Distance education has become an integral part of the life we now call the new normal—life since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It forced millions of students and teachers into online classrooms, and we are currently witnessing the fruits of this educational experiment.
It’s been almost a year since schools and colleges locked down, and we can now say with certainty: it failed.
Remote learning before COVID
Before we assess the damage from the enforced mass-scale transition to remote learning, we should understand how it was used before the pandemic hit in early 2020.
Remote or distance learning is a format of education in which teachers and students are physically separated and use technology to communicate and work on assignments.
Thanks to advancements in educational technology (EdTech) and the fact that educational institutions had become more open to alternative forms of teaching, remote classes were growing in popularity even before the pandemic.
But at the end of the day, it was a matter of convenience. Only students who couldn’t be physically present in classes and had all the necessary means to access them online could take up remote learning. Meanwhile, the vast majority still preferred to attend school in person.
Why remote learning failed
Unreadiness was the main reason behind this educational catastrophe. When schools and colleges first relocated to online classrooms, some people were moaning about how it would disrupt the educational process, while others remained more hopeful, pointing towards the growing success of remote learning. The problem is that such education only seemed so successful because the students and teachers who were using it already knew how to implement it correctly. Unfortunately, they were in a very small minority.
Once the transition occurred, it became clear that most schools and colleges weren’t prepared for it. Their teachers weren’t trained to conduct online classes and didn’t know how to use basic online learning tools. Some students struggled with programs as well.
Even worse, it turned out that many students don’t have access to such basic technologies as a computer and internet connection. Naturally, wealth was a huge factor in determining access to online classrooms, which is why poorer students were affected more than the rest.
Back in the day, it would have been crazy to think that such a small factor as unreliable WiFi would be a serious problem for the quality of education. But as we see now, the technology gap drastically wided the education in 2020.
Everyone starts to give up
Another problem with online learning is the lack of control over students, which has led to rising absenteeism, both involuntary (due to justifiable circumstances) and voluntary (skipping class for no justifiable reason). In these times, teachers have a harder time determining why a student has missed a class, so some educational establishments have simply given up and stopped requiring students to attend classes. Although they still require students to submit and pass exams, this decision has negatively impacted the quality of learning.
It’s also practically impossible to check on students during class to make sure they’re paying attention. Most video chat programs used in online learning allow users to mute their microphone and turn off the webcam, so unless the teacher has disciplined students to maintain eye contact at all times and show engagement, there’s no way to tell what they’re actually doing during class. Unfortunately, few teachers have been able to create a productive online learning environment.
Cheating goes unchecked
Controlling cheating during online exams is a serious educational challenge. For centuries, students have been coming up with incredibly creative ways to cheat on exams, but old tricks can’t come close to what’s possible with modern technology.
Screen sharing allows students to share their screens with another person to get help during an exam.
Surfing the internet in a different window to find test answers is very easy because online exams lack supervision.
Using other devices such as smartphones and tablets to find exam answers is also pretty standard.
Logging off under the pretext of connectivity problems or other technical issues and using a brief period of time to find the answers is a risky but widespread technique.
Remote learning also allows for less sophisticated methods of cheating as well. Some students have family members and friends stay in the room with them and help them pass the test.
Overall, there’s an infinite number of ways to cheat in an online classroom, and we’ll surely see more of them in the future. The problem is that while students’ grades are improving, the quality of their knowledge is going downhill.
The lucky few who have benefited from remote learning
Here’s the good news: remote learning is not for everyone, but some people truly thrive on it. On the one hand, it requires a lot of self-organization and diligence, but on the other hand, it eliminates many of the problems with in-person learning.
For one, it allows students to learn at their own pace. Usually, online education allows for more flexible schedules, which means taking a break when you need one and planning your timetable more effectively to maintain high productivity. There are also fewer distractions from classmates and no temptation to talk to your deskmate during class. Lastly, remote learning is a massive relief for students suffering from social anxiety because it doesn’t require active social interaction.
It looks like some students might want to continue online courses when the pandemic is over because they’re better off this way.
What does the future hold?
While reading these discouraging results, one may wonder, what do we do about them?
We’ve learned that remote learning can be surprisingly effective for responsible students who have access to computers and the internet. Still, it doesn’t work on a mass scale due to the lack of preparation and organization. A reasonable solution would be to keep distance education as an alternative mode of learning for those who can excel with it.
We’ve also realized the need to reopen educational establishments as soon as safely possible. With the invention of COVID vaccines, there’s hope that it will happen sooner than we initially thought. However, global vaccine rollouts won’t happen overnight, and until then, schools and colleges that are already reopening have to comply with strict safety and social distancing measures.