2020 blew our minds and shoved us into the midst of a horrifying hurricane named COVID-19. Terror and chaos would we an understatement to define the state of people in that initial stage of global crisis. But besides the social, economic and political turmoil that the world was going through, there was one sector that could have had such long term effects on people that generations would have been rendered incapable of evolution and progress. Survival itself would have become difficult if that sector suffered a lag. It is EDUCATION- the building brick of civilisation. It faltered and oh how it faltered! Online learning came as a saviour albeit not the perfect and most effective one. While it was easy to incorporate online learning in places where digital literacy is close to all-pervasive, some regions, especially the underprivileged and developing countries suffered a lot.
With the closure of 1.5 million schools, a huge divide was gaping into our eyes. Some countries, already stumbling with their offline education facilities, never really imagined a situation where they would have to make a choice between online education or no education.
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They dilly-dallied but they made it, somehow.
But now, as the schools are reopening intermittently with COVID waves slapping them with closure in between, the most important question pops up- can online learning last long?
Already a lot of surveys and reports say that online education is less interactive and definitely less fun for both teachers and students.
While Barnes and Noble College Report called College 2030 showed that 44% of students thought that the value of college education has declined due to pandemic, this dislike was also found among teachers in a McKinsey and Co survey where teachers gave online learning(as compared to in-person learning) a relative average rating of just 3.5.
The first thing that we need to talk about here is the inequalities that make digital societies merely a first-world utopian concept.
Talking about India, the urban-rural digital divide is so huge that in Assam 80% of urban homes have internet access whereas 94% of rural homes do not. Even Kerala that stands at the top of the literacy rate list with an outstanding 96.2%, only 39% of rural homes as compared to 67% of urban homes have internet access. Even worse- just 1 out of 10 homes have internet access in Odisha.
Not just this,gender digital divide is also a thing in India- while 63% of women possess mobile phones as compared with 79% of men, only 21% of women have mobile internet, which is exactly half of 42% of men using mobile internet.
When societies go through changes as big as the COVID-19 pandemic, the leap that covers the gap between is always technology. Similarly, in education, teachers and students learning to use computers, laptops and mobile phones was definitely not enough. Infact, they shined, despite all odds.
But, our technology somehow still cannot keep pace with the kind of changes that are required to completely transform the education format, with changing mediums.
Internet connectivity is crucial, firstly. But for the intermediate period, till we reach there, online learning facilities have to be made available offline and conducive for limited data plans, accommodating slow internet speed as well.
Online learning takes away the dynamic, spontaneous and palpable aspect of discussions. Teachers are still going by the traditional methods of unidirectional teaching, with students having to rote-learn just like classroom learning.
To transform education and make it outlast the now OLD normal i.e the pandemic, it has to be changed fundamentally. Online learning is like Pandora’s box or even better- Hermione’s little bag- we just need to discover its hidden potential.
For example, ByteDance developed a Singapore-based collaboration suite named Lark as an internal device for its own exponential growth. But, they decided to provide a one stop shop for students and teachers to cope with the gap in education needs- unlimited video conferencing time, auto-translation capabilities, real-time co-editing of project work, and smart calendar scheduling- amongst other features.
The focus has to be shifted to student collaboration and engagement. Simple breakout rooms to discuss on topics can definitely not replace students laughing and joking while discussing things, sitting in adjoining desks.
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The screen has to be lifelike. It should not just be an inanimate object that gives off the same answer every time we ask it a question. Inter-personal discussions are not just questions and answers- they multiply the problems and seek even more answers to the ever-increasing problems. They help us fathom the deep complexities of this universe.
Online learning has to adapt to that level of complexity, replicate working of brains, quite literally, to make things more engaging.
The last and the most important aspect-self-paced learning– which has been reiterated millions of times to as the biggest advantage of e-learning-is the worst attribute to it too. People need autonomy, yes. But they also need strict schedules. Learning with loose deadlines is definitely not made for school children- who are universally known to be distracted easily.
Sticking to schedules and making ‘em work will engage people, however tightly-wound it sounds.
With these fundamental changes and with an adequate blending of online and offline learning methods, e-learning can both become an instrumental aid to enhance traditional learning as well outlast almost any global crises- albeit, with more pizazz and fun!