During the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries were forced to lock down their populations for months at a time. Over 1 billion children were unable to attend physical school at some point during the pandemic, leading to a historic boom in edtech and turning the names of companies like zoom into household names. Then, the moment we were allowed back into real classrooms, we turned our backs on online learning. We have even begun to turn our backs on the hybrid model. Have we made the right choice, or are we squandering the opportunity of a century?
At first glance, it’s easy to understand why we abandoned online schooling: We have all been in a class where the teacher struggled to share their screen for half an hour, or where the zoom link just didn’t work. During the pandemic, 31% of teachers reported being unsure how to provide remote instruction. However, these problems are probably temporary in nature. Many issues were the result of a lack of digital literacy and preparedness. Although tech issues can plague online classes after they’re implemented, they can be remedied by experience with technology and IT classes.
Other issues with online classes during the pandemic are more serious and less likely to be fixed by mere experience. For example, students could easily avoid participating by saying their microphones and cameras weren’t working (even when they were). What’s more, teachers couldn’t even know if the student was actually attending class. This is because it’s relatively simple to leave the computer on and the camera off while getting up and doing something else. Furthermore, there is evidence that it could be harder to pay attention over videoconferences. As a result of these challenges, students’ academic performance suffered during lockdown-imposed online learning, with 97% of teachers noticing learning loss in their pupils.
These effects could be especially pronounced in younger pupils. Research shows that self-regulation is linked to academic performance. Imagine two students are studying for a very difficult test. One of them gets more and more frustrated, before eventually storming off and saying the content is impossible to understand. The other remains calm and focused. All other things being equal, the second student will do better on the test. Some studies have suggested that it is particularly important in digital classrooms, where it becomes a prerequisite for success. However, most children develop these crucial skills between the ages of three and seven. This means that during kindergarten and early elementary school, many children may not have the skill set necessary to perform well online. Furthermore, social and emotional skills are still being developed in early life. As a result, it could be argued that not learning in person could hinder learning about how to interact with others.
Furthermore, some mental and physical disorders can make it harder to succeed in online learning. Some autistic college students have reported that moving to online learning has disrupted their carefully built-up routines and caused them to struggle academically. Deaf pupils can also struggle due to problems with the difficulty of reading lips through a camera, which leads to problems following academic lessons. As a result, online learning can make children with learning disabilities fall behind their peers. However, not all neurodivergent and disabled students have struggled in the digital classroom. Some students with ADHD have appreciated being able to control their environment to eliminate distractions. However, others have found their problems with executive functioning magnified.
Other marginalised groups, such as lower-income families, have also struggled with the shift to online classes. Lower-income students can struggle in the digital classroom for a lot of reasons. Firstly, they are less likely to have the hardware, such as laptops or desktops, needed for online learning. They are also less likely to have fast, reliable wifi. As a result, showing up to online classes is much harder for lower-income students. Other factors can also have an impact. For example, lower-income households are more likely to be overcrowded. This can mean that students have less space to use as a study room or office while attending online classes, which could lead to distractions and lower participation.
However, despite the disadvantages, there are a lot of opportunities as well that must be recognized. Students could potentially attend school without ever leaving their homes. This reduces commute times and transportation costs for students, especially rural ones. Furthermore, there is even the potential to attend schools in different cities or even neighbouring countries as a result of online classes. This could be very beneficial for college students, who could go to their dream school without having to move countries and incur significant living expenses. Schools and universities also have more chances to collaborate. A hybrid or online model could enable pupils to take classes in different institutions without having to travel between them. As a result, schools could offer a greater variety of courses.
Widespread adoption of online schooling could also slash tuition fees. Currently, fully online college costs more than $10,000 less than in-person college. This is because the fixed costs are potentially much lower due to not needing to pay rent for a building or its maintenance. During the pandemic, most schools continued having to pay rent for buildings meant to contain all their students, and as a result, few charged lower tuition fees. However, if education moved fully online or to a permanent hybrid model, this could very well change. Schools could rent out only minimal facilities for teachers, or even not have any physical location at all. Private schools could therefore become much more affordable for lower-income students.
We didn’t harness the full potential of digital education during the COVID lockdowns. Schools often still had to pay rent on their physical facilities, leading to tuition fees staying the same. The suddenness of the situation also meant we were all poorly equipped to handle tech problems. COVID had us all in survival mode. Now, it’s time to start thinking beyond that and try to achieve a world where online education is used to enhance student experience: Where the digital classroom can give pupils a chance to access institutions that used to be too expensive or too far away.
This doesn’t mean that we should disregard our lockdown experiences with online education. On the contrary, these experiences have shown us what we have to be careful of. Too many people struggle with online learning for us to remove physical classrooms entirely. Instead, we should follow a hybrid approach. Zoom and other tools should be used to give students more options and a more flexible learning environment. Finally, the lockdown experience has shown us the extent of digital inequalities. Too many students don’t have laptops. Even more don’t have reliable internet. Instead of taking this as a reason to keep education fully in person, we should seek to fix this so that everyone can fully participate in our increasingly digital world.
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