The pandemic has put online education in the spotlight and under the magnifying glass.
The emergence of the novel coronavirus has initiated an abrupt shift around the globe toward online education. For many, the transition has been rocky. Many larger organizations have been scaling their educational infrastructure as rapidly as possible, while individual educators are trying to make their way through a sudden influx of new learners. From the consumer side of things, the experience has not placed online education in a flattering light.
While the negatives are making many long for the days of traditional education, the reality is that, even before the pandemic, education was heading online. Covid–19 has expedited the inevitable, and in many cases, the bad experiences should be attributed to the rush rather than to the experience itself.
And the crash course in online education—unpleasant as it is—also has some benefits. Learners and educators alike are learning their way around the new online course space, while organizations are growing infrastructure that will outlast the current crisis. Online learning is central to the future of education—now more than ever. And while the virus is showing that few things about the future are certain, here are some of our educated guesses about how we expect it to shape learning in the nears to come.
1. All in-person courses will become “remote ready.”
As colleges and schools are beginning to think about whether to hold classes in the fall, nearly all are wisely planning for an online component that they can switch to should the need arise. Current lockdowns make online learning necessary, but with the possibility of more lockdowns in the future, courses will need to be able to seamlessly switch from in-person to online and back again within the course of a semester.
This will be necessary for the course as a whole, but also for individuals taking the course. Any individual who feels sick needs to be able to exercise caution and stay home without it impacting their ability to take lessons. The same applies to a learner living with someone who tests positive for Covid–19. Even once the current pandemic lifts, learners may want similar options for less deadly illnesses. How many fewer cases of the flu would there be each year if sick students could keep up with classes online?
2. Online learning will become a part of nearly every student’s experience, but in-person learning will remain essential.
When online learning first came on the scene, many techno-futurists predicted that it would be the end of all traditional teaching. Now that it has replaced traditional teaching—albeit temporarily—in many parts of the world, many are pointing to shared pain points and frustrations as proof that it doesn’t work so well after all.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. Online learning has undeniable benefits in terms of accessibility, flexibility, mobility, and user customization that make it an indispensable tool for educational institutions. But people crave other people, and even before the pandemic, it was common for online communities to join together at in-person conventions and meetups. Just as classrooms need to be prepared to move online when necessary, the online learning of the future can benefit from in-person networking events and study groups.
3. Universities and colleges will offer more flexible degree courses and time tables.
Covid–19 is disrupting more than social habits. The economic toll is changing businesses and career paths across many industries, and this will influence how learners make decisions about their degrees and certifications. Even before the pandemic, many education institutions were experimenting with new timetables and course options. According to a 2015 article in The Atlantic, a new MicroMasters program at MIT attracted 1.3 million students in its first year, while students at Stanford proposed the idea of the “open loop university,” in which students could intersperse time at college with work experience.
These are broad changes coming to the entire education field, but it is hard to imagine them succeeding without a robust online learning infrastructure.
4. Advanced technologies will begin to play a wider roll.
It’s not easy to speculate about the future amidst so much uncertainty, but one area that continues to offer excitement and optimism is that of the new emerging technology. Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality are already finding their place in various applications. But for many, these tools remain too expensive or too complicated to use. And until they can be incorporated thoughtfully—and not just as a neat gimmick—educators have reason to be wary.
But as these technologies improve in capabilities, and become both more user-friendly and affordable, online educators will be able to incorporate them in new and creative ways. Imagine an AI algorithm that can help a language learner hone their grammar skills, a VR simulation that can help train emergency workers for a disaster, or AR-equipped smart glasses that can help a piano learner see what keys to play. Some of these concepts may not pan out, but those that do have the potential to revolutionize education.
The online/in-person dichotomy in education is dissolving. That’s good news.
The main lesson we’re all learning from the current situation is that we need strong online educational infrastructure to support learners and educators alike—not just now, but for the future as well. But we’re also feeling the absence of traditional learning and face-to-face time with our peers in the classroom.
Creating a better blended learning experience is the first step. The next is to realize that in-person and online aren’t two sides of a coin, but two end points on a spectrum. Some classes will continue to be fully in-person. Others will be entirely online. But the majority will fall somewhere in the middle, with the most successful organizations being able to slide the scale one way or another as they need. The future of education depends on that agility.