Govt. to spend up to $16 million on virtual learning, smart schools

Govt. to spend up to $16 million on virtual learning, smart schools
Preschooler engaging with teacher and students in the Virtual Preschool Classroom (FILE)

Ministry of Education in final stages of amending the Education Act

NASSAU, BAHAMAS – The Ministry of Education will spend $3 million in the upcoming fiscal period to place more than 3,000 tablets and in the hands of students and laptop for every teacher, as the ministry prioritizes its “aggressive digitization project”.

In the last fiscal period, the ministry distributed 9,000 tablets, Minister of Education Jeffrey Lloyd said during the budget debate yesterday.

According to minister, Hurricane Dorian, who destroyed portions of Abaco and Grand Bahama, disrupted the delivery of the remaining devices to those islands, which remain in recovery mode.

On September 1, 2019, the government launched its first virtual school — a feet in the region.

Dorian struck The Bahamas the following day.

Lloyd said the storm wiped out the ministry’s budget for technology as funds had to be diverted to schools repairs.

As a result of the record storm, 1,750 students began using virtual platform to continue their education.

The onset of the pandemic and the closure of schools in March led to an expanded virtual learning platform.

However, Lloyd said some students did not have devices or Internet connectivity, requiring the ministry to partner with Aliv to procure 5,000 tablets at a cost of $500,000.

The ministry will purchase an additional 5,000 tablets in the upcoming fiscal period.

He said those devices will be distributed to students who do not have the means to purchase them.

The ministry has spent $12 million on infrastructural upgrades to transition to “smart schools”. According to Lloyd, this conversion is 64 percent complete overall — 98 percent in Eleuthera, 95 percent in New Providence and 100 percent in Grand Bahama.

It is expected to cost an additional $6 million to $8 million to complete the process in 61 schools throughout the Family Islands.

Lloyd said a task force has been commissioned and will oversee the implementation of a comprehensive education management information system and learning management system — the latter of which is expected to cost between $3 million and $5 million.

As a result of the pandemic, the ministry was unable to recruit 60 specialist teachers from Cuba. Instead, the ministry will seek to hire 200 “Bahamian grown” teachers from the University of The Bahamas.

“To survive in a COVID 19 era, the Ministry of Education will facilitate a blended learning environment,” the minister said.

“If social distancing is still being enforced, then schools would have to be on a rotation system where one group of students receive face-to-face instruction, while the other group of students receives instruction virtually. To ensure that we can achieve this we would have to supply each student and teacher, if they do not have a device and internet capability.”

Lloyd also announced the ministry was in the final stages of revising the Education Act, which was last updated in 1996.

He indicated that it was determined by a review that complete overhaul was unnecessary, but major amendments were needed ranging from the use of technology and innovation, individual and personalized learning, including the massive growth of home-schooling in The Bahamas and the devolution of authority to local districts, islands and schools boards so unique requirements may be addressed in a timely manner.

Lloyd said: “The truth is that the Act simply does not adequately address current concerns, new trends and developments in the field of Education.”

He continued: “This is a new thinking, sir. Previously, education systems demanded that its Clients – our children – adapt and submit to the prescriptions established by it. That is not the new reality. Students want to learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn and how they want to learn, and any system worth its integrity is obliged to succumb to those demands.

“Of course, the responsibility of governments is to verify that its citizens meet certain basic intellectual, vocational, technical, moral, social and cultural skills sets, but beyond that, the student must be allowed, and encouraged, to exercise his [or] her volitional authority.

Grants in-aid

As of result of the economic slowdown, many parents and guardians have been unable to pay private school fees, Lloyd advised.

He said those fees constitute the greatest portion of revenue for private schools, and the shortfall has resulted in private schools requesting assistance from the ministry.

The allocation for grant-in-aid will be increased in the upcoming budget.

In 2019/2020, $14.7 million was budgeted for this purpose.

The minister said to ensure fairness and equity to the subvention process; it has engaged a committee compromising of ministry officials and private citizens to review the matter.

Lloyd said while it is the ministry’s intention to assist to the extent it can, too many institutions depend on the government’s subvention