The Pandemic Accelerated Online Learning, But It Also Exposed Its Inequalities
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, academic institutions have faced a multitude of hurdles. With the cancellation of in-person classes, traditional academic environments were flipped on their heads. This was especially challenging for younger students, who may not be as capable of learning independently. But students of all ages, say experts, benefit from interacting with others as they make their way through middle and high school.
“Students have had to adapt to new ways of learning—which is no small feat, especially as remote learning was something most students probably did not have experience with pre-pandemic. For many, this meant quickly adapting to using digital technologies like online learning platforms, as well as developing their self-motivation. This also included learning how to build relationships and engage with teachers and friends through virtual means,” says Anna Alejo, an education consultant to the World Bank.
Alejo says that online learning can have a potentially negative impact on a child's socio-emotional development. “In addition to its effect on learning outcomes, remote learning may affect the way students build socio-emotional skills like self-motivation, self-control and forming positive relationships.”
Henry Motte-Munoz, founder of Filipino online learning platform Edukasyon.com, says that aside from these challenges, digital learning also has a number of benefits. “The pandemic has affected education in so many ways but, while under such unfortunate circumstances, it has actually enabled the education sector to accelerate a lot of positive trends for digitised learning—building systems for remote classes, online and multimedia modules and other tools that train students to become self-motivated learners.”
A question of access
However, while students and teachers can participate in digital classes wherever they are, the experience and quality of a streamed class is completely dependent on a persons access to technology and high speed internet. In a number of countries in Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, many public school students do not own tablets or laptops and cannot easily access the internet.
“Most Filipinos, many families, are not equipped with proper resources to manage an effective work- or learn-from-home environment. For those who adapted to remote classes, there’s the constant challenge of Zoom fatigue, time and energy management, and the overall learning curve they are facing together with their teachers and parents,” Motte-Munoz explains.
“Virtual learning has great potential, but it is crucial that this does not result in learners being left behind,” says Alejo. She has noticed widening disparities, saying that “students in disadvantaged contexts are more likely to encounter challenges, and this may lead to a worsening of performance among those who were already behind even before the pandemic had begun.”
In less developed nations, there is danger that a move towards more online learning could in fact widen the learning gap. “Equitable access to learning has been a primary concern since day one. We’ve seen student movements online calling to suspend online classes, as it continues to emphasise the huge digital divide in the Philippines,” Motte-Munoz says.
Alejo adds that “many countries that have similar challenges in connectivity have used educational television or radio as an immediate response to the pandemic. Just as with online learning, these also pose their own challenges to student engagement and motivation, but can be viable options in low-resource contexts."
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Changing teaching methods
It's not just students who have had to adapt. “Teachers have had to make tremendous changes to cope with distance education," says Alejo. "For many, this meant learning new technologies, adjusting their pedagogical approaches, and rapidly up-skilling to be able to continue teaching effectively.”
Parents, guardians and older siblings have also taken a more active role in supporting learn-from-home efforts, stepping in as at-home tutors. Unfortunately, the choice between a salary and a child’s education meant that many “opted to forego this past school year all together,” says Motte-Munoz.
“Whilst the digital divide may have widened the learning gap, let us not forget that this learning gap already existed pre-Covid,” he says. “Teacher training, access to materials, class sizes, counselling—disparities have raged across all these dimensions for years.” The pandemic has put a spotlight on these issues, he says, and helped to bridge the gap.
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Alejo says this spotlight has also offered a reminder that everyone has a part to play in ensuring that all children have access to education. “We all have a role in supporting our schools, students and teachers, even if we ourselves may not be directly involved in education.”
“Our students are the future of this country. Ensuring they receive high-quality education should be our most important investment.”
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