5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Andrew Malcolm

Shifting dialogues and tensions on the merits of online learning: A survey of LinkedIn conversations

The current pandemic has forced higher-ed to fully embrace online education. The adaptation has fueled debates about online education, particularly in terms of how it contrasts with face-to-face education, and what its future role will be in the post-pandemic world. The debates often pit pessimism against optimism.   

Kent Kaiser, a Communications Counselor and University of Minnesota Lecturer, posted on LinkedIn that, “If your kid is going to be a college freshman and the school will be online for fall, advise your kid to take a gap semester or gap year. Online is not the way to start a college career. It is substandard.”

Bora Ozkan, Assistant Professor of Finance and Academic Director of Online MBA at Temple University, feels differently: “Online education does not mean subpar education if it is designed and implemented right.”

There is a feeling of importance to these debates because most people believe that even after students and teachers have the option of returning to in-person classrooms, the relationship between teacher and student will never look the same. While some argue that immersion in online education will only show the true value of face-to-face education, and others suggest that from this point, education will always remain completely online, many suggest a future that takes advantage of both mediums and allows for flexibility.  

Sarvat Maharramli, Strategy and Management Executive in Orange County California, suggests that this balance is inevitable, regardless of how valuable online education becomes: “Did the pandemic boost the online education industry? Yes. Shall universities develop alternative and more online classes? Yes. Shall education be more accessible and affordable? Yes. Will online education eliminate in-person education? No. Going to a college is an experience, not a learning tool or a series of videos. Buying ground coffee and drinking at home alone is ten times cheaper than going to Starbucks. People do not go to a coffee shop for coffee only. Young people want to go to a college, not be stuck in front of a computer.”

It will be a long time before there is a clear, well-researched picture of how online learning and face-to-face learning differ in their ability to help or hinder all types of learners. In the meantime, many discussions on LinkedIn are revolving around observed outcomes of the experiment that the pandemic has forced upon us: a complete immersion of all students around the world in online learning methods.

Jeremie Rostan, an International Educator, posted, with an accompanying article, the discussion question: “Why are some students THRIVING online during the Covid-19 pandemic? The transition to online learning has been hard for most, but done miracles for some…Why is that, and what can we learn from this moving forward, once we return to campus? Might this help us create flexible models making safe distancing easier to implement? Did some of YOUR students thrive online?”

In the discussions that follow posts like this, the investigatory tone of the conversation often transforms into a revolutionary tone. David Spooner, a Coordinator & Pedagogical Leader in Ghana, sees this time as a chance to challenge fundamental problems in education:  “‘[quoting Rostan’s article] the school social environment also creates conditions and incentives that don’t always support learning.’ – It could be argued that the way education is structured, validated etc means that it actively militates AGAINST learning. Foucault was not wrong in ‘Discipline et punir’ [sic] that there is a good reason why prisons, schools and factories imitate each other’s modus operandi. ‘[quoting Rostan’s article] For some…the fact that students can freely check and send messages, glance at their friends’ Instagram, etc. when they work from home makes it possible for them to satisfy their social media needs and even organize their own breaks in more efficient and less disruptive ways.’ – I agree and, if the interpretation/reflection is accurate, it raises important questions about (i) why schools? and (ii) if schools, how, and who gets to decide? Merci for these reflections.”

Adrian Von Wrede-Jervis, a Director at the Bavarian International School gAG in Germany, suggests that the fundamental problems Lakis observes in education are made more present and damaging in the context of the pandemic, and in fact answers Rostan’s original question: “Will add that some of the reasons you identified why online worked for some explain why it failed for others. The school system rewards compliance. Colouring inside the lines, go here at this time, write this, listen for the answer. Autonomy is discouraged. It precisely deskills for survival in the online setting. And arguably deskills for life.”

Along with broad sweeping criticisms, the revolutionary tone of conversations includes big ideas. Faezeh Mehrang, a Senior English Language Teacher at Massey University in New Zealand, received much praise for the idea she posted on LinedIn: “In the attempt to go back to the old normal (which is what human nature would call for, so I’m not criticising), we have been trying to change this reality and look for ways to create the face-to-face class and assessment atmosphere in our online classes. However, If we, teachers, predict the future of education to be mostly online and if we expect the online education to be a success, it is time to accept the new normal and start making big changes in our teaching to be able to keep up with the big move in education; we need to start training independent learners and autonomous learners today! The future of education needs students and learners who take responsibility for their own learning and don’t need their teachers to constantly observe their performance.”

Josianne Pisani, a Teacher, Trainer and Materials Writer at ETI in Malta, added, “…perhaps the future lies not so much in teaching content but in developing transferable skills in our learners and in the process helping them to learn how to learn, making them more divergent learners. Our situation today could be a great opportunity for learners and teachers alike.”

Matthew Cooke, an IB English, Geography and Life Orientation teacher in Shanghai, raised some concerns with the idea: “While I completely agree about the way in which teaching and classrooms seem to be going, we cannot discount the fact that many learners require/desire the more ‘hands-on’ approach. Can we simply ‘trust’ them to do the work that has been prescribed? It does become slightly harder to help those individuals who need a bit of an extra ‘push’…”

In response, Mehrang said: “Totally agree! And that’s why I think it’s time to start training independent learners to make sure they’ll all survive the change which has happened and seems to be here to stay. We can’t afford having students who need that extra push because we can no longer provide that push and as a teacher, I feel responsible and my heart breaks to see they’re left alone.”

Her response shows a fallacy in many revolutionary ideas in education, that while new ideas can have great benefits for the majority, they can also leave certain learners behind, and make the job of providing equitable access to education around the world more difficult. This doesn’t mean educators shouldn’t explore and possibly embrace new ideas, but they must move forward responsibly, and that means supporting new research. Farouk Dey, a Vice President at John Hopkins University, summarized, from a vision chat, what is likely the most important point to make in these dialogues: “Virtual is not inherently inclusive and equitable for all workers and learners and much is required to ensure that under-represented minorities thrive at work and school in a post COVID19 world.” .

Andrew Malcolm, Director of Communications, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, Canada

Twitter: @AndrewR_Malcolm