Traditional to virtual: Making the COVID-19 Driven Transition
The current heavier-than-usual reliance on technology in a world caught in the seeming unrelenting grip of a pandemic, is signalling new ways of living and learning. It is also pointing to new opportunities that policymakers in the Caribbean can capitalize on post-COVID-19.
The protocols to slow the spread of the virus are credited with shifting mindsets in the world of work, emptying offices and schools, and rendering the concept and practice of ‘remote working’ a necessity rather than an option as we heed the ‘stay home’ advice. It has compelled us to think of home not only as our sanctuary, our place of comfort and relaxation, but as a make-shift work space with the accompanying discipline on the one hand, and a level of flexibility on the other.
With schools in the Region shuttered for an extended period, educators, parents and children are now leaning more heavily on the virtual world to ensure that teaching and learning continue. The ability to move to eLearning and eEducation is grounded in the significant outlays governments across the Region have made in ICT infrastructure.
CARICOM Member States were proactive in creating virtual platforms for teaching and learning in the early days of the importation of the virus into the Region.
In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, Dr. the Hon Lovell Francis, Minister of State in the Ministry of Education told a news conference on 14 April 2020, that the country moved quickly to create content for students, teachers and parents to use online.
Ms. Jennifer Britton, Deputy Programme Manager, ICT4D, at the CARICOM Secretariat, commended the willingness to seamlessly transition from traditional, in-person activties to online activities. She pointed out that the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) had been trying to push more of its products and services to the Community to bridge the divide.
“The technology is robust. The governments in our Region, like the rest of the world, have spent a lot of money over the past decades investing in this technology. What I think is important to note is… (that apart from education) almost every industry is pushing services and activities, so it’s not only education but there are a lot more activities happening on this one global pipeline, and obviously there is going to be strain and stress felt,” she said in an interview with CARICOM Today.
She added that the Region had not yet spent enough time quantifying and fully assessing its full technological capacity and that the current environment may provide the opportunity to perform that kind of assessment.
But the new approaches to communication are also exposing the fault-line of under-served areas across the Community where access to electricity, radio and electronic devices, and the internet is negligible to non-existent. It is foremost on the minds of those involved in the IT field.
“Obviously though, there are persons in our Region, in all of the countries, who are in what we call under-served areas and who may not be able to benefit immediately from the online activities that have been pushed by schools and other educational institutions so that too is foremost on the minds of IT practitioners as we continue to meet almost weekly to talk about how these problems could be alleviated in the short, medium and long-term,” Ms. Britton said.
Minister Francis told representatives of the media that about 50 000 students in Trinidad and Tobago alone, may not have devices to access the virtual platforms. A drive had begun to source those devices, Minister Francis said.
The crisis has accentuated the mandate, vision and plans of the CARICOM Single ICT Space, which, if fast-tracked, could help the Region to be as robust as the rest of the world with regard to our ICT and internet platforms.
In the medium and long-term, Ms. Britton said, one of the critical things that could be done was the development of a regional cloud strategy where governments could begin to store important information “that we would want to share with each other and that we want to preserve in the sad advent of a crisis”.
“… we need to be thinking very quickly about how do we restore people to jobs particularly those who have lost jobs or who have had jobs that were different and may never re-emerge. And so e-commerce comes to my mind very frontally in the sense that we have to be able help our small, medium and micro-enterprises persons receive money very quickly so that they can keep their businesses going but similarly they need to be able to pay their bills seamlessly so that they don’t have to leave their businesses to go and pay bills … Telecoms companies and some internet service providers around the Region have started to provide those services such as mobile money by GTT in Guyana,” Ms. Britton said.
She added that the Region now had the opportunity to sell products – particularly our food products – online. “The food value chain as we look across the world is slowing down in some interesting ways in the developed world and we may be able to jump into that gap; not fill it completely but there may be space for the Region to be able to market and package attractively and be able to ship it across the world,” she said.
Governments as innovators
Pivoting back to education, Ms. Britton said that while the Community consumed a lot of online content, it could begin to develop courses and market them to the rest of the world.
Everyone needed to be involved in the conversation on how the Region must proceed in the short, medium and long terms, Ms, Britton posited. This ‘downtime’ she said, was a good period to gather communities of interest together to have conversations and to “think about how will we emerge at the end of this crisis and what do we want to do differently”.
“This is the biggest opportunity for governments to emerge as innovators, chief innovators in the whole Region. So governments can start to hone some of the online services… develop new online services and also develop the staff that they have to do these new online… respond to these online requests and demands and not do away with staff but re-skill them.
CARICOM Heads of Government, at a special emergency virtual meeting on 15 April, announced that proposals would be advanced for building a robust digital architecture, including governance, to facilitate digital commerce and to assist in the fight against the virus.