Digitalisation of education: Adapting to the new norm – – The Nation Newspaper


As you may know !

By Yasaara Kaluaratchi

The current global pandemic has made people move away from their mundane routines and adapt to new situations. Education is one sector which had to implement drastic changes in order to ensure that social distancing would not become a barrier to learn. This situation gave rise to teachers from preschool to tertiary level to use technology to support their students’ learning. 

Teachers all over the world were expected to adapt to the new normal within a short time frame. As this situation was unprecedented, teachers were compelled to use their existing knowledge about online technology to engage with the students. Deakin University Faculty of Arts and Education Associate Dean – International and Engagement Associate Prof. Bonnie Yim shared her views on online learning. 

What is online learning? 

Online learning is defined as a method of education that occurs on the internet whether synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous online learning enables real-time interaction which builds a community among learners. Asynchronous online learning allows learners to learn any time which promotes flexibility. These two modes of learning are not exclusive to each other. If a facilitator adopts these modes appropriately and sensibly, they create an engaging and learner-centred environment which is more than just providing information or teaching skills. A capable and committed facilitator is more likely to identify learners’ needs correctly and to “prescribe” the appropriate mode(s) of learning.  Synchronous learning is widely used in Sri Lanka for school students in which lessons are conducted in real time, while asynchronous learning is more common in higher education with recorded lectures and teaching sessions uploaded to a student portal or shared among the students. Scholars conceptualise online learning to mean e-learning, online teaching, blended learning, remote learning, or distance education. 

In Sri Lanka, some teachers use real-time communication and collaboration platforms (e.g. Zoom and Microsoft Teams) to support students’ learning and development. Similar platforms are used in many countries to facilitate the learning process during the Covid-19 pandemic. Adapting to the new norm has been a challenge for both teachers and students. However, educational entities and teachers who were exposed to online teaching and learning found it somewhat undemanding to adapt to teaching online during the pandemic. 

Advantages of online learning 

According to research conducted by the North Carolina University, online learning is an effective method of education for students who are self-driven and well organised with sound time management skills. There are several benefits for both teachers and students who use the online method of education. It is convenient as the time spent on commuting to school or a university is saved. There are no geographic location constraints as the learners can choose a course to follow from any part of the world. Students are encouraged to be more interactive via the various tools provided on the platforms. A group of teachers from a primary section who were interviewed stated that students who are introverts find online learning more enjoyable as they are able to interact far better during online sessions. 

According to Prof. Yim, learners are allowed to learn at their own pace and space which promotes one’s sense of agency. For example, a teacher can reside in Sri Lanka and obtain an Australian qualification via online learning. Such an available and flexible mode would be hard to imagine even a few decades ago. 

The world is rapidly becoming digitised; online education provides an opportunity for the participants to enhance their knowledge and skills in advancing technological skills. Each student is unique; research supports that students who learn best through visual cues comprehend better learning online. E-learning promotes a more student-centred approach as opposed to a teacher-centred method in a traditional classroom setting. 

This method of learning makes the student well equipped with knowledge and skills essential for creativity and innovation. High-quality online learning materials are generally accessible on different platforms, devices and/or languages to address learners’ diverse needs. Resources to support learners with additional learning needs are also emerging (for example, automatic live transcription in video conference platforms, text-to-voice software). Such resources promote an inclusive digital community. There is a huge wealth of free online resources available, including e-books for young children. Free resources also provide opportunities for adult learners to acquire new skills in order to improve their employability. Such readily available and affordable materials save one’s time and money. 

Challenges faced in online learning 

As with everything else, online education has challenges for the stakeholders. Online learning may be two dimensional. It has some advantages, but the missing dimension can be the real-world experience and camaraderie. Young children, for example, learn through authentic and meaningful play-based experiences by using their senses. Online learning is an efficient tool, but it can never substitute the fun of playing in the mud or sand in the outdoors, or replace a warm cuddle from a teacher’s arms. It is not an effective method for dependent learners. 

