The Black Swan of Online Learning

The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus disease, formally known as COVID-19, has sparked a worldwide alarm with economic and social consequences around the globe. This lingering pandemic is envisaged to cost the world $1 trillion in 2020 causing an inevitable recession especially for countries under serious stress such as Italy and China.

While the impacts on businesses are well documented, the education sector has taken a big blow, facing the biggest disruption in recent memory. With quarantines and strict travel bans now enforced almost everywhere, measures to stop and slow down infected cases have led to an unexpected boom for one specific industry: online learning.

Amid coronavirus fears, students around the world have been instructed to resume their courses online as to not fall behind schedule. Homebound or having fled the country, as many as 12 million students in Italy alone have replaced face-to-face teaching with an online learning platform. This global shift in education stemmed from China, the birthplace of the outbreak, and as of recently, countries all over the world are following suit. Correctively carried out, this unprecedented teaching method can make education more accessible and affordable in a time of crisis. In hindsight however, the way e-learning is being portrayed as a problem-free solution, capable of fully replacing traditional teaching methods can be quite misleading.

This “Black Swan” – a term used to describe sudden epidemics with serious consequences- welcomes the complex endeavor that is online education. Setting important understandings and expectations as to how this platform can support those affected by COVID-19 measures, especially institutions that disregarded online teaching prior to this outbreak, is crucial. Typically, developing online courses designed to capture students’ attention and keep them engaged requires a team of experts consisting of designers, illustrators, and programmers. However, in this quick transition, lecturers who have never taught online will be compelled to record their lessons through a webcam using the slides they would have had previously used for face-to-face lectures or live teaching telecommunication tools such as “BlackBoard”. This gives room for lack of consistency throughout the course resulting from a blend of the staff’s lack of training and familiarity with the usage of the platform.

Another issue would be keeping students actively engaged, interested, and participating. Doing so already poses a big challenge for academics in normal everyday lectures and several studies show that the task is even harder in virtual classes. Holding debates and open discussions or even asking questions which provoke a thought-process aimed at keeping students attentive will not be easy, or even feasible, via e-learning. Furthermore, access to high-speed internet is a must in order to avoid connection problems and poor quality pre-recorded or live lectures which can cause frustration.

Given the speed at which the coronavirus outbreak is spreading, this rapid and abrupt shift to online learning will be the norm for quite some time. Keeping this in mind, educational institutions will need to determine how to best use this new platform in order to achieve the best learning outcomes without sacrificing quality.

Alternatively, in a world where such global emergencies increasingly look like the norm, this crisis can perhaps lead to a more effective and efficient response system. Universities and schools are working furiously to develop breakthrough ways to move online quickly when there is a need to, which leaves us questioning: “Will things go back to normal once this is all over, or will the bureau incorporate online learning in the syllabus?”

The answer is not quite obvious and direct, as the perceived practicality of e-learning grossly depends on the users’ first experiences and outcomes. Going online and incorporating such platforms with traditional learning takes time and proper training. Nonetheless, we cannot deny the fact that given the circumstances and short notice, the overall response has been commendable: at the end of the day, students are on par with the syllabus and lessons have not come to a halt.

by Paloma Nur Nannoni

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