By Gabriel Bădescu, Babeş-Bolyai University of Cluj, Romania, and GEM Report fellow
All over the world, he Covid-19 pandemic has led to school closures. Poorer nations have tended to bring in stricter measures, relative to the severity of their outbreaks, than richer nations. This tendency is expected to continue, since countries with less-developed healthcare systems have to act more cautiously. This raises the questions of what kind of school outcomes are likely to be affected most, and how the most vulnerable students will fare in terms of these outcomes. Prosocial skills – which lead to ‘helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering’ – are likely to be among the outcomes affected for many students, and disproportionately so for those with lower socio-economic status.
Prosocial skills are important in times of health crisis. Their importance has been documented in various contexts, including communities, firms, volunteer associations, political organizations and schools. Within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, several studies show that the speed and effectiveness of the process of crisis recovery are strongly influenced by the levels of trust and social capital, which are positively linked with prosocial behaviours. More prosocial people are more likely to follow physical distancing and hygiene recommendations, inform themselves about how they can help others, donate to fighting Covid-19, and buy a cloth face mask.
Prosocial skills are important for learning. Developing prosocial skills in school is an important goal by itself, but also a means for making a positive learning environment. Analyses on Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 data, which included a new assessment of student collaborative problem solving skills, found that collaborative school environments are positively correlated with science results, as well as with students’ attitudes toward school. They also show that the relationship between collaborative problem-solving performance and socio-economic status is positive in almost every country/economy that participated in the 2015 assessment, and that richer countries tend to have higher means of the collaborative problem solving skill scores.
Can online learning develop prosocial skills?
Most experts expect that the Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate global educational trends toward distance learning. Recent work found evidence that various web-based technologies afford a compelling multimodal communication that can contribute to prosocial development. However, we know from previous research on ICT approaches in education that several issues must be addressed.
Distance learning ignores meaningful child participation
First, student participation is important both as an aim and as means for learning. Meaningful participation of children is supported by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children’s views should be sought, heard and taken into account in decisions, in relation to all matters that concern them. However, a recent survey of professionals, contacted through children’s participation and rights networks in 20 European countries, showed that 70% could not identify a single Covid-19 related child participation initiative. Consequently, any new online approaches should incorporate objectives to increase opportunities for children to collectively share their ideas, to ensure that they can highlight concerns, inform decisions, and hold decision-makers to account.
Bandwidth impacts interpretation
Second, the quality of internet connection and related services can have important consequences on how students view their peers and teachers, and wider society. Even short delays on conferencing systems tend to shape participants’ views of other people negatively. Therefore, school systems need to ensure access to good quality synchronous teaching.
Online learning cuts interaction
Third, online learners tend to feel isolated because of their physical separation from other learners and the instructor. Developing learning communities can alleviate the isolation problem and motivate learners to persist in their learning. Several analyses indicate that the development of an online learning community benefits from using both asynchronous and synchronous technologies that create a shared space in which students and instructor interact, that both task-oriented discussions and social interactions should be encouraged, and that students should be assigned tasks that require collaboration.
Future research is needed to validate the guidelines for developing prosocial behaviours and collaborative skills, particularly in times of crises such as that of today. The guidelines should be tested and refined to address context-specific needs and for addressing challenges related to the equitable provision of education during times of crisis. Prosocial skills are as important as any others and deserve not to be ignored.