Online learning, employed on a large scale for the first time due to the coronavirus in Cyprus presented a challenge for teachers, parents and children alike. But it has also proved an opportunity for educational change, educators argue – if handled the right way.

Head of the government’s pedagogical institute Athina Michaelidou, responsible for e-learning in public schools, is a firm believer in this, saying we are on the right track.

“Things are better now, we are more familiar with online learning, all of us, students, teachers and parents. We have got a better timeline and the syllabus has been modified, more videos have been added and TV lessons have been enriched for the first three years of primary school.

“We have learned that we cannot have the same timetable, but a session should last a maximum of 30 minutes. Teachers have been asked to concentrate on what is the most important.”

One problem in the beginning was that students were absent and teachers did not realise, but monitoring systems were put in place, which Michaelidou believes is crucial.

She sees a future of blended learning, classroom and online, carrying forward what has been learned during the lockdowns. The important thing is that everybody is now convinced this is not a big obstacle, the rest are details, she concluded.

But any use of online learning faces one very obvious problem. “My son is 14 and currently attending a private English school. While it’s better than doing nothing, online teaching cannot even compare to the real thing! The teachers try to ask questions to engage the pupils but they are quiet and probably ‘checked out’ as there is no control when cameras are switched off and the teacher can’t see what the pupils are doing or even if they are actually sitting behind the computer screen,” Anna Miltiadou, 36, commented.

Something is being done about this as well, both in the private and the public sector, Michaelidou said. “Yes, some students are bored, and the teacher needs to find ways to make it more attractive. There is in-service training for teachers, there are sessions in the mornings and afternoons, most [public school teachers] are interested and more than half participate. NGOs and other institutions offer related training for all teachers, which helps with the broader plan.”

Senior official at the education ministry Nicolas Yiasoumis added technology is constantly being upgraded to help improve the situation. “The network in schools has been upgraded. Also, the schools have been equipped with the hardware and software needed to ensure that the online lessons can take place. In the cases of students with limited access to online learning, the ministry ensured that they were equipped with tablets and internet access cards.

“Beyond taking measures to overcome the technical constraints, inspectors and teachers joined forces and managed to prepare teaching materials that were tailored for distance learning. In addition, seminars were organised for teachers’ professional development regarding available online tools.

“Our next step is to equip school classes with projectors, mini-pc and laptops in the following months. The order for the equipment has already been made. However, due to the high demand in such equipment around the world, there has been delay.”

Others say much more needs to change.

“There is no doubt that Covid has caught the ministry of education, schools and teachers off guard regarding online learning,” dean of the school of education at the University of Nicosia Elena Papanastasiou commented. “So, although our educational system does have educators who are well trained in instructional technology and our universities do offer such programmes, teachers were rarely given enough opportunities to utilise these skills. With the onset of the pandemic and the lockdown that followed, teachers had to adapt to their new realities.”

She believes teachers have tried to do their best, but the ministry could initially have provided better guidance and support for teachers, something that needs to be improved further.

“Teachers need to be provided with a lot more support so that they can explore other ways of teaching online, even if that means straying away from the typical curriculum and supporting students in other areas that are essential to their wellbeing. It might even be to the student’s advantage if teachers started focusing less on just covering content knowledge, and focusing more on 21st century skills. Student assessment methods also need to be reconsidered since the traditional methods of assessment, when done from home, have much lower levels of reliability and validity under these circumstances,” Papanastasiou said.

“Overall, I believe that everyone should refrain from focusing on typical curricula, or typical examinations, or typical grades, especially when we are dealing with school age children, since nothing is typical now. We should also keep in mind that student learning does not necessarily stop when they are away from school. Children learn in so many more ways than we are typically aware of. Therefore, schools need to find ways to support all these alternative ways of learning for all students, regardless of their backgrounds; in order to help them develop the necessary skills, knowledge and attitudes to thrive in their new normal.”

Vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Cyprus Irene-Anna Diakidou adds to the debate by saying online learning has been a difficult adjustment but also presents a great opportunity. Educational technology has been out there, but we haven’t made much use of it until now, she argued.

“Of course, there are always difficulties with change but we have also become more flexible, it has opened minds and different avenues for learning and teaching. For example, now the normal interaction is missing and students and teachers have had to find different ways of interacting such as chat boxes and posing questions online.”

For the university the biggest challenge was to take stock of existing technological systems available to the institution and see which new ones needed to be added. These systems then had to be made available to all key players.

Though this was a challenge for the tertiary educational institution, it is much harder for schools, especially elementary schools, Diakidou pointed out.

“The younger children not only need face-to-face interaction but also learn from their peers. It is lonely for them and difficult for teachers,” she acknowledged. “It is also beneficial for teachers and kids, they have had to learn, it is unchartered territory.”

The move online in general has turned ‘experienced’ teachers who before relied on their knowledge and their teaching methods over the years back into students, a good thing in her view. “For the students it is more tricky. They have ‘enforced’ freedom, no school bell to tell them when to come to classes but have to self-regulate.”

As Michaelidou and Papanastasiou do, Diakidou believes a new way to tackle education has already begun and is the way of the future, with online teaching being a growing part of learning, though not necessarily at home.

She is convinced children can learn many things from the internet on their own, so imparting knowledge is not done just by a teacher in class while at the same time the children learn to be independent by looking up sources of learning by themselves. This frees time for the educator, who can use this to add to the knowledge the pupils have already acquired on their own, answer queries and concentrate on developing the critical skills much needed for living in the 21st century.

In agreement with Papanastasiou, the vice rector also raised the question of assessment, which should never nowadays consist of a purely memory-based exams.

“Online feedback fits in well with this, used by the teacher to inform students about their progress and how to use the internet in an appropriate way to maximise learning and personal development.”