(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
I am a big advocate of online learning and I am excited about the hidden opportunity that has suddenly presented itself. According to UNESCO, more than 185 countries have shut down their schools and universities. Learning has been disrupted for hundreds of million children and youth. Education providers are trying to rise to the challenge to teach at a distance, parents are figuring out their role and teachers are ambivalently trying their best. Of course, I wish the circumstances were different, but the reality is that this is online learning’s moment of fame—for 15 minutes or maybe longer?
As we watch this unfold, a few questions come to my mind.
Does online learning have a fair chance at proving itself? Despite our attachment to learning in a classroom and the social life that comes with it, a growing body of evidence shows that high-quality online learning can improve the student experience and learning outcomes. However, the reality is that we are not in a normal situation today. Students are distracted, teachers are not sufficiently trained and our technology infrastructure is far from fully ready to cooperate. I am concerned that some governments and providers are under pressure to move too fast to ensure uninterrupted learning, with little medium-term planning or ramp-up time. A lot of work goes into designing quality online learning experiences, including incorporating new pedagogical practices. The only short-term option for some providers is to use video conferencing applications and virtual collaboration tools to try to replicate existing classroom situations online. Under such circumstances, and when life gets back to normal, will everyone say “this was great, I want more of it” or will the clunky experience leave a bitter taste?
Will the education access gap widen? The promise of technology, and educational technology in particular, is that it will equalize access to opportunity. Some of this has been delivered on partially, but to a large extent, educational technology is still a resource that not everyone or everywhere can
Crisis aside, there are several reasons why online, or even blended, learning has not yet been fully adopted.
afford. In my country, Lebanon, private schools and universities have risen to the challenge and mobilized their existing underutilized online platforms. Public education providers on the other hand have virtually no chance (pun intended). I was moved by a public school teacher on television the other day saying “they want me to teach online for free while I cannot afford to feed my kids, let alone find an internet connection.” I was encouraged by Coursera’s recent announcement that it will put all its university courses at the disposal of affected universities, for free, for a limited time. Which essentially means if you are studying at a university which cannot take your learning experience online, you can still learn what you need to through Coursera, and get credits for it, if your university is willing to work with Coursera.
Will commercially-driven educational technology companies and online learning providers take advantage of this situation? Crisis aside, there are several reasons why online, or even blended, learning has not yet been fully adopted. The edtech market was valued at $252 billion globally in 2020. But I have repeatedly heard nonprofit providers and others who value quality first say that the commercially-driven companies with poor quality content or poor learning technologies have given online learning a bad reputation. This has made it more difficult for governments to establish accreditation standards and remain insistent that the majority of learning has to occur face-to-face for students to get credit for their learning. This is especially true in the Arab region. My concern is that the poor quality providers who care only about money will flourish current coronavirus chaos while governments, academic institutions and students are in a desperate and time-sensitive position.
Are we putting too much pressure on people? This thought came to mind when I read a Facebook post from a university professor a couple of days ago and also during a conversation with a friend who is a middle school teacher. The essence of what they were trying to say is that we are in a global crisis which is threatening our physical and mental health. Yet, we are asking people to rapidly learn new skills, spend more time online, and go above and beyond to keep education afloat. One perspective on the situation is that this is an unrealistic expectation, and the ugly side of our capitalist productivity-obsessed society.
Clearly, my own voluntary ‘safety first’ lock-down has got me thinking intensely about the role and value of online learning in the Arab region. I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions.
May Wazzan is an independent consultant based in Beirut. She focuses on developing and delivering programs in the education and social sectors. Her most recent full time role was with the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education where she set up and managed their scholarship programs. She has also advised government programs as a consultant at McKinsey & Company and the World Bank.