The pandemic has forced school closures all across the world. Over 1.2 billion children in 186 countries are out of the classroom and, even when some of them have already returned to schools, the future remains uncertain for others. There is no doubt that COVID-19 has changed education dramatically. Now, e-learning and other forms of education via digital platforms come up as the best tools to deal with this situation. There might even be some benefits over traditional methods.
Let’s take a closer look.
Online education is nothing new
The growth and adoption of education technology were already taking off before the virus breakout. In 2019, the global edtech investments reached US$18.66 billion with a projected growth of $350 billion by 2025. Online education tools such as virtual tutoring, video conferencing platforms, and language apps have been a huge part of this.
Now, new solutions are popping out left and right. In Los Angeles, school districts partnered with PBS to offer local educational broadcasts and digital options with separate channels for different age groups. In the UK, the BBC launched Bitesize Daily to provide 14 weeks of curriculum-based lessons taught by local celebrities. And in China, a quarter of a billion students are resuming their studies through the Tencent classroom.
In many ways, the transition from schools to remote classes has become the equivalent of the work-from-home movement in the business world. Both share similar benefits and challenges. And just like for businesses, the worldwide adoption of edtech technologies is only going to accelerate changes that were already in motion.
It is pretty clear that things haven’t gone as smoothly as they should have. The unplanned and forced transition to e-learning caught most institutions off guard. I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard of cases where the quality of education for students was affected due to a lack of teacher training, overwhelmed bandwidth, and overall poor preparation for such a drastic change.
While certainly not all, these are some of the most important challenges edtech will have to tackle in the short term:
- Access to Technology: One of the most expected and complex challenges in edtech. In the US, 25% of 15-year-old students don’t have access to a computer to work on. This “digital gap” exists in most (if not all) countries, though its severity varies wildly. While many schools, governments, and NPOs are doing their best to provide students with the technology they need, we will be dealing with this issue for years to come.
- Platform Reliability: Even schools that were already using online resource centers for learning material (such as Blackboard or Lark) ran straight into platform reliability issues. This was expected since these institutions had no reason to hire the necessary IT staff to maintain high traffic platforms. In this context, IT outsourcing services have become the most cost-effective solution for most.
- Cultural Change: Learning via online platforms is a lot different than on-site learning. Especially when it is the only option available. It’s natural for both students and teachers to feel somewhat distanced from the rest of the people in the virtual classroom. And while many students feel like online learning has given a lot more flexibility and free time without sacrificing education, others are having a really hard time adjusting.
- Teacher Training: There are extremely wise and experienced teachers in the world that are not too familiarized with online learning technologies. Schools will need to train their teaching staff effectively so they can make the most of the tools available. Luckily, many of them are going the extra mile to provide their students with the education they deserve.
The Bright Side
Our students like these virtual lessons. They eliminate long journeys to school — some of the students travel three hours a day. They allow an outstanding physics teacher — something of a rarity — to reach not only his or her own students but those in schools that do not have a physics teacher at all.
Kenneth Baker, former UK Secretary of State for Education and Co-founder of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust
Online education does have quite a few benefits over on-site learning. According to a study performed by Shift eLearning, on average students retain 25-60% more information during online lessons, compared to 8-10% in the classroom. This study argues that students can achieve these results because they learn faster online by going over content at their own pace. It’s easy to go back and re-read, skip, or accelerate lessons as needed.
Provided the necessary technology is available to students, online learning also frees education from the bounds of geography. High-prestige schools such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford have been following this school of thought for a while now. Their Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) even have the same professors and study materials provided to on-site students.
Flexibility is, perhaps, one of the most notable benefits of online learning. With transportation removed from the equation, students have a lot more opportunities to enroll in the classes that benefit them the most without sacrificing quality of life. This also goes for teachers, as they are able to provide timely and frequent feedback to their students.
On a more philosophical note, edtech is preparing future citizens for life in an interconnected world. Although the path might be a bit rough at first, remote collaboration is, in fact, a valuable skill to possess now and tomorrow. What’s more, resilience and adaptability to learn will be essential to navigating the post-pandemic world.
And to put the cherry on top, online learning is a lot better for the environment. It’s not hard to see how: less travel equals less CO2 emissions, not using classrooms results in less energy used to heat or cool the room, fewer print materials means more saved trees, etc.
Unlocking Education Through Technology
While COVID-19 has forced a somewhat clumsy and inefficient change in the entire education industry, it didn’t come without its benefits. And while there is still a lot edtech has to do to overcome both short and long term challenges, powering education through technology will bring us one step closer to the idealistic future we all dream of.