Online learning in the spotlight as virus hits education sector

Online learning in the spotlight as virus hits education sector

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Closed schools like this one near Montpellier, due to COVID-19, will bring distance learning to the fore. (AFP)

The coronavirus has disrupted the world in major ways, from the economy to sports. It has also greatly impacted education, from kindergarten to university teaching and research. More than 300 million children have been sent home, to either take a long break and wait or — in the best scenarios and rather rare cases — be taught online. 

In fast-increasing numbers, governments around the world have simply closed schools and universities for a few weeks or, in several cases, until further notice. The latest batch to do so, last Thursday, included France, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Algeria, the Philippines, and Bolivia. 

In the US and elsewhere, hundreds of universities were moving all instruction online, or in at least one case (Berea College in Kentucky) ending the semester early. An open Google Docs spreadsheet created and maintained by Dr. Bryan Alexander of Georgetown University lists (in real time) the US universities that have taken such decisions. As of Friday, the list had 226 institutions, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell, Princeton, and many other prestigious universities.

In our part of the world, the UAE’s Ministry of Education declared a spring break for primary and secondary schools earlier than planned (two weeks starting March 8 instead of March 22), partly to allow for preparations to subsequently conduct all instruction online, at least for the following two weeks. Universities were ordered to start teaching online on March 8 — at least until April 5. 

Needless to say, the above decisions brought a number of challenges, for us here in the UAE and for students and teachers around the world. Firstly, few teachers have much experience with online instruction, although universities in the UAE, the US and other developed countries have long had course/learning management systems, i.e., electronic platforms that allow for a variety of activities and interactions, in addition to sharing documents, multimedia and applications. Secondly, it was not clear how some activities, such as lab experiments, could be conducted or replaced by other activities online. Thirdly, and most importantly, professors and administrators are still struggling with the examination problem: How to conduct tests when students are at home or sitting with friends, unmonitored. And, lastly, at least in many parts of the world — including the US — not everyone has fast and reliable internet, plus the hardware and software to undertake instruction fully online. 

At my university, information technology and academic computing staff stepped up and delivered essential training to all faculty staff in the three days that preceded the online teaching start date. Software and educational platform tools were deployed; in some cases, small equipment (cameras, headsets, and tablets) had to be purchased and made available — depending on the method of teaching that each of us was adopting. 

Indeed, we had to decide on the appropriate mode of delivery: Synchronous (“meeting” students online in real time, using video and audio, sharing screens, letting students ask questions verbally or through the “chat” screen, etc.) or asynchronous (recording a lecture, posting it, letting the students watch it on their own, then scheduling discussion sessions).

The worldwide higher education community also stepped up its efforts to share resources, ideas, and experience. Those with previous experience in online teaching organized webinars for the benefit of newcomers. Documents like the “Emergency Remote Teaching Guidelines” were shared and enriched by people from everywhere. And so forth. 

I should note that online teaching, while still representing only 10 to 20 percent of college education worldwide, has been around for 25 years or so. In 2016, about 40 percent of US students (roughly 6 million) took at least one online course, and about 10 percent were enrolled exclusively in online courses. Many instructors have extensive experience in that. About 15 years ago, I myself took six courses (lasting six weeks each) and earned a certificate in online instruction. I learned a lot, including how to communicate with students effectively online, how to design courses online with adequate activities, how to accommodate different learning styles, how to conduct assessments, etc.

The perennial question regarding online teaching is always: Does it deliver the same quality — if not better — than in-class instruction? That’s difficult to answer because studies of the effectiveness of online instruction have been marred with selection issues and other factors. Many experts believe that a “hybrid” or “blended” form of education (online activities complementing in-class instruction) is probably best.

Education specialists are very worried that the abrupt, emergency adoption of online teaching will end up tarnishing its reputation.

Nidhal Guessoum

Education specialists are very worried, however, that the abrupt, emergency adoption of online teaching will end up tarnishing its reputation if it is badly used by teachers who will not have been trained properly.

So, will technology rescue education from the coronavirus? Or will this sudden, forced move to online instruction have negative consequences? Will online teaching/learning come of age and become a standard feature of education or will it be another victim of the coronavirus? We will have to wait for a proper assessment by educators over the next few months and years before answering these questions. One thing is certain, however: This crisis has rung the alarm bell for schools and universities in the Arab world and elsewhere to upgrade their digital infrastructure and online communication capability.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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