With schools and universities closed indefinitely and announcements of moving to online classes in the near future as well (Cambridge University has moved to online learning till summer of 2021) the future of learning and education may look very different. Already schools have started preparing and disseminating online learning resources and classes are being held through zoom meetings. Supervisions have moved to Skype and even exams have gone virtual.
Universities all over the world and especially in the West are expected to see a huge drop in international student enrolments. Universities and schools in developing countries are scrambling to update their technological infrastructure. Meanwhile millions of students all over the world are waiting for next steps – should they apply outside their city? Should they change their stream to be more conducive to online learning? Should they just take the year off? However one thing they are sure of it that education and learning is not going to be the same again, at least for a long time.
Online education is not new. In fact a large number of open universities, and even regular universities were offering large variety of classes online. There are platforms like Udemy and Coursera that were specifically designed for online learning and gave great emphasis on videos, graphics, quizzes and group forums. In fact with quarantines and lockdowns in place in most of the world enrolments for these have seen a dramatic increase. It will be interesting to see how traditional learning moving online and these existing platforms interact with one another in terms of content and convenience.
Technology is going to play a huge role in moving education online. For one, the basic sharing requires access to Internet and a mobile device or laptop. Schools and universities will have to upgrade their infrastructure for this. This is also likely to impact the sections of society that do not have access to Internet and devices or even electricity. This can impact educational access and create inequities. Even if access is provided the content will need to be adapted and translated to ensure better approachability.
However once these issues are taken care of online education can also have transformative power in terms of reach. Geography will no longer be a hindrance and access to students in remote parts of the world or students with lower mobility because of factors like gender or disability will be able to access such online education. If done carefully this has the potential to truly democratize education. This has both potential and challenges in rural India as well in other parts of developing world– where even chairs and books are missing online education will be near impossibility unless infrastructure is radically transformed. On the other hand lack of educators can be remedied since anyone with skills will be able to teach.
Learning methods will evolve. With less student-teacher interaction and less peer-to-peer involvement, learning will be a lot of self-learning. This may work better for some but for majority this can be challenging. This will be especially harder for younger children. In fact with classes moving on zoom, parental involvement in teaching is increasing. One of the major stresses that young parents are facing is keeping with their children’s classes while managing household work and working from home. Majority of this work is being taken over by women leading to poor gender division of labour. Parental involvement and their education (and parental income or socio economic class) have always impacted child’s learning outcomes. This is only going to increase and can lead to inequitable outcomes. How much time parents are able to devote to their children’s learning from home will depend on how much additional help they have at home, how educated they are, how flexible are their own work hours etc.
However it is now well accepted that learning is not limited to classes and books and large part of education is meeting with peers, making friends, group activities and discussions, and learning to be independent. Schools and universities offer a unique experience in that respect often serving as safe spaces for exploration and introspection, their role being social as much as educational. Students who are forced to stay home due to pandemic will miss this aspect that often forms invaluable experience of one’s life. Even when schools, universities and colleges open, they will have to rethink the ways they use spaces to ensure some aspect of social distancing and this will impact activities like sports, group discussions, events and even play or parties.
Life is not going to be the same again for some time at least and even if mass immunizations and cures are in place, the post pandemic life will have undergone irreversible changes in how humans interact with each other and use spaces around them. Educational institutions, be it schools or universities or even daycares will also have to adopt new practices of health and hygiene and adapt with newer ways of learning navigating through distances and digital platforms. It can have potential to bring people together in unprecedented ways but also create distances that will be more difficult to surmount for some. The idea of education may also hopefully become more expansive and comprehensive when not confined to physical spaces of classroom and can lead to new ways of learning and doing.