Post Coronavirus: How Important is Social Interactions for Student Learning?

Social interactions in schools, also generally known as “peer effects,” is considered to have a significant impact on individual students’ academic achievement. This is especially true in the Indian context where social bonds play a major role not only in emotional transactions but also in economic transactions between people. Traditionally, it is schools that provide the infrastructure and resources to promote social interactions among children.

Research on peer effects on individual students shows that it might vary across different countries and also depends on several other factors like family background, peer quality, teacher quality and institutional factors (for example, the board of education). It is important to mention that several studies on peer effects have shown inconclusive results. One study from the US Air Force Academy shows that low-achieving students get the most benefit when placed in a classroom with high-achieving students. Another study from China shows that it is most beneficial for high ability students to have high achieving peers.

Though the conclusion from some of these studies has been contradictory, due to several individual and socio-cultural factors, peer effects should not be discounted. Intuitively Indian parents take peer effects into account while deciding upon a “good” school for their children. The fundamental expectation of parents from schools is to create an environment for their children to develop social behaviour.

The coronavirus (COVID -19) pandemic, which has led to school closures in nearly all countries, posts a unique and unprecedented challenge to parents and schools to ensure social interactions for children within the confines of their homes. There is a unanimous consensus among the scientific community is that these challenges are temporary and the education system will return to its normal functioning over the next few months. Despite these assurances, a lingering fear of a resurgence of this virus or a new pandemic will force parents to evaluate the health concerns of sending children to schools against the lack of development of social skills gained in schools.

This challenge, like most challenges caused by this pandemic, can be navigated and addressed with technology. Across the globe over the past two decades of access to the internet, along with affordable mobile technology, has exponentially increased. Coupled this with the advent of several online social platforms like chatrooms, Orkut, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube etc., have led to unparallel levels of connectivity. Made popular in western countries, these social online platforms, have penetrated even the remotest places of developing countries like India and even other underdeveloped economies. It is a common belief that the usage of social platforms has significantly reduced the socio-personal interactions among adults.

However, it can also be argued that, though personal interactions have reduced, social interactions have invariably increased as these interactions can happen between people from anywhere at any time without any physical travel. There are some non-tangible benefits of personal interactions which cannot be attained through voice, video or messaging interactions. Nevertheless, it is the onus of the governments, institutions and even parents to explore safe solution with certain comprises and not dwell on a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.

— Praveen Kumar Sampath 15th April 2020 —-

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