What the pandemic has taught us about online learning
The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, but in some places (e.g., the UAE, UK and US) “normal” life is gradually coming back in various sectors, from education and the economy to sports. We may perhaps start drawing some lessons from the experience we have had.
How different countries withstood the massive impact of the pandemic has depended largely on their pre-existing infrastructure, particularly in health services (hospital resources) and digital technology (internet speed, volume, strength).
States and organizations that had broadband and fast internet connections believed they could move most, if not all, operations online for both office work and education. Mostly, it worked, although far from perfectly.
Indeed, even in the US, it was realized, not everyone had excellent internet connection, and having every family member needing to use a laptop with audio and video (parents for work, children for school) was far from easy to fulfill. Students going to coffee shops to attend classes or even to take an exam surprised us at the beginning, but soon became a common story.
A few surveys of students and teachers have been conducted, mostly in the US, to assess the successes and failures of online education during the pandemic. Over 1,000 American college students were surveyed last December: More than half declared that online learning is not good quality education, and 76 percent said it should be blended with classroom teaching. Many students found it difficult to take charge of their own learning and insisted on the essential need for a teacher to guide their steps. Many hated having to spend countless long days staring at a screen either alone in their bedrooms or with young siblings running around and making noise.
While students recognized the positive aspects of online learning, particularly the digital interactivity (even watching lectures can be done very flexibly) and the possibilities of personalization of the learning material, many felt that serious drawbacks exist that make this format far from ideal if used by itself. Unsurprisingly, the most vulnerable students saw their grades drop significantly.
Students also greatly missed the school atmosphere or campus experience of interacting with both their peers and the teachers, having informal discussions on various topics, engaging in various activities, and just socializing.
Instructors, on the other hand, identified other serious issues with the online education paradigm. First, it was difficult to engage students from afar, especially when many could not keep a video connection. Even with cameras, facial and body language was quite impossible to observe, and this proved a serious hindrance in teacher-student engagements. Even attendance was problematic: Some students would frequently log in but disappear (I often call on students who remain logged in after the end of my lectures, but get no response); others would claim that connection problems prevented them from logging in at all. One US study showed a 75 percent increase in “chronic absence” of students. A study in Italy found a third of the students regularly disappearing from classes.
Secondly, exams often became a nightmare. Even with external webcams, ensuring academic integrity (no cheating) was a game of cat and mouse. Indeed, within weeks of going online, colleagues of mine caught several students sending the tests via smartphone to people in other countries, who were paid to solve the exam questions for them in real time. Even essay-type questions could not be guaranteed to be the work of the students submitting them. Likewise, projects or other “personalized” tests were found to be “cheatable.”
Even when ministerial directives forced institutions to give final exams on-campus, many of the students (half or more) had to be given the exams online either because they live abroad or had medical or family circumstances that prevented them from coming to campus.
What turned out to be a key factor in successful online education was the level of engagement of students with the material, with the instructor, and with each other. Online teaching and learning required material and approaches that engaged the students; thus, new or improved, updated pedagogies were needed.
Online education also opened the door to greater collaboration between colleges and universities. Indeed, why not pool faculty resources on certain topics, such as space science, and allow students from several institutions to benefit from the expertise that is available only at one or the other?
Many students found it difficult to take charge of their own learning and insisted on the essential need for a teacher to guide their steps.
A recent report by the International Commission on the Futures of Education, which was set up by UNESCO in 2019 and is composed of thought leaders from education, science, government and business, proposed several ideas to help improve education in the world. Taking stock of the experience we have had during the pandemic, the report insisted on considering education to be “a common good” and “a bulwark against inequalities;” in particular, to ensure that every child gets at least the minimum education he or she will need for life, similar to the right to a vaccine and to health resources. As the report says, “we are safe when everybody is safe; we flourish when everybody flourishes.” In fact, the report explicitly mentions the importance of good connectivity and access to information and knowledge.
We educators learned several important things from this pandemic experience. But in a nutshell, digital tools and infrastructure should complement but cannot replace human, educational, collaborative, compassionate interactions.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum