Online studies as the best learning option during Covid-19 quarantine
The deadly coronavirus outbreak presents a number of challenges for different sectors of society. University campuses with their congregational settings are considered particularly susceptible to contagion. As almost every country in the world continues to fight the epidemic, universities around the world have followed the public health guide to close campuses.
Due to COVID-19, most teachers and students are suddenly forced to use technology while teaching and learning. The new reality is that COVID-19 is increasingly dominating not only our collective headspaces (in useful ways and not) but also what our jobs are today. That is especially the case in certain settings, even for those responsible for helping to deliver instruction and learning in their institutions.
The spread of the coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 is a public health emergency with economic and social ramifications in China and around the world. While the business impacts are well documented, education also faces the biggest disruption in recent memory.
Institutions around the world are responding to travel bans and quarantines with a change to online learning. The crisis may trigger an online boom for education, or at least prepare us to face the next emergency.
Some 180 million Chinese primary, secondary and tertiary students are homebound or unable to travel. In China, the spring semester was originally scheduled to start on February 17, but has now been postponed indefinitely. In response, Chinese institutions are trying to switch to online education on a large scale.
The effects of the epidemic are also felt worldwide. Higher education is increasingly dependent on a steady stream of students from around the world, but governments have restricted travel. Currently there are thousands of students still in limbo.
As a result, higher education institutions around the world are trying to increase their online capacity to deliver courses to stranded concerned students. Some universities, and some parts of universities, are better prepared than others. While all universities use online learning management systems and videoconferencing technology to some extent, there are no mandatory standards for online education.
This creates a great variety between institutions and even between individual courses in terms of the digitization they have. To make matters worse, not all staff are familiar (or feel positive) with distance or blended learning.
Will technologies in online education be more important now?
Historically, educational technology has struggled with large-scale adoption and much has been written about the boom and bust cycles of the educational technology industry. It may even be legitimate to ask if adoption is already a goal for many in the industry.
Today, a critical observer can be forgiven for thinking that the most successful information technology companies only pay tribute to mass adoption. Instead, their energies are firmly directed at the most remunerative game of financing and (over-inflated) sale of new companies.
However, the visions of mass adoption remain what drives the volatile dynamics of educational technology financing. Ultimately, investors hope that a great innovation, sometime in the near future, will be used by large numbers of students and teachers.
Is coronavirus a “black swan” for online learning?
In 2014, Michael Trucano, a World Bank specialist in education and technology policies, described the importance of “tipping points” in driving educational technology into the mainstream. Trucano suggested that the epidemics (he spoke about the 2003 SARS epidemic, but the argument applies to COVID-19) could be “black swans”. The term is taken from the American thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who uses it to describe unforeseen events with profound consequences.
During the SARS outbreak, according to Trucano, China was forced to push for alternative forms of distance education. This led to deeper and more transformative pockets of online tools, at least temporarily. The long-term effects are not yet clear.
The current landscape of global digital education suggests COVID-19 may result in more robust capabilities in regions with enough resources, connectivity and infrastructure. However, it is also likely to expose chronic deficiencies in less prepared communities, exacerbating pre-existing divides.
Investors appear to see this as a moment that could transform all kinds of online activity across the region. The stocks of Hong Kong-listed companies linked to online games, digital medical services, remote working and distance education have soared in recent days.
Adding to the complexity, students do not always welcome digital education, and research shows they are less likely to drop out when taught using “traditional” face-to-face methods.
Indeed, studies on the effectiveness of “virtual schools” have yielded mixed results. A recent study focusing on the US recommended virtual schools be restricted until the reasons for their poor performance are better understood.
Students may also oppose online learning because they perceive it as a sneaky attempt at forcing education down their throats. This may be what happened recently when DingTalk, a large Chinese messaging app, launched e-classes for schools affected by the coronavirus emergency. Unhappy students saw their forced vacation threatened and gave the app a bad rating on online stores in an attempt to drive it out of search results.
Perhaps this last story shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but it does highlight the importance of emotional responses in attempts to scale up an educational technology.
A permanent solution or a crisis response tool?
The importance of distance education in an increasingly uncertain world of global epidemics and other dramatic disruptions (such as wars and climate-related crises) is without doubt. So-called “developing countries” (including large rural regions in the booming Indian and Chinese economies) can benefit greatly from it, as it can help overcome emergencies and address chronic teacher shortages.
Once the current crisis passes, however, will things go “back to normal”? Or will we see a sustained increase in the mainstream adoption of online learning?
The answer is not at all obvious. Even if we assume the COVID-19 emergency will lead to some permanent change in how more digitally-prepared universities relate to international students, it’s unclear what the change will look like.
Will we see more online courses and a growing market for Western-style distance education in Asia? Is this what the Chinese students (even the tech-savvy ones) really want? Is this what the Chinese economy needs?
Alternatively, perhaps, the crisis might lead to a more robust response system. Universities might develop the ability to move online quickly when they need to and go back to normal once things “blow over”, in a world where global emergencies look increasingly like the norm.