Universities need to boost ‘poor sister’ community engagement, forum told

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This special debate, held 29 September 2020, aimed to present and discuss approaches on reopening schools or resuming classes post-covid-19. The panellists also gave their ideas of a reimagined future of education following adjustments due to the pandemic. Video: SciDev.Net

By Melanie Sison in Manila

Reopening of classes calls for community effort and not just schools ensuring the safety of students and personnel, an online forum heard.

Organised by SciDev.Net Asia & Pacific, the webinar event brought together experts on education from across the region to discuss ways to go about formal education under the new normal.

“We face the realisation that the third pillar of universities and higher education institutions — which is engagement with society — must stop being the poor sister of the other two pillars [education of students and research],” said Dr Zinaida Fadeeva, a visiting professor at Nalanda University, India.

Dr Fadeeva said the importance of engaging with the communities plays a role in determining whether educational institutions should reopen.

“It’s defined by factors which characterise the functioning of individual universities, as well as society itself,” she said. “It’s about preparedness to treat people, it’s about the testing and tracing system, it’s about how people move, socialise, live, travel.”

Measures to ensure physical safety, including accessibility to covid-19 testing kits and medical facilities, however, also have to be balanced with students’ needs.

“The consideration of physical safety comes with the principle of not leaving anybody behind,” Fadeeva said, referring to the guiding principle of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Logistics organised around universities
“It’s about the whole logistics organised around universities and the region that would determine whether universities will open or not.”

Adjusting to the new normal means ensuring that students have access to education regardless of whether schools are physically open or not. It also means capacitating teachers and other educators to enable them to become more flexible and respond quickly and effectively.

Dr Fadeeva said that the covid-19 pandemic helped forge strategic partnerships, including between private and public educational institutions, that go deeper in community engagement.

A new possibility is the retooling of the methodologies of learning and action research employed by universities and educational institutions.

“New skills of bringing results of research to communities and the government also needs to be developed,” said Dr Fadeeva, adding that this kind of retooling could also bring different revenue streams.

She said that local governments and the private sector were potential clients and important given that universities have lost revenue because of the pandemic.

Dr David Robie
PMC’s director Professor David Robie … welcomed stronger academic engagement with Asia. Image: PMC screenshot

The education sector now also sees the bridging of schools and homes, said Professor David Robie, director of New Zealand’s Pacific Media Centre – “[The lockdown] enabled the opportunity to move out of schools and into homes”.

“Teachers have had to adapt and innovate to ensure learning is learner – and family-friendly,” he said. “Learners introducing their teachers and peers online have produced deeper personal level of connections that they can continue to build on.”

The internet has also allowed partnerships to be formed beyond the immediate community.

Dr Robie said that one gain from the covid-19 pandemic is the networking of academic institutions from different countries.

“We had very little contact in the academic context with much of Asia,” he said. Online conferences and webinars have allowed his faculty to work with members of the academe from the Philippines, Indonesia, and other parts of Asia.

“Education is not just about content; it’s about building relationships,” said Dr Robert Roleda, vice-chancellor for academics of De La Salle University, Philippines.

“One of the bright spots of this pandemic is that it showed us that there are actually ways wherein we can get more engaged with people from around the world.”

He said that the shift to online learning of education institutions is a reflection of how the internet grew.

“The development of Internet was enhanced by collaboration by the sciences,” he said.

This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk and was originally published on October 4. It is republished by the Pacific Media Centre with permission.

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