Distance Learning In the Era of COVID-19
Response from David Wills, educational consultant, www.ielts-teaching.com.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak first garnered attention in January 2020, the world has undergone immense changes, with an increasing reliance upon software such as Skype and Zoom affecting many industries. Education is one of those fields, and many are asking – quite understandably – whether this will become the new normal, or whether it is just a quaint fad.
All around the world, students of all ages are being forced to take to the digital classroom as their schools are temporarily closed to prevent the further spread of the disease. It has become suddenly apparent that it is possible to have a single teacher in a remote location teaching students scattered across vast geographical areas. This raises of the question of whether – once the COVID-19 crisis finally ends – there is any need to go back to traditional modes of education or communication.
Certainly, it is understandable that many might now think this. COVID-19 has forced us to reconsider many aspects of our lives and rely increasingly upon the internet and other modern technologies. We are left to wonder what will happen when this is all over – will things go back to normal, or will we be forever shaped by this pandemic?
As millions of students around the world begin learning online, people are asking whether this will become the standard way of learning. It is a reasonable assumption. After all, the cost and convenience of learning via Skype or Zoom is a massive boost over more old-fashioned approaches. But don’t go thinking that in-class learning has gone the way of the dinosaur just yet. We are a long way from being ready for that sort of huge societal shift.
Even if it were possible to conduct all classes via the internet, one still wonders whether it would actually be desirable. Say every high school and university on Earth was able to immediately convert their curricula to be taught entirely online … Would parents, students, or teachers find this to be at all beneficial? From a cost standpoint, yes, but from every other standpoint, no.
In-classroom learning has a host of benefits that digital learning so far does not offer. There are the social benefits of mingling with one’s peers whilst learning, for a start. Sure, you may be able to message or chat with your classmates in a digital chatroom or message board, but few would be foolish enough to claim that would replace the social opportunities afforded through traditional modes of learning.
There is also the serious question of whether people can really learn from a screen while sitting in their bedroom or living room. How much information can you really absorb in such an environment? How long can you go without being distracted, particularly in the case of young learners? Certainly, some people could manage it just fine, but how many would be left behind?
Speaking of being left behind… What about the vast numbers of students who struggled in classrooms and were constantly in need of extra attention and encouragement? In the realm of digital education, they will surely suffer.
There is no doubt in my mind that education was moving to replace much of its in-class learning with digital options, but it was a slow process and it was never going to be a case of moving entirely online. Yes, there are distance learning courses, but these lack the value of in-class teaching. Yes, there are myriad benefits to having resources freely available online, but without the personal contact, much is lost.
In Asia, children have been studying online with foreign English teachers for almost a decade, and each year it becomes a little more popular. However, it has not yet overtaken conventional teaching and it probably never will. This is because it is only a good substitute for when you cannot get the real thing. It is a secondary form of education, one that works well to supplement in-class lessons, and most of Asia already knows this. It would be foolish to make it that primary means of imparting information.
Like a distance learning course, online classes are valuable and will probably become more common in future, but they will never replace the more effective method of having an expert teacher handling a room full of students face-to-face.