Online Education Should Not be Taken for Granted
By Samantha Wickramasinghe
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many educational institutions in Sri Lanka and throughout the world switched to online teaching and learning practices. However the process was almost forcibly implemented since the transition from the physical classroom to the online classroom was a herculean task that would not have been possible without COVID circumstances due to the amount of specialised training, motivation and infrastructure needed for the transition. Once it was implemented, there was no going back.
Online learning became the new normal and many public and private educators all over Sri Lanka jumped on the bandwagon. Some pursued online teaching and learning with a traditional mindset with the intent of replicating the good-old physical classroom in an online setting while others went with the liberal mindset of enacting change by any means necessary. These extreme reactions perhaps divulge the fact that the transition to online teaching was neither gradual nor systemic. However, these astonishing developments in education that came with the COVID pandemic should not be taken for granted because technology has been the agent that helped educators to enact change.
Zoom boom and the advantages of distant learning
Over a year ago, no educator could have imagined the global transformation in education (for the better or for worse) that was going to take place. With the transformation from physical to online, teachers got to use powerful tools like Zoom which allowed Breakout Rooms and Polling. Breakout Rooms are virtual spaces where a small group can gather and do activities under the supervision of the class teacher. Within the Breakout Rooms, students could share their screens and use the whiteboard option which could act as a canvas for brainstorming and sharing ideas. In addition, Zoom polling was a way to conduct opinion surveys in class. Through polling, teachers could get immediate feedback on students’ preferences. Both of these facilities were amply used by many teachers for online sessions. These developments helped to continue the teaching and learning process even in one of the most challenging pandemics. Thus, educators should take a moment to appreciate them.
Technology-based asynchronous and synchronous learning
For those who have forgotten, there was life before the internet and educators were doing just fine. Even before people started using Google, Zoom, and Canvas for education, high-quality education was available in universities as well as other primary and secondary educational institutions. So why technology-based education? The simple answer to this question is that not only in the field of education but almost all professions are now driven by technology unlike in the past. Take medicine. Did you know that there are so many medical apps that you could use to schedule meetings with doctors online? Yes, and these apps are already being used in Sri Lanka as we are talking. Thus it would be highly unrealistic to shun technology or divorce technology from education. Education, after all, is the field that should adopt technology before any other field.
With the advent of COVID, two ways of technology-based learning online became prominent in the field of education. One is called asynchronous learning while the other is called synchronous learning. In asynchronous learning, students get to learn at their place. In this scenario, the teacher’s role is to upload all the materials in an online Learning Management System (LMS) and make them available for students step by step as they complete assignments and activities. The interesting thing is that students are the ones who decide when to do the work. The teacher is available for help, guidance, and answering questions. In this scenario, the teacher and student do not even need to see each other or meet each other. All the work can be done with responsibilities given to each other party.
On the other hand, synchronous learning is what mostly has been happening in Sri Lanka with the advent of COVID-19. Synchronous learning is when the teacher and students have live, interactive sessions. When school teachers and tuition teachers have live sessions with the students via Zoom or Skype, this can be called synchronous teaching and learning.
YouTube has become a popular way of disseminating and consuming information. Many educators upload Youtube videos of themselves teaching subjects that can be accessed by students all over the world. One of the problems of this model is that some videos are made to gain subscribers and views. Nevertheless, the development of the YouTube video data has been a modern miracle. One way that educators can help students with a plethora of information banks like YouTube is to guide them to correct sources and teach them skills that are necessary to identify facts from opinion, fabricated information from evidence-based information. This way the wealth of knowledge that the online platforms offer us can be used for the greater good.
Connection and Data Issues
It is no secret that the online education boom divulged the economic disparities in Sri Lankan society, making some students completely helpless and abandoned with online education. Another issue that is played very little attention to by educators and the authorities is the psychological aspect of learning from home. Not every student has a learner-friendly environment at home. For the moment, nobody seems to have a clear understanding of the psychological impact of the COVID pandemic on the population in general, and undoubtedly, these factors play a role in the problems that come out in the classroom in one form or another. However, the progress of online education could not be underestimated while acknowledging the shortcomings. What happened with the online education boom is a miracle and it should not be taken for granted.