Adapting Education for the Digital Age

The challenges and the opportunities of online learning.

By: Rachel Zhang, BOLT Ambassador (McGill)

The New Norm

I woke up half an hour late Monday morning. After grabbing a cup of milk and a cinnamon bun, I “rushed off” to my first virtual class of the day. By the time I had routinely logged onto Zoom and turned off both my microphone and camera, my lecture had been going on for 10 minutes.

I found myself getting distracted, texting my friends and checking Instagram, listening to the buzzing sound playing as my background music. This is how I started my average day during a not-so-average pandemic, and I don’t think my experience is unique.

The Challenges

“The reality is that probably the majority of school districts, and there are more than 13,000 of them, don’t have the ability to provide continuous virtual online instruction,” — Dan Domenech, executive director of the American School Superintendents Association in Alexandria, Virginia.

There are many challenges to overcome. Educators are less equipped to navigate the online learning platforms, in fact, many of them have to cancel classes because of technical difficulties. And with school IT services shifting their focus on helping assist the staff members in the troubleshooting process, individual student demands for these same services are placed on hold.

It’s been difficult for me to be sufficiently prepared to balance my study, work, and social lives in an online environment. Sometimes, I feel that lack of community, and that feeling intensified when I run into technical problems, and difficulties in communicating with my peers.

Even though educational institutions and governments have been distributing digital equipment and financial aids to students in need, the impact of the still widening digital divide is detrimental.

Some of my international friends went back home, and as a result, a 12-hour time difference naturally sits between them and their mandatory lectures. Many of them lack the access to their student portal or high-speed internet at home, and the same online education can never be provided to everyone if some can’t log on at all.

The Opportunities:

Yes, this transition to online has brought us a flurry of chaos, but we shouldn’t ignore the perks of virtual learning in a post-pandemic world.

I found myself with more flexibility for studying or external commitments after shifting to online, even though sometimes I have absolutely no motivation to open my laptop and “sit in” on another more-than-one-hour online lecture. Yet I understand, resistance to change will not help me, or any of us, during or after the pandemic.

I couldn’t deny that the rise of the ed-tech industry has made my higher education, which I will need in an automated world, more affordable and accessible. It accommodates long commutes, and overcomes the financial barriers of moving to a new location. Those who can’t afford to live in major cities or near their schools are now allowed to continue their studies without worrying about housing costs or taking the public transit for hours. And more importantly, this shift to online is more welcoming to those with physical disability or illness.

E-learning has also been shown to increase retention of information according to SH!FT, and take less time: “students retain 25–60% more material when learning online compared to only 8–10% in a classroom. This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40–60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.”

EdTech cannot replace a teacher, but it can enhance instruction. As the new generation of technology matures, education can be provided online at a much lower cost than that of conventional education. The use of technology will test both the educator and learners, enabling them to customize learning based on personal needs. If ed-tech can play a role in spreading knowledge across borders, it is incumbent upon all of us to utilize and explore its full potential.

I believe that e-learning and the traditional offline learning are complementary to each other. It’s the way of teaching and the platforms that need a reform. Online courses should be designed interactive, relevant, creative, and student-centered, humanizing the learning process in a digital world.

Just like how Leslie Jamison writes about the virtual life in her book “Make It Scream, Make it Burn”:

“When I rode horses through a virtual Yosemite, I knew that the women leading me through the pines had spent years on disability, isolated from the world, before she found a place where she no longer felt sidelined. That’s what is ultimately liberating about Second Life — not its repudiation of the physical world, but its entwinement with that other world, their fierce exchange.”

After the pandemic, virtualization will be embedded in every aspect of our lives. Whether we like it or not, e-learning is a trend that we cannot stop. It’s a period of uncertainty. But it is also a moment in time when the work the ed-tech industry does is most critical to help students adapt to the new norm.

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