COVID-19 and online learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has upset the lives and lifestyle of the world. Everything points to a “new normal” yet undefined but taking shape in all aspects of everyday life. “Social distancing” will forever be in everybody’s vocabulary regardless of tongue or language. The phrase will surely find its way to the next edition of Webster’s dictionary and add to the growing list oxymorons.

Everybody and all institutions are experiencing the hardship and inconvenience brought about by
the pandemic, few more than students in school, their learning and education. Schools were abruptly closed to any activity without any warning, many without contingency plans to transition students to an environment detached from live interaction with teachers and other students or learning content. Online courses, e-classrooms, and distance learning are on every school’s crisis
strategy. Schools are ramping up efforts to deploy online learning platforms and shift resources and faculty to this unfamiliar environment.

Organizations in the business of providing products and services to the online learning community are seeing shifts in business dynamics and consumer behavior. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, one company experienced an alarming drop in consulting revenues but a sharp increase in sales of online learning-related software products and applications. Most schools were rushing DIY solutions to speed up deployment of online classrooms. Within a few weeks, consulting revenues inched up again to the pre-pandemic mix between services and products. Those who attempted to fast-track online learning capability soon realized they cannot do it on their own without the help of experts and consultants.

Preparing for online learning is not like putting up a make-shift stage overnight, to be taken down once past the need. Effective online classrooms and learning communities take time, habit, and dedication by school administrators, faculty, and students. It is about learning theories and instructional design, guided by strategy and organizational commitment.

Teachers trained on the new tools and familiar with new performance metrics will be needed. It takes time and effort. Things can even go wrong and make the worst of an already tough situation. The World Bank in its blogs about online education warns that even more students can be disenfranchised with online learning strategies that fail to consider many other important considerations like connectivity and access to tools. That it took a pandemic to bring new focus to a solution has been there at least thirty years is a sad commentary. Years ago, a school official in a leading university in Metro Manila recommended planning the academic calendar and all related activities on the assumption that two months of the school year will be lost to typhoons, floods, transport strikes, political rallies, unplanned holidays and many other factors. It was not even an assumption. These happen every year without fail. The idea clearly needed an online learning platform that will be activated within minutes of class suspension, without need for further announcements or preparation. If the idea was pursued, no school would have been better prepared in this pandemic. But it never merited serious discussion because it was a massive undertaking that would have disrupted the normal routine. Two months would have been just the right filler to give the school ample time to plan and revise activities in case the break lasts longer than usual, as in this pandemic.

Proven effective instructional approaches like educational technology, blended learning and
flipped classroom do not need a crisis to be recognized. Any self-respecting educator knows extremely well. Schools too should have taken it upon themselves to move into this unique environment years ago. There is no doubt the crisis has created renewed awareness and acceptance, no matter how grudging it may be. That is a good first sign. Taking the big leap is never too late. The need and the benefits will outlast this crisis. The resistance to change will still be there, but schools who continue where they left off and refuse to evolve will soon be facing a crisis longer and more lethal to the organization than any pandemic. Online learning may be the new normal, it seems. It should have been THE normal years ago.

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