Remote learning has surged in use during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. While this is a major opportunity for online education, it’s important to remember its shortcomings, Shreya Upadhyay writes.
With countries across the world entering lockdown and cracking down on the congregation of large groups, the globe’s growing learning population are being forced to sit at home. Of all industries, education is suffering from the greatest fallout from the virus, perhaps only hospitality and tourism have been hit harder.
According to UNESCO monitoring, more than 100 countries have closed their educational institutions, impacting half of the world’s student population. In what amounts to a grand global experiment in remote learning, schools and colleges around the world have cancelled in-person training and moved to online instruction, with some having more success than others.
China, which was forced to boost its distance education during the SARS outbreak, has been using innovative online tools. It has been broadcasting classes on public television that 50 million students can use simultaneously, and has even announced online mock exams to prepare students for its intensely competitive university entrance exams.In other countries, students are learning by tuning in to live online PowerPoint presentations, and institutions are organising webinars. Many are using interactive apps, not only for easy content that is relatively straightforward to teach remotely, but even for subjects where remote education seems more difficult, like physical education.
Change is coming on the student side of the equation too. Students are shooting videos of themselves doing homework, and sharing solutions and ideas on social media, motivating others as well as providing teachers confidence that they are learning.
Even very early in the pandemic, universities in Australia were forced to look at online options for 100,000 Chinese international students who were forced to remain in China. Other countries tell the same story. Duke University in the United States, for instance, has started using an online learning platform to enable continuous classes for students at Duke Kunshan campus in China.
So, what does this mean for the future of education? Could it become a new norm, and what would that mean? To answer these questions, there must first be a sober assessment of why this is happening, whether it is sustainable, and what problems the remote learning approach still faces.
The motivation for this shift is clear enough given the global pandemic. School environments are ripe to spread contagious illness. Often, classrooms are packed, students mingle at close quarters, and are in constant contact with not only fellow students but teachers and other workers.
Closing schools and universities can make a huge difference in slowing the spread of the virus, and is a crucial step, but it will have its costs. The first to suffer will be visiting faculty and other casually employed teaching staff, and there will be other carry-on negative effects in the education sector.
However, the coronavirus outbreak could be a tipping point for education technology, which, if it surges to meet soaring demand, could provide employment opportunities to many in the sector.
This is already happening in the countries leading this response. Companies in India and China are leaving no stone unturned in attempts to capitalise on the situation. Many are offering free access or heavy discounts on their courses, in the hope customers will stay on after the virus threat passes. Byju’s, for instance, the world’s largest education technology firm, recently announced it will offer all its learning programmes for free to school students until at least April.
In response, it has experienced a 60 per cent surge in user numbers. Similar packages have been offered by Toppr, Gradeup, and Unacademy as well. Chinese provider Yuanfudao even suffered a system crash after 5 million users took up its offer of free live classes.
The size of the online learning market was valued at $190 billion in 2018, but in this environment it seems poised to grow rapidly. In turn, investment in these companies has seen a large uptick, especially in an environment where other potential targets of investment are down.
However, not all is rosy. Online options are still not considered permanent alternatives to classrooms by most educators, and at best make a useful supplementary learning system. It would require a significant change in pedagogy to take advantage of innovation in this space.
If online education becomes a norm, it will have huge advantages. It would be significantly cheaper to run. It would also no longer require students to travel to other countries to attain a quality education that they are not able to receive in their home country for socio-economic or political reasons.
However, it is not just the classroom that prompts many to study internationally, but also the irreplaceable cultural experiences that international study offers. Other issues, such as uncertainty over accreditation and quality control also remain unresolved. Cross-institutional credit systems are a challenge even for traditional education systems, and the flexibility of online learning could make this even more chaotic.
Even while advocating online learning, one cannot ignore its teething issues. Most universities still rightly doubt that online versions of their degrees could become more popular than traditional ones.
This is all without mentioning that online learning faces many practical issues, like internet problems, background sound, and difficulty with focus, at a scale that traditional learning does not. All this could easily impede a student or teacher’s ability to get the most out of the education experience.
On top of that, online education is an elite concept that will only work well in developed countries.
In a country where midday meals are a great attraction for school children, like in many parts of India for instance, setting up online classes is impossible. Stable electricity and a reliable internet connection are both a must for online education to work, but this is simply not the case everywhere. As a result, a sudden shift to online learning is bound to worsen the learning gap for low-income households, poor districts, and poorer countries.
These very real obstacles, but they are not insurmountable. While online education remains a realm of huge possibility, policymakers and the education sector must remember these faults as they gravitate towards remote learning, and do their best to mitigate them.