While countries are at different points in their COVID-19 infection rates, there are currently more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries affected by school closures due to the pandemic. With this sudden shift away from the classroom in many parts of the globe, some wonder whether the adoption of online learning will continue to persist post-pandemic and how such a shift would impact the worldwide education market.
According to data from Pi Datametrics, the most searched term relating to E-learning on Google from January to April 2020 in the United Kingdom was “online courses”. “Elearning”” was the second most searched term, followed by “e-learning for health”
1. The COVID-19 pandemic and the push to Digital Learning
The COVID-19 pandemic raging around the globe has caused large-scale institutional and behavioral “shock effects” in various areas of human activity including education. The impact on learners is unprecedented: there are over 1,500,000,000 students worldwide from primary to tertiary level who cannot attend school, according to UNESCO. Due to massive and unexpected closures, affected countries and communities have been forced to large-scale lockdowns and pushed to seek alternatives in online platforms, including digital learning as a replacement for normal educational processes.
This quick transition has put not only teachers but also students into a tough spot. Of course, there are some bright sides – such as the saving of commuting hours and the quality of lessons’ visual aid – but the challenges set by the adaptation to technology and the old “physical learning” routine make the appropriateness of the solution ambiguous.
2. What do students say about Digital Learning?
The shift to digital learning is undeniable, but whether it is a good solution remains debatable. There have been several researches and interviews upon the “insiders” – the students, who are the major beneficiaries of this new norm. As per The New York Times, students have voiced their opinions on this large-scale transition:
2.1. A lack of structure can demotivate
Unlike in school, where students have regimented class periods and lunch breaks, digital learning allows students to largely create their own schedules. While this might sound like a kid’s dream scenario, many students find the lack of structure challenging.
For example, some students learning from home miss having a structured schedule with teachers to support them. Without it, they may procrastinate more, knowing they can work on their assignments at any time. Others feel guilty about being lazy. Besides, many students dislike the lecture format of digital classes, because the lack of interaction makes it harder for them to engage with the material and retain information.
While a lack of structure can be challenging, too much structure can also backfire. Back-to-back video classes without adequate breaks mean students don’t have the chance to switch gears from one subject to another. Sitting for long hours in front of a screen can also be fatiguing.
2.2. Some students learn better at their own pace at home
Some students have adapted well to the shift. Some prefer the ability to set their own schedules, take breaks when needed, and work from the comfort of their own home.
At the same time, digital learning allows students to wake up later than they would for a typical school day. The extra sleep helps relieve stress for some and also helps students focus more on their work. Studies show that sleep deprivation is most acute among teens who have early school schedules, followed by lots of extra-curricular activities, such as loaded assignments, sports, and part-time jobs. The lack of sleep hinders their ability to perform at school, and grades often suffer. But with more flexibility in their schedules, many students have caught up with their sleep debt.
Digital learning also gives some students the opportunity to explore hobbies and interests that aren’t always supported by the public school system, such as learning to code.
2.3. Slow communication between students and teachers
In a traditional classroom, students can raise their hands or walk over to their teacher’s desk when they need help with their work. In an online learning environment, however, students may have to fend for themselves if they don’t understand the material. Many students can only reach teachers by email, and they rarely get an immediate response. As a result, students may submit homework late and begin falling behind.
Students need a way to reach teachers and classmates in real-time to get help when they need it – not hours later. A unified communications solution enables secure, direct messaging between students and teachers at any time of the day, as well as class messaging for group discussions and collaboration. If teachers are occupied with other tasks, students can communicate and work together (as they would in school) to tackle harder lessons.
2.4. Students struggle to define boundaries between school and home
Now that the home has become a place of both work and rest, many students find it tough to create healthy boundaries between their school lives and personal lives. Many at-home students struggle with distractions, such as social media and texts from friends. Many also find the increased computer time draining.
There’s an upside to spending extra time at home, however: reconnecting with family. Some students feel grateful for the additional time they get to spend with their parents and siblings, and they appreciate having extra support with their assignments.
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2.5. Students feel like their workload has increased
Office workers have experienced increased workloads during COVID-19, with 23% of respondents to one survey saying their work has increased greatly. Students also feel the weight, especially with most extracurricular activities now canceled or postponed. Many students feel their schools have assigned more work than usual because teachers feel their students have more “free time.” In fact, some schools have imposed digital physical education classes, which some students and families find unnecessary.
Many students still have a lot on their plates, even without their extracurriculars. For example, many have to study for standardized tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SATs). Others have taken responsibility for helping younger siblings with homework to support their time-strapped parents. Some students simply struggle to navigate the different apps and websites that their teachers use to assign them work.
2.6. Some students don’t have access to reliable technology
The digital disparity is more evident now than ever. According to a 2019 analysis by the Associated Press, about 17% of students nationwide don’t have a computer at home, and 18% lack broadband internet. Without the necessary tools to access online classes and assignments, many students stress about their inability to learn online and the effect it could have on their overall academic performance.
2.7. Students miss the extracurricular aspects of school
Schools provide a lot more than academics. Unfortunately, digital learning means students miss out on extracurricular activities such as sports, dances, school plays, and graduation. Even simple daily interactions, such as hanging out with friends in the lunchroom or chatting with teachers after class, are hard to replicate online.
For many students, this lack of social interaction is one of the biggest challenges of digital learning. While video calls and chats help students stay connected with classmates and teachers, many feel their teachers don’t leverage these tools effectively. For instance, some teachers only use online learning platforms to post assignments and host lectures, rather than allowing students to discuss their work in class and ask questions.
3. Implications for the future of Digital Learning
Obviously, the “overnight” transition from physical to digital learning has revealed gaps and shortcomings. However, having problems with the current state of digital learning means that there is room for growth. Efforts at covering these gaps will create an influx of various kinds of smarter, friendlier technological support based on the mentioned findings, which are going to cause the situation to echo into the future and become a new market opportunity for commercial digital learning platforms providers. Several forecasts have been made following this prediction, some significant ones are:
- Global digital spend in education will double in 2025 and is poised to touch $342B.
- Global educational technology VC funding touched $7 billion in 2020, compared to a mere $0.5 billion in 2010.
- Analysts are also predicting a tripling of investment in Educational Technology over the next decade.
These projections are going to improve after the impact of COVID-19. Structured e-learning platforms like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity have already seen a huge spike of learners looking for courses during the lockdown days. A few K-12-focused learning platforms like Byjus gave away its educational content for free and saw a 60% increase in app downloads. Beyond that, analysts foresee it as just the start of a bigger trend of higher digital adoption of the education industry.
4. How to prepare for the future of Digital Learning?
Digital learning is often simplified as synonymous with content-driven self-study, where the advantages are limited to the relative independence of time and space. However, a digital learning environment that consists solely of textual files and lecture capture videos shared through a learning management system is very different from a digital learning environment that utilizes a situated online learning design such as the authentic learning framework, which centralizes collaborative knowledge construction and complex, authentic learning. For this reason, educational organizations should lever past knowledge of digital learning as something that can be more varied than just a means to deliver information.
Besides, digital learning can take many different forms, including those academically more innovative and engaging than commonly used processes of knowledge delivery and assessment. It can be informed and shaped by different education-philosophical and academic underpinnings. Therefore, a good digital learning solution shall not only address the technological friendliness but also dig deep into the anatomy of pedagogy.
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