We have been told that among the many changes that the Corona Virus will bring to our lives, one of the most significant will be education going online.
With the forced shutdown of schools and universities, online education has become normalised. The moment many technologists were long predicting - classrooms have disappeared and people logged onto online learning sites in millions - have arrived.
I am not so sure though. For a start, I did not know whether veteran professors discovering this 'wonderful new tool' called Zoom is good or bad news. I work in online learning and I like the attention, but I feel uneasy that the whole business is basking a little too brightly in its association with the lockdown. It's not being normalised; it's like Joe Wicks, a routine for exceptional times.
Besides, not sure the Internet economy has stood up to the scrutiny. It did not certainly come through the end of the world scenario unscathed. Amazon has failed to deliver, Netflix has reduced the bit rates and learning sites had outage under pressure. Zoom, one of the many video conferencing software that no one outside a techie circle much cared about, has failed to live up to scrutiny. Despite its massive expansion, its CEO was forced to apologise for sharing too much private data with employers and for routing calls through China without telling the users. Broadband and mobile capacities have been overwhelmed.
But, more importantly, the limitations of online have become far more apparent. For many millions of children locked in front of the computer for most of the day, the home school will be a negative concept. As Emmanuel Macron rightly noted, the digital deprivation became ever more apparent in this period and rapidly causing serious educational gaps. For all the enthusiasm at the universities, online education has become the digitally delivered version of lessons planned for classroom: A poor experience for both the tutors and the students. The design was hurried, thoughtless and ineffective. Some teachers shared the experiences of being abused by anonymous attendees online - a result of poor planning and management.
In short, this was not, contrary to the claims, online learning's finest moment. It was taken up as a last-ditch alternative and it remained there. If anything, it has been established as an alternative to the real thing - not the real thing which the online gurus hoped it will be. Indeed, online learning can be much better than what we have seen so far: It can do things which can't be done face-to-face. But a generation of people has now become prisoners of their experience.
No one knows what comes after this, but it seems that the public-private balance may shift decisively in some sectors. Hopefully, as the New Deal looked normal in the aftermath of the great depression, a new renaissance in public health isn't too much to expect. Digital government is already there and fast-expanding - but strangely, the Big Tech was caught rather unprepared and failed to seize the moment. Private For-Profit education, heavily dependent on student mobility, may do worse than public institutions, which may count on government bail-outs as the last resort. In all, the pendulum seemed to have moved back to the public territory for now. This may actually be bad for online learning.
Finally, I have heard predictions that the international students will sit out a year and the universities, unable to resume their classes, would reach out online. That scenario misrepresents the motivations of hundreds of thousands of international students, for whom the travel and living aboard is part of the proposition and they are not going to hand over thousands of dollars worth of fees for the pleasure of attending video lectures from home. Instead, new formats of education, particularly of doing a foundation year at the home countries and indeed, sandwich degrees at home country institutions, is going to become more popular.
If that happens, it's not a bad thing for those who do online education. The millennial dream of ending all educational contact is not one for any serious educator; rather, we are after enabling these new models and enhancing all forms of educational experience by making possible those things that can't be done face-to-face. It should never be either-or; instead, we should be in the business of expanding the possibilities.
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