Is Online Learning the Future of Education?
The switch to e-Learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is often thought of as a blessing in disguise. Many have claimed that online learning:
(1) Increases retention of learned information
(2) Is less distracting than in-person classes
(3) Is more comfortable than in-person classes for anxious students
However, recent studies on the effectiveness of e-Learning have introduced a few counterclaims:
(1) Reading and mathematics are harder to learn online
(2) Online, students are surrounded by more digital and environmental distractions with less supervision to keep them on task
(3) Since it is harder to process nonverbal cues on Zoom, students have started developing Zoom anxiety
Despite the fact that the effectiveness of online learning is still up in the air, the Ontario government has been pushing for some degree of mandatory online learning since 2019. What effect might a change like this have on students and educators in Canada?
When the pandemic hit, e-Learning was merely a band-aid solution to social distancing requirements. While experts say that a successful online learning course can take months to prepare, many teachers across the globe only got a couple of days. To begin with, teaching was never an easy job. In fact, before the pandemic, the attrition rate for the first five years of a teacher’s career in Canada was, at its highest, 40%. Needless to say, adapting to the pandemic added more weight to their shoulders. Teachers had to navigate an unfamiliar environment comprised of frequent technical problems and a sea of offscreen students. Perhaps most challenging, was trying to connect with students on a personal level. In the classroom, a struggling student might receive individualized attention and emotional support whereas online, they can turn off their camera and leave the room as soon as they get bored or frustrated. In 2020, a survey sent out to staff members of school boards across Ontario found that about one-third of respondents had considered quitting teaching because of their experiences that year. With this in mind, the switch to e-Learning may have contributed to the teacher shortage in Canada. There has also been an increase in teacher turnover rates, which can have an adverse effect on students, particularly those in underserved schools. Generally speaking, teachers feel overworked and overwhelmed. They are still being asked to incorporate e-Learning into their classrooms despite feeling that it is reducing the quality of their teaching. Many educators are continuing to advocate for a safe return to classes so they can effectively help students close the pandemic learning gap.
Throughout the pandemic, students haven’t really been able to opt out of e-Learning. Unlike teachers, if students are struggling with online learning they cannot switch career trajectories or take time off without it negatively affecting their education. This said, mandatory e-Learning has still put students at a disadvantage. Early in the pandemic, the Netherlands ran a study to measure student success from online learning after an eight-week school closure. Even with a shorter closure period, equitable school funding and widespread, high-speed internet, students had “made little to no progress”. So what about the schools that were closed for 30+ weeks such as those in Canada? As previously mentioned, literacy and numeracy rates have gotten lower. This is significant because reading and math skills can impact cognitive development, memory, employment opportunities and physical health. Students are well aware of the learning gaps caused by the pandemic and have shared their anxieties on the topic. For example, some grade 12 students fear that they’re ill-equipped for university since they’ve had very few mandatory exams. Many students think they’ve developed shorter attention spans from spending entire days online. Not to mention, the quality of education for some has been affected by their lack of a stable Wi-Fi connection. Importantly– there have been higher levels of mental health issues amongst students. Although online learning is not the only cause, it surely makes classes more difficult and can isolate students from their peers. Clearly, e-Learning can have long-lasting negative effects on both students and teachers. However, there are some benefits to online learning that suggest we should not get rid of it entirely.
Where do we go from here?
Most of the problems we see with e-Learning have little to do with e-Learning itself, and more to do with how it is being implemented in schools. There is the potential for online learning to enhance the experiences of both teachers and students when used differently. For example, we can look at AI adaptive learning, a teaching method that uses artificial intelligence and algorithms to produce customized learning activities which address the unique needs of each student. This is an opportunity to take some of the workload off of teachers, without minimizing the quality of education. A McKinsey study looking at students in higher education in the United States said that the learning technologies they’ve used since the start of the pandemic have actually improved their grades. On top of this, online schooling allows students to receive certificates from schools they may have otherwise not been able to attend. The benefits of e-Learning mentioned at the beginning of this article are not impossible to achieve, they just take time. Teachers in Ontario have recently been given funding that they have to put towards online learning, but they haven’t been instructed on the best way to do so. There are several skills that don’t even have sufficient data suggesting that you can learn them online at all. For example, there isn’t a technology-based method of helping students with dyslexia improve their reading abilities. Also, when we look at the possibilities of new learning technology such as AI adaptive delivery systems, we need to make sure that these are equitably distributed across all schools. We can’t jump the gun when it comes to changing education because it can have detrimental impacts for generations of students. But as the structures of our everyday life become increasingly dependent on virtual worlds, we need to make sure that students are confident in their ability to navigate these technologies.
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