By Prajeeth Sitherasenan
In December 2019, rumors had started that a new virus was wreaking havoc in Wuhan, China. Before major countries could react, this new virus called COVID-19 or coronavirus had spread to 210 countries, infecting 1.9 million people and killing 120 thousand of them (on the day of writing this blog). Schools around the world have had to shut down because of this pandemic, which has resulted in nearly 1.5 billion children being stuck at home. How were these schools going to continue teaching their students without the help of a physical classroom? This dilemma forced educational institutions, teachers, faculty members, parents, and students to think outside the box. This journey led them to the world of online education.
Online education is not a new concept. There are many online education platforms that have become very popular in recent years. However, the coronavirus pandemic has managed to bring online learning to the mainstream audience. In doing so, it has been revealed that e-learning is not yet 100% ready for educational institutions. It has weaknesses and limitations that need to be addressed. In this blog, let us explore what these challenges are and how we can maybe potentially fix it.
Challenges in Online Education
The first biggest hurdle for mainstream online education is that many students do not have access to laptops and/or a stable internet connection. Take the United States (US) for example, a 2019 report by Associated Press revealed that 17% of their students did not have access to a home computer or laptop and 18% of them had no access to the internet. If we fail to address this issue, disadvantaged students will fall behind, further widening the inequality gap.
The next major challenge for e-learning is the lack of training and infrastructure in educational institutions. A survey conducted by The Changing Landscape of Online Education, 2020 revealed that nearly 70% of educational institutions did not require their students to be trained for online studying. Coupled with this, the corona pandemic has made schools and colleges roll out online education almost overnight. This has resulted in unprepared teachers and students working with products that they are unfamiliar with. On top of this, you have online classrooms that are also getting hacked and disrupted because of improper security measures. All this headache combined, you can understand why many of these teachers and students are frustrated with online learning.
The final and more indirect challenge to online learning is that educational institutions, especially schools, are more than just a place of learning. They provide a great avenue for socialization. Schools often become a place of community and shared space, where children can learn from each other. Additionally, some parents are unable to spend time helping their kids learn via online education because both parents often have 9 to 5 jobs. This highlights the lack of social interaction between the students and teachers, which educational technology solutions haven’t yet considered. Moreover, for many children, schools are a source of food in many countries. Take the UK for example, 3 million children could be at risk of hunger because schools aren’t operating due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Overcoming the Challenges of Online Education
While we are figuring out how we can ensure every student has access to laptops, maybe educational institutions can bring e-learning to smartphones. Statistics show that nearly 95% of teens have access to smartphones. Curated online courses that are designed to work flawlessly on smartphones has the potential to get increased engagement from students. On the other hand, until we can bring universal stable internet access, one way to circumvent this issue is by utilizing asynchronous learning. Asynchronous learning is the idea that students can learn the same online educational material at different times and locations. What this means is that teachers will pre-upload their lectures and class notes, which the students can access in their own time and comfort.
The world might have rolled out e-learning to educational institutions prematurely due to the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean we continue to let it exist that way. For us to make e-learning a major part of schools and colleges, we need to make it provide quality education. To do so, we need educational institutions to be online ready by following these 5 steps:
- Partner with existing online educational platforms, who can help you set up your online educational platform
- Make sure the technology required to deliver online courses is user friendly and is securely protected from hackers
- Courses and assessments should be available on the online platform before the semester or school year starts
- Teachers need to be trained in online tutoring before they can teach an online course
- Students need to be trained in e-learning and should be assisted in overcoming any obstacles in accessing online course materials and assessments
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Finally, online education needs to understand that it will never truly replace classrooms in schools and colleges. Therefore, online education needs to take the approach of blended learning. Blended learning or hybrid learning provides a mix of online and in-person learning. For example, a teacher would teach a course in-person 50% of the time, and the rest 50% is presented online. This is a very basic example, but it explains the fundamental working of the model. There are many blended learning models proposed by various educational think tanks:
- Face-to-face driver – Teachers are always present and use online tools to tutor the students when needed
- Self-blend – Traditional classrooms with in-person teaching, which is augmented with only online assessments and course work
- Rotation – Students are rotated in and out of online and in-person learning using a fixed schedule
- Flex – The entire course curriculum is delivered online and the teachers will always be available for offline consultation and support
- Online driver – The entire course curriculum is delivered online and teachers are only available for consultation and support when a meeting has been scheduled
Blended learning systems provide huge amounts of flexibility to the educational institution and removes the burden of needing to choose between online and offline education.
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Achieving SDG 4 – Quality Education Using E-Learning Platforms
It is evident that online education still has a few issues that need to be ironed out before we can bring it to mainstream schools and colleges. If done right, it has the potential to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goal 4 – quality education. Judging by the available technology we have at our disposal; we are very close to making online education mainstream. However, in the meantime, we need to point out to teachers and students that the current state of online education is not how it will operate in the future. It was rolled out as part of an emergency transition, without any proper training, infrastructure, and systems in place. It does not represent the high quality of online education that can be achieved when it is designed by professionals and well-trained teachers and students.