The lack of knowledge in technology skills has made online teaching an ardent task for teachers. Several teachers could not cope up with the demands and had to give up their careers. Students are not able to socially interact with their peers which has a negative impact on their socio-emotional development. The scarcity of resources have made online learning even more challenging for the teachers and students alike. 

Prof. Yim stated that online learning links closely with screen time and it involves “near work” – such as reading and writing/typing. Spending more time indoors and on screens may lead to myopia in children (such as short-sightedness). During the Covid-19 pandemic, schools were closed and even recreational facilities such as playgrounds were shut. Small living spaces and a paucity of private outdoor spaces mean some families had no choice but to reduce the amount of physical activity which may lead to childhood obesity and other health risks. 

Online learning quality matters, but the quality may vary greatly depending on the design and management. The content and learning outcomes are important. But without a safe, engaging, and supporting learning environment, they are all meaningless. A pressing issue is that a lot of interference and involvement by parents and guardians of the students during online sessions have made the students more and more dependent. According to a report by UNICEF, it is challenging for the teachers to conduct online lessons as parents or caregivers prompt answers to the student participating in the online session which hinders their cognitive development. 

Online learning connects us in a way that was never before possible due to limitations of time, space, and contexts. However, virtual connection may not necessarily lead to one’s sense of belonging and connectedness. Loneliness, anxiety, and cyber-bullying are common in some online learning contexts. Clear guidelines and reporting pathways ensure functional online environments and promote respectful behaviours. More importantly, meaningful human connections are still powerful in supporting learners’ mental health and wellbeing. 

Solutions for a better online learning experience 

Engagement is used commonly as an indicator of the quality of learning, stated Prof. Yim. Teaching is fun and meaningful when students are engaged. Teachers would need support to create engaging learning environments. Quality online learning uses multiple strategies and activities to motivate, support, and assess learners’ readiness for, progress in, and mastery of learning outcomes. The adoption of relevant learning theories/frameworks (for example, Universal Design for Learning) supports teachers to cater for students’ diverse learning needs and to promote engagement and self-motivation. 

Collaboration allows learners to capitalise on one another’s resources and skills. A supportive network of peers and ongoing collaboration with teachers encourage students in a community of learners which leads to a sense of belonging – such as the foundation for one’s wellbeing and learning. Teachers require time and resources to navigate the sea of EdTech resources, and to critically select and embed relevant strategies and tools into the teaching and learning context. Support from peers, the IT team, and leaders play a key role in such a process. Ongoing professional development and empowerment also boost teachers’ confidence and knowledge in facilitating effective online collaboration and communication. Human beings are born to interact, therefore adding this element to online learning would definitely improve the learning experience. The use of interactive tools such as Mentimeter and Edmodo would serve as an aid for collaborative learning on an online platform. 

Many parents struggle to work with their children at home due to school closure during the pandemic. Many students also struggle to learn from home due to possible limited access to basic but necessary hardware (for example, internet) and software (safety and security). Statistics show that 34% of the population in Sri Lanka had access to the internet in 2019. Teachers are encouraged to work collaboratively with families to help students grow and develop a broad range of competencies and skills in and out of the online learning environment. Adoption of learner-focused approaches and promotion of family-friendly routines enhance flexibility and self-paced learning, particularly during the ever changing time. 

Teachers play a major role as facilitators and mentors in the distance learning method of education. Therefore, it is imperative that teachers are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to conduct the lessons on an online platform. Teachers can be provided with mentoring services, workshops, and activity-based programmes to assist them to adapt to the new form of teaching. 

There are unforeseen challenges in online learning, especially amidst a global pandemic. However, it is essential to execute a well-structured programme for the students to learn and teachers to teach without hindrances. We live in an age where most services are just a click away. The world has become a global village. 

(The writer has over a decade of experience in the education sector as a lecturer, mentor, and facilitator specialised in educational psychology, currently serving as the Director of Academics at Prospects Academy, Colombo, Sri Lanka)

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