The global shutdown of schools due to the COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in over 1.2 billion children being unable to physically attend classes. As a result, education has changed dramatically, with the popularisation of e-learning, whereby classes are held online instead of in physical establishments.
Researches propose that online learning has led to an increase in the retention of information, and in comparatively lesser time than its traditional counterpart, thereby, hinting on the fact that the changes caused by COVID-19 in the global education trends might be here to stay.
While different countries are coping with COVID-19 at differing intensities, more than 1.2billion students in 186 countries are currently being affected by the closure of schools due to the pandemic.
This education problem is being differently tackled by different countries. For instance, the children in Denmark —up to the age of 11— are returning to nurseries and schools after initially closing on 12 March, whereas, in South Korea, students are responding to roll calls from their teachers online.
Similarly, Indian teachers are taking the initiative to reach out to their students by means of various video conferencing apps, the most common and effective method for this, however, has been through conducting live classes on YouTube. On the other hand, children are also showing increasing interest in e-learning platforms, like BYJU’S.
With this sudden shift away from the classroom in many parts of the globe, some are wondering whether the adoption of online learning will continue to persist after COVID-19 is dealt with, and how such a shift would impact the education sector worldwide.
Even before COVID-19, there was already high adoption and incorporation of education technology into the traditional academic infrastructure, with global edtech investments reaching US $18.66 billion in 2019 and the overall market for online education projected to reach $350 Billion by 2025.
Whether it is language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools ,or online learning software, they have all experienced a significant surge in traffic on their platforms since the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How are edtech platforms benefiting from the COVID-19 crisis?
To keep up with the hiking demand, many edtech platforms are offering free access, free trials, and other such promotional services to attract as much consumer base to their services as possible, including platforms like BYJU’S, a Bangalore-based educational technology and online tutoring firm founded in 2011, which is now the world’s most highly valued edtech company. Since announcing free live classes on its Think and Learn app, BYJU’s has seen a 200% increase in the number of new students using its product, according to Mrinal Mohit, the company’s Chief Operating Officer.
Tencent classroom, meanwhile, has been used extensively since mid-February after the Chinese government instructed a quarter of a billion full-time students to resume their studies through online platforms. This resulted in the largest “online movement” in the history of education with approximately 730,000, or 81% of K-12 students, attending classes via the Tencent K-12 Online School in Wuhan.
Other companies are bolstering capabilities to provide a one-stop shop for teachers and students. For example, Lark, a Singapore-based collaboration suite initially developed by ByteDance as an internal tool to meet its own exponential growth, began offering teachers and students unlimited video conferencing time, auto-translation capabilities, real-time co-editing of project work, and smart calendar scheduling, amongst other features. To do so quickly and in a time of crisis, Lark ramped up its global server infrastructure and engineering capabilities to ensure reliable connectivity.
Alibaba’s distance learning solution, DingTalk, had to prepare for a similar influx: “To support large-scale remote work, the platform tapped AlibabaCloud to deploy more than 100,000 new cloud servers in just two hours last month – setting a new record for rapid capacity expansion,” according to DingTalk CEO, Chen Hang.
Some school districts are forming unique partnerships, like the one between the Los Angeles Unified School District and PBS Social KCET to offer local educational broadcasts, with separate channels focused on different ages, and a range of digital options.
Media organizations, such as the BBC network, are also powering virtual learning; Bitesize Daily, launched on 20 April, is offering 14 weeks of curriculum-based learning for kids across the UK with celebrities, like Manchester City footballer, Sergio Aguero, teaching some of the content.
How does it impact the future of learning?
Some experts believe that the unplanned and rapid transition to online learning – with foundational issues, like little preparation, no training, insufficient bandwidth, etc. – will result in a poor user experience and such environment is not conducive to sustained growth, whereas, others argue that a new hybrid model of education will emerge during this pandemic, with significant benefits.
“I believe that the integration of information technology in education will be further accelerated and that online education will eventually become an integral component of school education,” says Wang Tao, Vice President of Tencent Cloud and Vice President of Tencent Education.
There have already been successful transitions amongst many universities. For example, Zhejiang University managed to get more than 5,000 courses online just two weeks into the transition using “DingTalk ZJU”. The Imperial College London started offering a course on the science of Coronavirus, which is now the most enrolled class launched in 2020 on Coursera.
Many are already touting the benefits: Dr Amjad, a Professor at the University of Jordan, who has been using Lark to teach his students, says, “It has changed the way of teaching. It enables me to reach out to my students more efficiently and effectively through chat groups, video meetings, voting and, also, document sharing, especially during this pandemic. My students also find it easier to communicate on Lark. I will stick to Lark even after Coronavirus; I believe traditional offline learning and e-learning can go hand-in-hand.”
What are the challenges related to online learning?
Some schools and governments have been providing digital equipment to students in need, such as in New South Wales, Australia, while many are still arguing that this will further widen the digital divide.
There are various challenges related to online learning that need to be addressed and tackled. Some students without reliable Internet access and/or technology struggle to participate in digital learning; this gap is seen across countries and between income brackets within countries.
For example, whilst 95% of students in Switzerland, Norway, and Austria have a computer to use for their school work, only 34% in Indonesia do, according to OECD data.
In the US, there is a significant gap between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds: whilst virtually all 15-year-olds from a privileged background said they had a computer to work on, nearly 25% of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not.
Similar issues have been discovered in the adaptation of Indian education to the COVID-19 outbreak. It has been seen that though the top educational institutions are effectively transitioning to the online education culture, the same cannot be said for the smaller-scaled educational institutions and less privileged students.
Therefore, we are repetitively urging capable individuals to contribute a bit of their time and effort towards teaching the needy students by means of uploaded or live video tutorials on YouTube and other free platforms.
How efficient is online learning?
According to what studies state, for those who have access to the right technology, learning online can be more effective in a number of ways. Some research shows that, on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom.
This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.
Nevertheless, the effectiveness of online learning varies amongst age groups. The general consensus on children, especially younger ones, is that a structured environment is required, because kids are more easily distracted.
To get the full benefit of online learning, there needs to be a concerted effort to provide this structure and go beyond replicating a physical class/lecture through video capabilities, instead, using a range of collaboration tools and engagement methods that promote “inclusion, personalization and intelligence,” according to Dowson Tong, Senior Executive Vice President of Tencent and President of its Cloud and Smart Industries Group.
Since studies have shown that children extensively use their senses to learn, making learning fun and effective through use of technology is crucial, according to BYJU’s Mrinal Mohit. “Over a period, we have observed that clever integration of games has demonstrated higher engagement and increased motivation towards learning, especially among younger students, making them truly fall in love with learning,” he says.
How is the education imperative changing?
It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely hindered the traditional education system, the relevance of which has arguably been on a decline for a while now. Scholar Yuval Noah Harari outlines in his book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, how schools continue to focus on traditional academic skills and rote learning, rather than on skills, such as critical thinking and adaptability, which will be more important for success in the future.
Could the move to online learning be the catalyst to create a new, more effective method of educating students? While some worry that the hasty nature of the transition online may have hindered this goal, others plan to make e-learning part of their ‘new normal’ after experiencing the benefits first-hand.
COVID-19 highlights the importance of imparting knowledge through innovative means
Major world events often precede rapid innovation – a clear example of which is the sudden rise in popularity of e-commerce post-SARS. While we have yet to see whether this will apply to e-learning post-COVID-19, it is one of the few sectors where investment has not dried up.
What has been made clear through this pandemic is the importance of imparting knowledge across borders, companies, and all parts of society. If online learning technology is to play a major role in this endeavour, it will be highly dependent upon all of us to explore its full potential.