CEO of Room to Read believes adapting to the demands of COVID-19 must not make the world short-sighted about the long-term future of education.
As COVID-19 changes the landscape of education worldwide, it’s also important to ensure that the consequences of the pandemic do not make us short-sighted about the future of learning, according to an education expert who participated in a Qatar Foundation global discussion about the way ahead for learning.
We have to continue to remind ourselves that the norm — or whatever is going to be normal — is not going to be constant for quite some time and everything that we do now will likely have applications beyond the pandemic
“We have to continue to remind ourselves that the norm — or whatever is going to be normal — is not going to be constant for quite some time and everything that we do now will likely have applications beyond the pandemic,” said Dr. Geetha Murali, CEO of Room to Read, a non-profit organization in the field of children’s literacy and girls’ education in low-income communities, primarily in Asia and Africa.
“For example, through the work that we're doing on radio and television, we've learned now that we can't just depend on the internet. And that's true with a pandemic or without.”
Dr. Murali explained that while innovation in education, especially amid COVID-19 and in its aftermath, is important to improve educational systems, stakeholders should ensure that continuously looking to reshape education doesn’t disrupt what needs to remain constant.
I think we've tested a lot of things, we've innovated a lot, but we haven't done enough to strengthen the overall system in the best interests of all children
“I think we've tested a lot of things, we've innovated a lot, but we haven't done enough to strengthen the overall system in the best interests of all children, even more so in places where there isn't a stable government system like in the refugee populations,” she said.
“A lot of operations these days in education are ‘project-based’; they are three- to five-year projects that focus on short-term results. And after these projects are over, and unless there's an ongoing and continuing strategy for long-term and sustained impact, it makes it very hard to solve the problem.”
Dr. Murali was one of the six speakers in the latest edition of Education City Speaker Series, a Qatar Foundation platform for global dialogue that brings together experts and thought leaders to discuss key global issues. During the panel that discussed how education needs to be disrupted, protected, and made more accessible and equitable in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, she talked about ensuring that we provide low-tech or no-tech options to improve global literacy rates.
According to Dr. Murali, one approach that educational organizations can take to achieve sustained impact is investing in changing the culture around education in the long-run, such as by advocating for female literacy and life skills among families and communities where girls are deprived of education — something Room to Read employs as a tactic.
With the current state of the world and the inequities that exist, I couldn’t foresee myself ever saying that good schools and teachers are not necessary
“I think what’s unique to Room to Read’s programming is that, in addition to our literacy work, we have a very strong gender focus,” she said.
“We were finding that even though we invested in primary education, there were very gender-specific challenges that girls were facing, and at the end of primary school they were at a much higher risk of dropping out. So, the investments we were making in their literacy education did not have the longer-term impacts that we wanted to have for all children.”
Room to Read uses female mentors and teachers from within local communities so that, over time, there is a shift in gender norms and expectations, and these mentors can talk to the parents of a girl if there are challenges at home that prevent her from completing secondary education or continuing to tertiary education or employment.
As global conversations around COVID-19 discuss whether digital learning is the future of education and if online classes should replace physical classrooms where appropriate, Dr. Murali said she would be wary of that approach, especially in the case of younger children.
“I am a strong advocate for young children having school and teachers,” she said. “There is a social development element to a child learning, and the ability of a teacher to model reading behaviors, to participate in shared reading exercises, and to support children as they struggle through the sounds of language, is essential.
“I think it would be premature for us to say that school is not necessary. With the current state of the world and the inequities that exist, I couldn’t foresee myself ever saying that good schools and teachers are not necessary.”