Online learning is not a new trend. For many years, universities, colleges and business schools have explored ways to deliver content virtually to improve learning outcomes, reach a wider group of students and generate new revenue streams. Analysts believe the sector has a bright future: even before COVID-19, the online education market was predicted to hit $350 billion by 2025.
While e-learning has thrived in many areas, in secondary and tertiary education it’s never quite taken hold. It’s only recently that we’ve had the in-classroom and at-home technology—and the internet bandwidth—to be able to deliver an engaging remote experience at a viable cost. But there have been many other historic barriers to adoption beyond the technological.
The vast majority of school teachers and university lecturers around the world have trained and practiced their craft in physical settings. Switching to teaching via video conference or online learning portal is by no means a straight swap. Effective e-learning also requires content that is designed specifically for the virtual environment. This is something that educators say is often lacking, even when their institution does have the funds and the appetite to push for a virtual learning approach.
The COVID-19 crisis has also proved that while it’s possible to provide the vast majority of learning virtually—and schools and universities around the world should be given huge credit for achieving what they have in such a short space of time—the sudden and complete shift to e-learning has put significant pressure on the families of school-aged children. Parents who both work full-time have been forced to juggle their careers with new part-time jobs as facilitator, teacher and on-demand IT support during the school day. Many have really struggled and don’t see a long-term shift to e-learning as a particularly appealing prospect. And there is, of course, more to school than formalized learning. What about social skills, forming friendships, learning to interact with people, read body language, and so on? Advances in technology can bridge some of this gap, but if we switched to an entirely virtual learning world, will this socialization aspect be lost?
There are deeper issues around equality at play here too. For e-learning at home to be effective and streamlined, the learner requires a good quality laptop and, crucially, enough internet bandwidth to be able to stream video content almost continuously throughout the day. Yet, even in highly developed economies there are significant portions of the population who have neither—some through lack of access, some through choice. In emerging economies, this digital divide is far greater; for example, in Africa only around 40% of the population are online, many of whom do not have access to the bandwidth needed for synchronous video-based learning.
The rise of technology-enabled distance learning has the potential to be a great equalizer, offering a more uniform education experience to students around the world. But it could also exacerbate the existing gulf between those who have the money and infrastructure to seize the opportunities afforded by new technologies, and those that do not.
As we emerge from the height of the global COVID-19 crisis focusing on repair and recovery, there is a natural opportunity to take stock and change direction, if needed. We’re already seeing it with the environment: the focus of the discussions at the Petersburg Climate Dialogue on 28 April was on how we can imbue the COVID-19 economic recovery with the principles of sustainability, rather than simply returning to the status quo. A similar debate is now needed in education.
There are big questions to answer. When lockdowns are lifted, will we rush back to traditional classroom-based learning, or will COVID-19 have been the catalyst that changes the way we deliver education forever? With many predicting second spikes and further lockdowns in the months to come, should education providers be investing heavily now in virtual learning technologies so they can adopt a hybrid model of physical and virtual learning, and be ready to shift online if another wave hits? And if we do finally shift to this hybrid model, will this help speed the democratisation of education by bringing learning to more people that need it? Or will it favour those with the means and the know-how to deploy the required technologies at home, widening the digital divide?
APCO Worldwide is hosting a series of webinars over the coming weeks to discuss these issues around technology and the future of education with leading education experts, education providers, technology companies, teachers and students. Keep an eye on our Come Back Stronger page for more info and to register your interest to attend.