How regional collaboration can help improve education outcomes during coronavirus

Students in classroom in Indonesia wearing facemasks

By Jihyun Lee

Associate Professor, School of Education, University of New South Wales
Thomas J. Alexander Fellow, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Uncertainty, disruption, and school closures and reopening have become the norm for education during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The pandemic certainly did not discriminate rich or poor countries and many high-income countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States were among the hardest hit. However, the impact of this pandemic on education is likely to be greater among lower-income countries. By bolstering regional collaboration, countries in less well-to-do regions could mitigate learning losses during the crisis and improve educational outcomes into the future.

In comparison to countries with higher GDPs, the material and financial conditions and government support for out-of-school learning opportunities are limited in low GDP countries. Most of all, the level of replacement of traditional teaching with online learning that can be achieved in most developed countries cannot be guaranteed for many students in middle- and low-income countries. An Internet connection itself, let alone innovative online materials and instructional design, is not present in the teaching environment in many parts of middle- and low-income countries. For instance, PISA 2018 found that only around 45% of students in Indonesia reported having access to a connection to the Internet, the figure was higher for Malaysia (77%) and Thailand (84%) but well below the OECD average of 95%. The impact of disruption in formal school-based learning is therefore likely to be greater in less well-to-do countries.

From the broad perspective of factors contributing to student achievement, education research suggests that a certain level of national wealth, family socio-economic status, educational materials that students have access to and individuals’ basic cognitive ability matter for student performance. Research in the past 20 years has also shown that non-cognitive skills such as time management, intention to work hard, perseverance, confidence and self-beliefs can play an important role in students’ academic achievement. Carefully constructed non-cognitive skills interventions can contribute to improved academic performance.

It can be argued that non-cognitive skills have gained heightened importance during the pandemic. Students often need to engage themselves in self-directed learning and need to persevere in the face of uncertainty over whether there will be a return to or disruption of normal classes in the near future. It can also be argued that non-cognitive skills are more important for children and students in less well-to-do countries where public and private resources for non-school-based learning tend to be limited.

A recent OECD Education Working paper found that among the middle-income countries of Southeast Asia, students tend to possess a range of non-cognitive qualities that educational researchers have identified as being particularly important for students’ ongoing learning. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam have participated in PISA more than once. The research shows that similar types of non-cognitive characteristics appear to be shared by students from these four countries. Their instrumental motivation is high, their interest in studying is high, and their work ethic and perseverance are also comparatively high. While it will be difficult to establish a direct causal relationship between the effects of these non-cognitive qualities on education during COVID-19, it will be worthwhile to document the impact of COVID-19 on Southeast Asian students’ learning outcomes and compare that to other parts of the world with similar wealth levels or similar past PISA performances.

In light of similar non-cognitive profiles shared by students in these four Southeast Asian countries, advocating stronger regional collaboration may make sense. This means that educational policy measures or intervention programmes can be designed with stronger regional collaborative efforts. Among the four Southeast Asian countries, there has been a wide range of variations in terms of academic performance. Viet Nam, for example, has been showing remarkable progress in recent PISA testing. Indonesia’s PISA results, on the other hand, have stagnated, ranked 64th out of 65 participating countries and economies in PISA 2012 mathematics, and ranked 62nd out of 70 participating countries and economies in PISA 2015 science. However, it is important to note that during this period Indonesia has made substantial gains in participation in secondary education.

Regional collaboration may prove to be useful in considering strategies to improve educational outcomes and perhaps other policy areas as well

Regional collaboration has often been overlooked in favour of making attempts at policy borrowing from stellar educational performers (such as Finland and Estonia). However, regional collaboration may prove to be useful in considering strategies to improve educational outcomes and perhaps other policy areas as well. There may be renewed recognition of co-operation among teachers, schools, academics and scientists in the development of academic and professional human resources, and the promotion of information sharing and dissemination within the region. The Southeast Asian region, with its long history of regional collaboration to promote political, economic and socio-cultural integration, and regional stability could lead the way in setting and pursuing enhanced co-operation goals – setting an example for other parts of the international community to follow.

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