the pandemic. The rapid spread of COVID-19 demonstrated the importance of building resilience to face various threats, from disease to climate insecurity and rapid technological change.
The pandemic also provides an opportunity to focus on the skills students need in this unpredictable world, such as informed decision making, creative problem solving and, perhaps above all, adaptability.
“To ensure those skills remain a priority for all students, resilience must be built into our educational systems,” according to Gloria Tam and Diana El-Azar of the Minerva Project, a pioneer in educational transformation.
Of course, this necessary adjustment to post-pandemic conditions must not obscure the core mission of any educational system – to inspire a lifelong learning experience, nurture students’ natural talents and equip them for a productive and enjoyable life.
To this end, Jamaica’s Ministry of Education is committed to promoting “an understanding and appreciation of the place and value of the varieties of English and of the dialects and creoles of the Caribbean and other regions in different social and cultural contexts; developing an ability to respond to literature for pleasure, to recognise and respond to the writer’s craft, and to make sensitive appraisals of value judgments and other concepts expressed in literature.”
As the culture of the Caribbean matures, a wealth of literary, musical and artistic material is achieving international recognition. Jamaica’s educators should have little difficulty in identifying appropriate and rewarding source material as they develop programmes for the years ahead.
Photos: Deposit Photos