Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated the mass shift of people’s lives onto online platforms, with this importantly including education.
Academic institutions such as schools, universities and business schools were forced to shut their doors and re-create the classroom experience within the virtual world.
It is certainly true that remote learning is not an entirely new concept – the Open University has long championed it as an approach – and the question of whether the online model will become a permanent feature of higher education has arisen.
The rise of alternative platforms such as Udemy and Skillshare have certainly threatened to cast the conventional model of learning into irrelevancy.
The newfound prominence of Ed-Tech therefore beckons the pressing question: will online learning become part of our new normal?
The Positives of Online Learning
There are various appealing aspects of online learning for higher education institutions. Convenience is one of these positive attributes.
As Silicon reports, technology is at the heart of a move towards ‘a more blended method of teaching and learning in our universities’.
The promotion of a more sophisticated teaching approach has been intensely accelerated as a result of the pandemic.
Technology has proven to be an invaluable tool in ensuring that undergraduate students have immediate access to their courses from the comfort of their own homes.
The demonstration that higher education institutions can deliver remote learning to the entire student body simultaneously, makes a compelling case for the introduction of online learning as a more long-term component of education post-pandemic.
In fact, some universities have already recognised the advantages of broadening their online working capability and are exploring these potentialities further as the sector emerges from lockdown.
Thus, convenience is one of the most beneficial and effective aspects of online learning for both students and universities.
The ability to streamline one’s learning within the context of an increasingly digitalised world is an opportunity appreciated by many.
Another positive aspect of online learning is that it lowers the maintenance costs that would typically be incurred by on-campus student residency.
Undergraduates working exclusively from home are able to do so from any location, with this element being most useful for international students who are spared the hassle of expensive flights.
Furthermore, university courses are usually fixed at an annual price, with the average undergraduate student in the UK paying £9,250 per annum for their studies.
In contrast, online courses are priced more reasonably and in some cases are even free of charge.
When the convenience aspect is combined with the attraction of little to no living costs, Ed-Tech certainly makes a persuasive case for a teaching model that is more malleable to students’ lives and welcomes a wider international student body.
The Negatives of Online Learning
Despite the self-evident benefits of the online approach, however, there remain several drawbacks that are worth considering, with one of the most crucial of these being the lack of social interaction.
Education should naturally extend beyond the confines of the classroom in the form of extracurricular activities that help students develop relationships with one another in a healthy way.
The online provision of industry-specific talks, networking opportunities, and university societies simply fail to replicate the nuanced benefits of in-person engagement that would be enjoyed by students participating in these activities in real life.
Such interactive events are more challenging to cultivate on a remote level because they lose the aspect of group collaboration and may seem more intimidating. As a consequence, the digital university experience has left students less engaged with social activities.
When asked how satisfied they felt with their social experience, over half of the students surveyed revealed that they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.
More specifically, 86% of students cited limited opportunities for social activity as a reason for their discontent.
Placing this within the broader context of minimal social interaction caused by the pandemic, it becomes clear that the anti-social nature of online learning exacerbates poor student mental health.
Another glaring issue generated by online learning relates to class disparity.
Ed-Tech carries with it the incorrect assumption that everyone has access to the internet.
According to Nature, a staggering 850 million children and young adults are not in education or training because of COVID-19.
The majority of young people who suffer from this issue are situated in the southern hemisphere. Internet access in this part of the world is low, with 360 million young people lacking access.
Even within the UK, socio-economic divisions have proven to have negative implications for students’ education, with many forced to work in cramped, impractical conditions.
Education should certainly be a right, not a privilege, and students should not have to contend with absent/poor internet or unsuitable workspaces. The optimal situation for these students is therefore in-person teaching.
Moreover, accessibility issues aside, Forbes has made the valid observation that online learning may not yield equally pleasing academic results.
Their study found that students in fully online delivery formats had learning outcomes that were substantially worse than those in the face-to-face version of the same course.
The indication here is that online courses are not necessarily able to replicate the quality of in-person teaching.
Ultimately, the rise of Ed-Tech is an active reflection of our technological advancement but should be treated with caution.
Whilst a move towards online learning presents notable merits such as convenience and reduced living costs, these factors are undermined by its detriment to student mental health and unsuitability to less privileged students.
It is incumbent upon higher education institutions to take these matters into account, and perhaps the best approach is a blended one.
Through a system of hybrid learning which entails both online and on-campus teaching, students can reap the educational benefits of both the real and virtual world.