Online learning isn’t new. In one form or another, it has been around for some time. For some people, online learning has been the only viable educational option, whereas for others it has been a rational alternative to a classroom or lecture hall environment.
With the arrival of Covid-19, the necessity to shift schools, colleges, and universities over to online learning was almost universal in those countries where the virus hit hard. An effort has been made to ensure that online learning was not actually much different than being in a real classroom.
Was the shutdown of educational facilities really necessary?
In the early days of the pandemic, little was known about the new coronavirus. Its RNA sequence (the basic nucleic acid strand carrying genetic information inside each virus) was decoded quite quickly and the information passed on around the world, but we are still learning about the effects of the virus, how contagious it is, who are the most susceptible to the most serious negative effects of infection, whether immunity is gained after infection and how long immunity might last.
Because of the scramble to understand the new virus, it has meant a large variation in responses. The dilemma is that a good health response invariably negatively affects economic outcomes and vice versa. In most countries, schools, colleges, and universities were closed, physical distancing measures imposed to keep people apart, stay at home restrictions or lockdowns were mandated an international or state or regional borders were shut down.
It was realized by most health authorities that it was important to keep schools, colleges and universities closed until transmission of the virus was suppressed, even though children, and to a lesser extent, young adults, were found to be less affected by the virus, with a higher frequency of asymptomatic conditions. These facilities were still a source of infection as large numbers of people were inevitably forced together in close proximity. There were teachers, lecturers, and other academics, support staff, ancillary workers to consider in addition to the students.
The conclusion is that most countries would say that closing down educational facilities and providing online learning wherever possible was a necessary part of the response to the disease. Parents and educators have been very cautious in those countries where students have resumed conventional learning, although as yet there seems to have been few health repercussions.
What were the lessons learned from all the online learning made available during the pandemic?
In many countries, online communication, the almost universal access to the Internet, and proficiency amongst educators have meant that online courses were able to be rolled out quite quickly. Obviously some courses are easier to adapt to an online environment than others. Practically oriented courses are harder or near impossible to adapt completely, but even those have at least some element of theory and this can be rolled out online as was the case.
For some students, online learning proved to be a boon. Learning can be individualized more easily, allowing students to slow down or go faster according to aptitude and ability. This is not always possible with conventional learning environments when larger numbers of students are clustered together in one room.
The most serious disadvantage of the sudden rush to introduce online learning was that it exacerbated socio-economic disadvantage. Not all students had their own laptops. Not all families had access to the Internet or at least were unable to afford the amount of data needed for online learning for everyone in the family. This disadvantage was most obvious in poorer countries, where having a few computers at the local government school might have been a novelty. Take the difference between relatively wealthy Australia, for example where state governments provided laptops to poorer families for free during the lockdown and just about any country in Africa or South Asia where lockdown simply meant that there were no online learning opportunities at all.
In many cases, families may not have been able to keep younger children motivated with online learning at home in the same way that they may have been motivated in normal lessons with their trained teachers. This has been less of an effect on older students.
Back to school for most?
Most countries that have been badly affected by Covid-19 are lifting restrictions and sending students back to studying where they were before. Reverting to near normality has been met with a mixture of trepidation and jubilation. Has the temporary shift to online learning meant that it is an option for the future? Probably, like work at home for some, it is certainly a viable option and certainly cheaper. If anything, the main lesson learned is that if there is a second wave of the disease or, heaven forbid, another pandemic with a new disease, lessons learned from online learning as part of restricting transmission of Covid-19 will certainly be part of the arsenal available to deal with it.