Like most things in these extraordinary times, Education has been forced almost exclusively to the pre-existing platform of online classes ─ so what impact, if any, will the pandemic have on the future of learning when things finally calm down?

If you were already teaching or had already taught online classes for any educational institution, or conversely, had already been taking or had taken online courses ─ before the Corona Virus hit the global scene ─ you had a distinct advantage in fully transitioning your career or your learning to a remote experience. I envied you as I stumbled through the process of switching from classroom to computer.

Let me tell ya a tiny bit about myself…

I teach English as a foreign language in Ha Long City, Vietnam, and if you know me… you know that I will always opt for the “old school” method (pun completely intended). This inclination goes right along with being considered: not-so-tech-savvy. The rigors of tracking down a cheap yet reliable laptop; exploring the applications of Skype and Zoom; and the many pitfalls of Wifi stability ─ plagued my first week of transition, but it wasn’t just the technical aspect of this change that was challenging…

I am familiar with the value of TPR (Total Physical Response) in teaching, especially when it comes to the very small student, but it takes on a different quality when confined to the tiny window of a computer screen. In the wide-open stage of a classroom, I have the advantage of dancing about; flailing my arms, and anything else to capture and hold the attention of my English-challenged learners. In the classroom, I can really use my entire body, but I can’t help feeling restricted inside my little, virtual box.

I could go on about my many discomforts concerning this online shift, but I would be further digressing from my original question. Personally, when this crisis is over, I will be sprinting back to the classroom ─ but… will everybody?

As this blog denotes, the world will revert back to some modicum of “normalcy” when we pass the Covid 19 peaks in our prospective geographies and the last of the hermits peek their pale heads out of their hovels ─ but how “normal” will it be?

I imagine this whole experience of getting out of my comfort zone will be good for me in the long run ─ and what about the rest of the world? No doubt, many people have taken the opportunity to do things they wouldn’t normally do. I’ve heard and read about many different examples of self-improvement within the isolation period: taking online language classes, cooking classes, painting, web development, SEO, writing, acting, business, yoga meditation, nutrition, astronomy, naked mime performance art… anything that you can conceivably Zoom.

Seriously though… what about traditional education? This whole thing has got me thinking about what the industry will really look like in the aftermath of Covid 19. I’m sure public schools will open back up, forcing the K-12 group to re-join their learning obligations, but there might be some stragglers who are reluctant to leave the comfort of their homes and persuade their able parents ─ into keeping with the new-found freedoms of home-schooling or starting their own programs ─ as small as this percentage might be.

And what about higher education, the sector which has been most affected prior to the pandemic? What about the individuals who have a choice about how they continue their learning? Many will flee back to their campus’ simply to re-engage with society, but many will also have come to realize the personal benefits and freedoms of online classes that their previously, traditional-minded plans hadn’t seen until now. There will be many who might not even have a choice financially when you consider the economic fallout of our current predicament.

So, to better speculate about this question, let’s take a look at the benefits of virtual learning…

  1. Students Learn More. IBM did a study finding that most students learn five times more when exposed to the multi-media settings of virtual education platforms. Not everyone learns certain areas of a curriculum as fast as others, but when you give a student full control over their progress as online courses do, they are able to breeze through the information that comes naturally and give more attention to the areas that don’t. Furthermore, online classes have greater capability and potential to behave more like tutoring or even a mastery learning environment, and many students and educators alike can easily describe the prevailing contrast between these interactive methods and the passivity of the large lecture hall setting. Take the precision-based courseware of the modern MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for example. When you can double, triple, quadruple (and so on…) the number of students in a traditional lyceum with a MOOC, yet still have the ability of providing individual corrective feedback… well what is there to go back to? I would love to talk more about MOOCs, but I have to continue with my list… maybe in a different post…
  2. Higher Retention Rates. You may look at this as a continuation of item #1if you want, but I feel the need to give retention its own category. After all, with my progressing age (“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and all that jazz), this is a big one for me. The Research Institute of America tells us that “…online courses have increased student retention rates from 25% to 60%.” 25 to 60, people! It is speculated that, again, the diverse multi-media environment and the learner’s level of control contribute to this higher quality of information retrieval and storage ─ and yes, I struggle with just that.
  3. Less Time Spent. The time spent getting to and from class is a huge expenditure to argue against, let alone the flexible schedule provided by most online courses allowing students to allocate their time as they see fit.
  4. Greener. I just brought up the commute from home to class and vice versa… fewer emissions right there, including the paper-free quality of virtual learning. Findings from the British Open University state that energy consumption is reduced by an average of 90% and there are 85% fewer CO2 emissions per student. As an environmental activist… that’s what I’m talking about
  5. Competition for Quality. As online education continuously fights for credibility over the long-standing prestige of elite universities, the students of tomorrow can only stand to benefit from the quality of learning that results from such competition. For example, Daniel Schacter, Harvard Professor of Psychology, found that in order to reduce the inevitable distractions a student at home would be vulnerable to (Netflix, Instagram, Pornhub), a steady stream of quizzes and tests interspersed with regular coursework and lectures would do the trick. In fact, he and his colleagues discovered that note-taking and general retention increased. While this can be incorporated into traditional education, and it has, educators from both sides of the spectrum agree that more assessment is a great way for them, tutors, and the students themselves ─ to monitor student progress. So, hooray for virtual learning research, especially when the online education industry struggles to retain their students in the post-Covid 19 era.
  6. Accessibility. Let me get back on my environmental soap box again. When a woman in Nigeria can virtually attend “The Age of Sustainable Development” course from Columbia University, learning to harness the wind for power in her village or improve her drinking water… well, I guess that’s all I have to say.
  7. Self-discipline and motivation. If these are not traits you would equate to yourself, then online learning might not be for you. After all, your instructor will not be there to hold your hand. However, if you have already paid for the course, it would behoove you to get it in gear and apply yourself. Essentially, you would not only be learning “Symmetric Cryptography” (University of Colorado) or “Beer Matters” (University of Wisconsin), but you would also be learning how to stay motivated and self-disciplined.
  8. Diversity of subjects. If you go to any college’s website and search for a list of offered courses, curriculums, and degrees, I’m sure you will find quite a bit, but that list won’t come close to the number of online courses that are available all around the world. The following link will take you to a Quartz article where you will find listed 600 free MOOCs that opened up in 2017 just within 3 months. This is a mere fraction of what’s available.

