A glimpse into the future: Using tech tools for online learning — during COVID-19 and beyond
Education technology investments were already trending before the pandemic, reaching US$ 18.7 billion in 2019 according to the World Economic Forum. This represents a global push to integrate more technology in both school operations and the delivery of learning for students.
This trend has been accelerated by the need for schools to apply different digital tools to continue operating during COVID-19. These tools include webinars, video calls and the use of different apps to communicate and facilitate classes. With research already suggesting a shift towards blended learning pre-pandemic, it seems likely that the more pronounced shifts seen over recent months — in regards to the online delivery of content and classes — may be here to stay (to varying degrees).
In response to the current situation, schools — such as Grafton High School in NSW, Australia — have lent their students dozens and even hundreds of Chromebooks to “bridge the digital divide” some families face and enable pupils to continue their education online. Such broad-based computer loan schemes don’t only level the playing field for students, it also allows them to practice work-ready digital literacy skills. And, if results are promising, it’s hard to see Grafton High — and many others who have implemented similar short-term programs — rolling back school-wide incorporation of device-driven online learning.
Additionally, over the last few weeks, the use of software such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts or Zoom has increased drastically, changing the way learning content is delivered. And, emerging evidence from recent studies indicates that these new modes of teaching produce results that can’t be ignored.
Research cited by Shift eLearning and conducted by the Brandon Hall Group claims that online learning participants — although chiefly focused on adult learners — retain between 25 and 60 percent of content taught, compared to 8 – 10 percent when delivered in a physical classroom setting. This suggests that online learning will increasingly become a mainstay of mainstream education given the evidence that these measures, forcibly adopted through necessity during this pandemic, can actually deliver positive outcomes.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) also predicts that the rush toward digitization will have a lasting impact on traditional in-person classroom learning. WEF suggests two main outcomes: Increasingly individualized learning opportunities supported by an increased use of technology, as well as a cascading effect that would help better-align the traditionally slow-moving education industry with other tech-savvy sectors and modern workplaces.
The WEF’s article also suggests that the shift towards technology is resulting in increased diversification and growth in the global edtech market. In turn, these trends are likely to spur-on a wave of innovation, which will accelerate the continued digitization of our school systems and education industry more broadly.
Additionally, it also seems fair to suggest that the nature of online learning is teaching students secondary skills, which they can benefit from in the long run.
Building soft skills: Self-direction and resilience
It’s not just the direct use of technology, and the development of technology-specific proficiencies, that is helping students obtain desirable skill sets. It’s also the context in which predominantly online learning takes place — remotely and independently — that is simultaneously forcing and empowering students to build soft skills like self-direction and resilience (both highly employable attributes).
The isolating nature of digital learning has challenged students to develop independence and problem-solving skills that will benefit both their current learning and future endeavours — from further study to workplace success.
Students are now being compelled to become self-directed learners — something with which many students have typically struggled. Frequently distracted and not used to managing their time, online learning is pushing kids to become more self-reliant.
However, it’s also true that many educators — including school leaders who led a recent panel discussion on Virtual Schooling and COVID-19 — are saying that exposing young children to the technology itself is also beneficial in the long-term. The consensus among educators seems to be this: it’s actually a common misconception that younger generations are more technically capable. Their strengths often lie in the use of technology to enable social interaction and entertainment, rather than using technology to achieve an outcome or solve a problem. By uncovering these weaknesses, it is clear that digital technology is an important foundation and vital component of student learning — both in and outside the classroom.
Changing staff communications and school operations
Not only has the pandemic impacted how content is presented to students, it’s also changed how schools manage themselves. Given that there is no face-to-face interaction between teachers, parents, and students, schools have had to find new solutions to continue processes that have traditionally been physical in nature and relied upon direct human interaction. Prominent examples include things like staff meetings, approvals, student assemblies and many other operational activities.
In response, schools have turned to applications that offer collaborative tools such as Google Suite or Canvas. However, conducting and facilitating face-to-face activities remotely, through technology, has also meant the nature of these activities has had to adapt to the medium too.
For example, educators are reporting that staff meetings and communications have become more frequent, yet condensed. The experience is that while online meeting tools make it easy to facilitate meet-ups among geographically dispersed staff members, they both strain attention spans and make it difficult to convey large slabs of information in one sitting. Similarly, many schools are running on streamlined timetables for students too, with online class times reduced in comparison to their physical counterparts, for the same reasons.
Despite the challenges and required adaptations, the ability for digital tools to facilitate more accessible, flexible, immediate and efficient processes suggests an improvement upon existing systems and gives reason to continue their more prevalent use into the future.
Where to next?
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed areas of education that need attention but, more importantly, it has revealed the benefits of incorporating heavier technology usage throughout typical brick-and-mortar school environments. These benefits mean that when the education sector’s response to COVID-19 winds down, it’s hard to see schools also winding back their use of technology to pre-pandemic levels. The use of technology has proven to be invaluable in progressing a sector that is still heavily reliant on inflexible paper-based teaching and operating methods.