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Access to education is a precondition to realise the human right to human rights education. Yet the coronavirus pandemic has majorly impacted access to education: 1.53 billion learners are out of school, including 184 country-wide school closures during the first wave of the pandemic — affecting 87.6% of the world’s total enrolled learners, according to UNESCO.

            To explore how to support educators, the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) organised the webinar “Access to Education and Human Rights Education in Times of COVID-19” on 23 September. More than one hundred teachers, policy makers and non-formal educators in Asia and Europe participated in the virtual panel debate, which was opened by ASEF’s Executive Director Toru MORIKAWA, and skillfully moderated by professor emeritus Vitit MUNTARBHORN (Chulalongkorn University).

            Panelist Sriprapha PETCHARAMESREE (Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University) provided an overview of the many challenges the education sector currently faces now that many schools have been closed and forced to go online. The digital divide and lack of Internet access of many poorer households can have long-term implications, especially for the most vulnerable who are traditionally already facing difficulties in accessing education, such as girls, refugees, displaced and migrant children. Dr. Petcharamesree emphasised that all efforts should be made, by states and civil society, to realise Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030. She ended her presentation with a warning: “Digitilisation and e-learning are not the way forward”.

            University of Bucharest researcher Frank ELBERS disagreed. According to him the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise: “We need to move beyond the classroom, beyond the lecture hall, beyond the seminar room”. The current crisis offers an opportunity to do away with what Paulo Freire called the “banking model” of education and instead empower learners through individualised, tailored, blended education that emphasises values and acquisition of competencies, and not rote learning.

            The third panelist, Ana PERONA-FJELDSTAD (Executive Director of the European WergelandCentre) perceived the pandemic both as an opportunity and a risk: “COVID-19 has forced teachers to offer emergency education online”. The emphasis has been on core subjects, not human rights education (HRE). The pandemic offers an opportunity to explore new ways of delivering HRE for the future. Yet one risk is that we stay with the rapid response to the crisis instead of exploring, through evaluation, how we can advance and improve this experiment.

            It is too early to tell whether global lockdowns have resulted in more innovative approaches to HRE in classrooms, teacher preparation and professional development. It is crucial, however, to consider that many learners in both Asia and Europe do not have access to —reliable and affordable— Internet or computing devices like laptops or smart phones. Consequently, governments, both national and local, must address the digital divide and continue investing in access — through laptop programmes and improving affordable Internet infrastructure. At the same time, educational institutions and educators should think outside of the box and use all possible tools to facilitate remote learning. Hence panelists concluded that it would be better to speak of distance education, which includes not only e-learning but also radio, TV and other channels through which pupils can engage in learning beyond the classroom.

            The webinar recording can be accessed here.The panel was a follow-up to the 19th Informal ASEM Seminar on Human Rights on the topic ‘Human Rights Education and Training’ (ASEMHRS19) in Tromsø, Norway 4-6 November 2019, which brought together 123 official government representatives and civil society experts. The report of the Seminar can be downloaded here.

 (Frank Elbers, University of Bucharest)