  1. Cheaper. Last but not even in the same ballpark as least… online education is dirt cheap! If I had access to this kind of learning back in the early nineties, I might have given up all the drunken late nights, girlfriends, and debauchery that Kent State University dished out for me. I’m just going to give you another example: Edx, one of the prominent online course facilitators, offers what they call “microbachelor” programs. The average cost of one of their credits in these programs is around $150. The national average of one credit in a traditional bachelor’s degree is about $600. That’s a bargain, right? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Udemy, who specializes in business, averages out at $20 per course. With MOOCs out there, we might not even need Bernie Sanders. Ten years ago, they used to be completely free, but nothing’s free when it’s popular, right? The good news is that the Massive Open Online Courses out there are still mostly free as long as you audit them.

Well, there you have it: nine good reasons why I suspect that learners won’t walk away so easily from online educational platforms following our current pandemic. To be fair, I should list the pros of conventional higher education, but I’m not going to list them numerically. The small number doesn’t justify it.

I mentioned something earlier about debauchery at Kent State University, my Alma Mater. Well, that’s a very small part of what I want to talk about now, but you are not going to get anywhere near the kind of social interaction and networking skills from an online platform that you would get from a traditional campus. It would be a very tough decision for me indeed to trade in my “college experience” for a handful of MOOCs. Social interaction, as I present it, may seem like a fraternity afterthought, but this is very important (especially the girlfriends… just kidding). The relationships and contacts you make on campus are meant to stay with you for the rest of your life. My Kent years were among some of my best. As indispensable as this experience is, I still say save your money. Take some online classes and then spend $30 on an annual Workaway membership. To those of you who are unfamiliar, Workaway is like WOOFing but is not limited to agriculture. You could be working on any kind of project, helping out with what you already know or learning something entirely new. At the same time, you will be forming friendships and making contacts all over the world. You do have to pay for travel, but the cheapest form of travel is when accommodation and food is taken care of. You just have to get there. As far as my best years go, Workaway has kicked the crap out of my college years.

Another pro of the brick and mortar institutions is the wide array of services available in a campus setting, administrative and extracurricular. From financial aid (and they should) to libraries and study groups, and all the other athletic, health care, and on-campus-jobs provided through a large university… I guess you’re getting what you pay for.

There is also the comparison to be made between being educated and being trained. Some would argue that education really happens in a face-to-face environment as opposed to a specific training program that tends to be the “face” of online courses. Let’s take a quick look at the difference between the two. Training encompasses the transfer of a specific skill set or behavior, whereas education comprises a systematic process of learning through theoretical knowledge, problem-solving, and rational judgment. The latter certainly sounds a little better. However, it all really depends on which subject material you want to learn and how you want to learn it.

Despite these three, main benefits for traditional higher learning, you might have noticed that I’m personally leaning toward online education, even if it might not work well for me or involves me stepping out of my comfort zone. Virtual learning did win my pro list 9 to 3, but I think it all comes down to my strong belief that higher education does not need to be that expensive ─ and that will be the biggest factor in education’s online evolution. The Corona Virus will just be the push over the cliff that it needed.

Regardless of what I think, I would love to hear from all of you out there. Should traditional education fear for its life in the face of online education in a Post Covid 19 world? And by all means, if you have another pro to add to either side of the list… feel free to express your thoughts in the comments below.

Until the next time,

Your friendly, neighborhood blogger,

Mark Benton

Resources / Dhawal Shah, Founder of Class Central / November 5, 2017

Illinois Online / Tania Heap | Jun 05, 2017

Daily Kos / Jon Paul Sydnor / Thursday May 10, 2018

Educause Review / James G. Mazoue / Monday, January 28, 2013

Dexway / Dexway Team

The Harvard Gazette / Peter Reuell / April 3, 2013


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