Social media is ablaze with students complaining about the sub-par quality of remote learning. Head over to any South African university’s “just kidding” account and you’ll find a host of memes ridiculing the technical glitches, data struggles and other inconveniences that have come to characterise this grand educational experiment.
It’s tempting to directly compare what thousands of students across the world are currently experiencing – emergency remote teaching – with a long-developed alternative to education in the 21st century, online learning. In fact, the two could not be further apart. One is a hastily implemented, temporary solution to the current crisis; the other encompasses intentionally designed pedagogical methods that according to a growing body of research, lead to more efficient and effective learning. Recognising the distinction is important because it impacts the blueprint we adopt for learning in the future, especially at high school and university level.
Most universities have recently pivoted to a dry, non-interactive process where students self-teach the majority of course material and submit assignments and tests through a specially designed online portal. A friend of mine, who hasn’t attended lectures in years, remarked the other day, “You know, nothing has changed. I’m still sitting at home watching a 2015 lecture on double speed”. Some institutions have gone a step further and organised live video calls to replace the in-person experience.
There is a stigma that online learning is always worse than face-to-face classes, and it’s not difficult to see why. Simply giving a student a laptop and a university-branded digital portal is no guarantee that the quality of learning will be anything close to sufficient. In the book Learning Online: What Research Tells Us about Whether, When and How, the authors describe nine dimensions that inform the design of an optimum online learning environment. These include how active a role the instructor plays, how lessons are paced, pedagogy (whether learning is expository, practice-based, collaborative, or exploratory), what online assessments seek to achieve, and sources of feedback, among other things. A good online learning platform takes months or years to prepare, so it’s no wonder that people are unhappy with the current offering, a mix of Zoom calls, slides and old lecture recordings.
In order to decouple what we’re currently seeing from real online learning, some are proposing the term emergency remote teaching, where the objective is not to emulate the highly developed educational ecosystems found in traditional schools and universities, but to provide easily implementable, temporary access to learning in times of crisis.
What online learning could look like
The online learning that I have received for the past three years is a wholly different experience. We practise the flipped classroom model, where direct instruction moves from the group environment (what would be the traditional lecture) to the individual, and the group environment is subsequently transformed into an interactive learning space where the instructor merely guides and students work collaboratively to solve related problems. This online “space” is nothing like a Zoom call. Our classes have a maximum of 17 people and our professors are expressly discouraged from speaking for more than 5 minutes at a time. Each class comprises 90 minutes of live collaborative learning, where we can break off into smaller virtual groups, conduct real-time polls, and learn through multimedia content. In all my time of online learning, I have never received a lecture, never been taught through slides, and never written an exam. My grades are based on the questions and answers I give during class as well as location-based assignments, final projects and direct work experience. This is effective online learning. Watching a 2-hour recorded lecture is not.
Research already suggests that online learning, when done well, can lead to better outcomes than in-person classes. The Research Institute of America found that online courses increased student retention rates by anywhere between 25% and 60%. A Harvard study found that the continuous assessment model offered by online learning halved student distraction and tripled note-taking. Furthermore, there are environmental benefits to going remote: The Open University in Britain found that online courses equate to an average of 90% less energy and 85% fewer CO2 emissions per student than traditional courses.
Certainly, the status quo does not lend itself to such high praise. We’re still figuring out how to make emergency remote teaching work, and wondering if true online learning can ever be viable as a mainstream medium of education. Academics are already warning that online learning could quickly become a politicised term, as its success is highly dependent on the context. You absolutely need a stable Wifi connection to do successful online learning. You need teachers who are trained to conduct lessons remotely, and you need schools that are resource-equipped and organised enough to shift their classrooms onto a screen.
To give a personal anecdote, my mother teaches English literature to Grade 4, 5, 6 and 7 students (she’s a ninja!) Now that classes have moved online, she’s been teaching from our diningroom table. Three times a week, she hosts a live Zoom call. Instead of a board, she shares her screen and points to PDFs. Homework is sent out via Whatsapp and email, and ostensibly things are going pretty well.
When I asked her how she felt about giving lessons this way, she responded that other than the technical hurdles of organising class material, the actual teaching hasn’t changed that much. One concern, however, is that about half of her students aren’t showing up. Not everyone has Wifi at home or laptops from which to take classes. The effect of this pandemic on all areas of our lives once again highlights stark inequalities we must address.
Now is a good time to think about how we might design the kind of online learning that we do want. This future is inevitable; with more human activity going online and remote work becoming a norm, there are a growing number of tools that make remote learning not only viable but preferable to traditional in-person classes. If there’s one thing that ought to emerge from this unfolding experiment in social organisation, it’s that governments need to seriously consider internet access as a basic right. There is simply no other way we will harness the incredible possibilities of online learning, or realise our beloved “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, without it.
We ought to use the opportunity to plan systems in advance. If myself and thousands of others are anything to go by, we should know that real online learning not only can but does work.