More Than Just Tech: How to Do Online Learning During Pandemic

By Gene Lin

There are better times to start a school semester than in the midst of a global pandemic. However, that was precisely the situation many teachers and students found themselves in when COVID-19 put the world to a halt from early February this year.

Schools and universities adopted the online learning model within a very short time – an act that is highly disruptive to the education sector which has been following the same playbook for centuries. As teachers conduct classes via online conferencing tools such as Zoom while students hand in assignments from home, many fear the quality of education would drop due to a loss of physical interaction.

This raises the question: How do you do education right when everything has to be virtual?

Does Technology Help Students Engage?

When asked how to measure the quality of education, “face-to-face” is the key phrase repeatedly brought up among experts. A rich and in-person exchange between students and teachers might seem to be the way to consistently yield better learning results, but that is not necessarily the case anymore.

“The usual way people would judge whether online is better than, or as good as, face-to-face would be to see student results… There’s generally not that much difference between the two, both can perform quite well,” said Dr Timothy Hew, professor of the faculty of education at the University of Hong Kong.

“In my own research, I don’t just look at learning performance – although that is important. I’m also looking at something called engagement,” added Dr Hew, who described student engagement in three categories:

  • Behavioural engagement: How often students follow tasks they are expected to complete, such as submitting assignments on time.
  • Cognitive engagement: How intellectually stimulated students are by the subject, which is measured by how often they ask questions or attempt optional material provided by teachers.
  • Emotional engagement: How much students enjoy the learning process, measured by self-reported surveys at a regular interval over the entire course.

While face-to-face learning is valued for its rich human interactions, this practice can backfire when executed poorly. When the teachers and students are physically present in the same room, they must take initiative to engage with each other in order for the learning to work. If a teacher merely delivers a monotonous speech to an audience that barely listens, it defeats the purpose of face-to-face learning, according to Dr Hew.

In some studies, Dr Hew found that students participating in Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) often work alone without any interaction with teachers or peers, which drove down engagement. However, he also found that these students tend to be more engaged if their courses merged theories with real-life applications, which could make students feel challenged and give them broad autonomy in controlling their own learning styles.

At a glance, the key to providing quality education in an online environment might be less about which technology people use, but more about how to use these tools to creatively engage students.

Blended Learning: A Happy Medium

In 2009, the United States Department of Education published a study that compared the performance of online learning and face-to-face learning. The study found that, on average, students who took all or part of their learning online performed better than those receiving face-to-face education.

Moreover, the study found that blended learning technique – which combines both online and face-to-face elements – had a larger advantage over exclusively face-to-face learning conditions.

“I think a lot of universities will offer programmes online [after the pandemic], but I think more universities will move towards a more blended approach,” said Cameron Mirza, an industry veteran who has 22 years of experience in the education sector and served as a former director of strategy at the higher education council in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

The blended approach would divide a student’s learning time roughly into two segments: synchronous and asynchronous. For example, students would be expected to spend their online time doing self-studies which are asynchronous; and their face-to-face time will be spent on maximising real-time and synchronous interactions with teachers and peers.

According to Dr Hew, the key to blended learning during a pandemic is to make video conferencing classes as interactive and synchronous as possible to simulate a face-to-face environment. He said his students’ engagement has been consistent compared to pre-pandemic times.

Where Is Online Learning Going?

“Do I think online will become more widely adopted? Absolutely. It is not a fad,” said Michelle Tufford, CEO of Online Degree Database, a company that helps universities decide which online programmes to offer based on market demand.

“Traditional students who will not be able to find jobs will use this time to finish their degrees even if it means doing so online. And working adults, who have lost their jobs, will go back to school to sharpen existing skills or learn new ones… The traditional university business model is unlikely to survive this shock,” said Tufford, who added that she observed similar trends in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Mirza, who also served as a former director of Middle East and North African research at Nottingham Trent University, said that the higher education sector has been ripe for technological disruption for some time. The proliferation of online learning would invite other technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing and blockchain, to change the education landscape. The result is a more flexible environment where students can customise their own learning experience with less constraint in time, space and resources.

“This is the seismic shock needed to transform the sector, and I think it will need a new type of leadership to take us through this period,” said Mirza. “It needs to be forward-thinking, it needs to embrace innovation, and it needs to put both teachers and students at the heart of this transformation.”

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