A Notre Dame Alumna’s passion for continuing education in the COVID-19 era

06 May 2020

Notre Dame Alumna Madge Thomas (nee Mukund) is self-isolating. As an expatriate living in New York, she is one of many millions in the epicentre of the American coronavirus outbreak.

When you meet a person who not only has a passion, but has followed it across the world, it is easy to feel inspired.

From presenting at the UN; or meeting Michelle Obama, Hugh Jackman and Julia Gillard; or helping to lead global not-for-profits that offer support to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, all the way through to supporting local causes close to her heart, Madge has an impressive resume of humanitarian work.

Madge with former PM Julia Gillard at the 2015 Women Deliver ConferenceMadge briefs Hugh Jackman on the Activate Documentary series

Her latest foray into instigating social change comes with her new role within the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)- hosted Education Cannot Wait, a global fund to transform the delivery of education in emergencies, conflicts, natural disasters, protracted crises or pandemics, such as the one we are collectively experiencing.

Madge is sitting in her apartment. It is late evening where she is, early morning in Perth. She has just put her son to bed and checked in on her husband, who has come down with flu-like symptoms.

“He’s been up and down,” she says, adjusting the webcam and checking that her microphone is working, “he had a few days of fever and a bunch of other symptoms like the loss of smell and taste. They’ve put him on an inhaler today.”

Just months ago the world as we knew it plunged into chaos as the global coronavirus pandemic entered the collective consciousness. Since then, governments across the world have been frantically trying to keep up with the escalating pace of the virus, introducing measures that the media called ‘Draconian’. In New York, the shutters are down over shopfronts, restaurant chairs are on tables, cinema screens are black, and children everywhere have been pulled from schools for a period expert epidemiologists can only take a guess at.

To truly understand the global impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on education, Madge provides some numbers.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” she says, “since World War Two there have never been this many kids out of school around the world due to crisis or conflict.

Education Cannot Wait operates on the premise that 75 million children across the world have their education disrupted by conflict or crisis. Right now, there are around 1.5 billion children out of school.

To put that into perspective, the number of children currently out of an education environment has increased twenty-fold. In all of recorded history there has never been so many children unable to continue their education.

Madge making an intervention at the UNMadge with Rachel Brosnahan in Tumbes, Peru, visiting children affected by El Niño mudslides who has their schools rebuilt by Education Cannot Wait

We won’t know what the impact of this crisis will be until it’s over. Even then, the repercussions could ripple through an entire generation. But we do know that education is one of the most valuable tools a society has to offer.

“What many people are realising—being trapped in a house with children going out of their minds—is that education and the consistency, the normalcy, the motivating factor of school, let alone the learning that they get out of it, is just so critical.”

The beauty of the time we live in now lies in the huge opportunities for innovation and technology. Across the world, creative people are coming up with alternate methods for remote teaching and learning.

Plato once said “necessity is the mother of invention”, a phrase we are seeing in action as the world responds to a complete shift in the way we live, work, socialise, and learn.

“So the brilliant thing in these times of crisis is the opportunity to innovate in a way that will not only prepare us better for the next time something like this happens, but will also improve what we're already doing.

“In China for example, the government partnered with TV stations to offer curriculum via TV programming so that people who didn't have internet or only had one laptop in the house could still interact with that curriculum. One thing we've been looking at is the response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. So when Ebola hit there and they quarantined everyone, they tried out radio learning, and that's been shown to be one of the most effective forms of remote and distance learning.

“There are really innovative ways that you can play on existing technology. The difficulty is building this capacity as we go, as everything will be so context specific. What works in Sierra Leone might not work in Afghanistan. Some communities aren’t connected to the internet or even electricity, and some learners, including those with special needs, can’t rely on only tech-based solutions,  So we're connected with partners on the ground that are in the community right now. We're working with them on getting them the funding they need to craft local solutions that work for—and are built by—the people that will use them.

“Our team have sort of been jesting that this is our bread and butter year-round. So this is just an extended regular day for us. When this all ends, we will still have to deliver education in very difficult circumstances in many unique ways. So the and the lessons we’ve learnt and the learnings we build on, the tools we develop now, and the solutions we build for the future, can help.”

Madge meeting students in Malawi with Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation and The Global Partnership for Education.Madge at the US Congress with Rachel Brosnahan advocating to Members of the House for increased funding to Education Cannot Wait

As for what Madge envisions the future of education will look like?

“Something that I feel strongly about is the role of parents and caregivers as educators now,” Madge says, speaking from her direct experience of schooling her two-year-old while her husband has been sick, “and let me tell you, that's not easy, especially when holding down a full-time job and dealing with everything else that is happening. I think we're all going to come out of this with a set of new skills and tools for remote teaching and learning and infinitely more   respect for teachers.”

The passion for social justice has taken Madge to some amazing places and positions, and the spark that lit the fuse comes back to her university years in Fremantle.

“Simon Adams is one of the most amazing people I know,” Madge says, referring to the former Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, who is now Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York and has remained a friend and mentor to Madge.

It was sitting in his lectures and being taught by those with similar passion and purpose that really opened my eyes to what the world was, what it could be, and encouraged me to be a participant not a bystander, to think creatively and reach for whatever our passions were.

Madge Thomas leads Innovative Finance, Private Sector and Philanthropic partnerships for Education Cannot Wait, the first global fund for education in emergencies, hosted at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in New York.  She was previously the Vice President, Global Policy and Government Affairs for international advocacy organization, Global Citizen, where she managed strategic campaigning priorities and government relationships, led Global Citizen’s education campaigns and oversaw team members in US, Canadian and UK markets. Prior to New York, Madge was General Counsel at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (WA) and prior to that worked for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Aboriginal Legal Service on civil and human rights legal and policy issues. With 14 years’ experience in human rights, development and international policy, Madge is also a strategist and mentor for the Obama Foundation Scholars program within the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and has served on the board of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (WA).

Find out more about Education Cannot Wait hosted at UNICEF.



Media Contact: Breyon Gibbs : +61 8 9433 0569 | breyon.gibbs@nd.edu.au