The new school year was to begin in a mere number of days before the pandemic finally reached the isthmus of Panama. The school year was swiftly postponed and many students returned to a semi summer vacation. I say “semi” because in order to ensure that the students wouldn’t lose the school year entirely they were given work books with lessons for them to work on during the interim until the lockdown and quarantine is lifted. This was a good method to keep students engaged while at home and keep them up to date with their school work. As the pandemic progressed it became clear that that strategy would work for only so long. So in the beginning of July the Ministry of Education has renewed its efforts to keep the students engaged with new digital education platforms and a new teaching initiative for students who live in rural areas with limited access to digital education technologies. On the other hand students who live in urban areas and have access to those digital resources and platforms have continued with classes since the beginning of the pandemic through videoconferencing technology. This disparity is important to highlight in order to think of ways to support those students who don’t have access to these platforms in order to find solutions for them when the next pandemic or other event impedes them from physically attending school. For purposes of investigating this issue I spoke to a few teachers from the two distinct education environments (rural and urban) to hear about their experience with the new virtual pivot that academic institutions have been forced to adopt due to the pandemic. The school of the rural setting is a public school and the school from the urban setting is a private school. Access to education is a problem that the current presidential administration had campaigned on a year ago before the pandemic and the pandemic has shed a light on the urgent need for solutions to this long existing issue.
The professor from the public school told us about his experience with the education pivot in the rural region of Costa Arriba in the Panamanian province of Colón. The last two weeks that school has had its reinitiation have been a trial period according to the Professor. This trial period will be useful in highlighting major issues in reaching students and providing a streamlined education experience that can meet the needs of students as well as their parents. The Ministry of Education has recommended to its teachers that they use applications such as Google Suite, Google Classroom, and ZOOM with their students to direct classes and test taking and manage homework and grading. However these teachers have encountered problems and difficulties in implementing these technologies with their student body. Some of the problems teachers have experienced with their students are economical in nature. The majority of students in this rural coastal region of Panama do not have WiFi or any form of internet in their homes, so they must use cell phone data that they have to pay for through a prepaid card. One virtual classroom session can use almost if not all of the data purchased and for a rural family this becomes costly. For many families that are not working or have lost their job due to the pandemic, this is a cost that they cannot maintain. So their child won’t receive any education for most of the year if the Ministry of Education can’t come up with a viable solution for those who lack access to these platforms and digital arenas.
This economical problem has, to my own surprise, been an issue in the private school as well, though to a lesser degree. According to the two teachers I spoke to, there are parents who have not installed WiFi in their homes and have rejected installing it in order to accommodate the digital pivot and instead have opted to buy prepaid phone cards to use data to give access to the virtual classes directed by the teachers. As we know from the rural experience this is an unsustainable method in receiving a digital education. Another issue, much like in the rural coastal region, is a lack of computers, but to a lesser degree. Some households have one computer but multiple students so everyday there is a conflict over who gets to use it to take their class. Other households have been obligated to buy a computer, and that is under the economic stress that the pandemic economy has put upon households. According to the two teachers I spoke to, who teach 7-9 grade, roughly 10%-15% of their students don’t have all the required equipment and/or technological connectivity to fully participate in the virtual pivot instituted by the school. This is still much better than in the rural area, where teachers said almost all students lack the required equipment and/or technological connectivity to participate fully in classes.
Another problem that teachers at the public school, and once again to a lesser degree in the private school, have had to deal with is lack of training and understanding about the digital platforms. For the rural students and teachers they have had trouble signing on and staying connected on the platforms during class time. For the students it is often because their prepaid mobile data runs out. Sometimes it is due to the weather. If it is cloudy there is poor cell phone reception and therefore the mobile data will be slow or nonexistent.
Teachers on the other hand, upon adopting these digital platforms, due to the recommendations by the Ministry of Education and in the private school’s case by obligation, received little to no instruction and training in the use and utilization of these platforms. If they received instruction it amounted to a brief overview of the platform. Their practice with students and giving classes has served as their training and has made them as comfortable as they can be with the platforms, given the connectivity issues that may persist in the rural setting. The private school teachers have been using these platforms since March, and according to the teachers they have finally established a rhythm and understanding of the platforms that allows them to work a lot smoother. However in the beginning they struggled with the platform and its implementation.
In the midst of all this change and pivoting one of the teachers in the public school has decided to go against the grain and strike his own path to carry out his classes in a way that is compatible with the students level of access and knowledge, as well as his own. Instead of utilizing ZOOM or Google Classroom he has been using WhatsApp. WhatsApp is a messaging and content sharing phone application that is used widely in Panama, as well as the world, as the main communication and instant messaging platform. Since the public school teacher, his students, and their parents were already adept in their use with WhatsApp, it was a natural choice for him in order to save himself trouble reaching and teaching his students. The teacher films himself teaching lessons, which he then uploads to YouTube, and then shares with his students on WhatsApp. He sends photos or PDFs of homework he assigns them and they in return send him photos of their completed work for him to grade. He has told me that he feels that it is successful because of the platform's familiarity and that familiarity doesn’t create a barrier of entry for students so they don’t feel frustrated or disincentivised more than they already are due to the pandemic. These are the solutions that are necessary in these difficult times and during a stage in history where making this digital pivot is essential in carrying out our daily work activities in an effective and inclusive way.
We will be working with the teacher at the public school in Costa Arriba to support him and his students in any way we can in order to improve his content or improve its distribution to his students. We will be following up on a weekly basis with him to see how his pivot is going and how effective it continues to be. This information will be pertinent to our ongoing efforts with our ConectaRoo app and its implementation in the coastal communities of Colón.