The recent explosion in the number of Google Meets or Zoom sessions has helped spearhead the almost overnight transformation to virtual learning environments. Determined to put their utmost best in controlling the global disruption inflicted by COVID-19 on education systems, administrators swiftly harnessed contemporary technology to unite students with teachers. The question is: will virtual classrooms, characterized by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), online examinations and classrooms be the new norm in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic? There clearly is no hard and fast answer. Post-COVID 19, will virtual classrooms, characterized by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), online examinations and classrooms be the new norm?
To begin with, the feasibility of providing access to virtual classrooms is a key factor. Market leaders such as Coursera and edX are committed to provide the majority of content on MOOCs free of charge, with an option of paying about $50-150 to unlock graded assignments or earn a certificate. In theory, there is immense potential for thousands of individuals around the globe to simultaneously obtain an excellent technical understanding of countless disciplines through MOOCs. In fact, numbers do show some evidence of this trend. For example, CS50: ‘Introduction to Computer Science’ had an enrollment surpassing two million users on Harvardx, Harvard University’s online edX platform. Compare that to about 800 students taking this course on-campus annually. Not limited by the seating capacities of lecture halls, online platforms make it possible for professors to share their expertise with enthusiastic learners around the world.
Then why, despite obvious economic benefits, are we unable to witness a transition towards MOOCs as a mainstream system of delivering information to the future workforce? One simple answer is that MOOCs, despite being excellent learning platforms, fail to foster learning environments. It is deceptive to state that internet bandwidth is the limiting factor to global access to virtual education. A Stanford study1 concluded that students at DeVry University achieved a grade lower on average by taking the same in-person course online, with academically weaker students showing the greatest discrepancies. Students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds also lose out in virtual settings. It has been shown that students from higher mean neighbourhood incomes and higher mean parental education are significantly more likely to enroll and complete MOOCs2 than lower socioeconomic groups. Inadequately information about existing opportunities, noisier home environments, limited access to technology are some reasons explaining this out. A major goal of state-schools to try and bridge these socioeconomic divides is halted.
As they stand, virtual classrooms would largely inhibit schools from serving as communities that integrate individuals with one another and the society at large. No matter how technically sound an online lecture is, it largely fails to deliver informal education. For example, basic social expectations set forth- ‘work hard’, ‘treat each other with kindness’- seem impossible to mimic whilst staring at a screen. Soft skills could virtually cease to develop in students who partake in e-learning without supplementary human contact. Studies by Koch, Nafziger and Nielson point out that soft skills involving teamwork, or social confidence, are ‘equally important drivers to later economic outcomes’ (as cognitive academic achievement). How would individuals, even if they are masters in their craft, be able to work effectively as social entities at the workplace?
And what would happen to the plethora of great ideas that are sparked outside the classroom but within the environs of a school or university? Kevin Hartnett, a senior writer for the Quanta Magazine, shares his unique perspective on ‘Mathematics in being a Team Sport’, explaining that many research projects that professors pursue are inspired by informal face-to-face conversations- the type that occur over a coffee break or a walk down the hallway. One of the biggest challenges virtual classrooms face is originating such peer-to-peer serendipity. Due to COVID-19, we have witnessed several youth organisations go online to continue their operations, thus stipulating solutions to achieve interactions amongst their members. AIESEC- a global youth leadership development institution who provide volunteering, internship and entrepreneurial exchange programs- are in process of experimenting with virtual internships. InsideSherpa is another platform committed to provide ‘Virtual Work Experience Programs’ to allow ‘top companies (to) teach students the skills they hire for before they hire (them)’. In addition to connecting interns with one other and partner companies for work purposes, there could be some scope of connecting with one another non-professionally as well. However, with all said and done, it is still not convincing to believe at this stage that the ideas sparked in virtual environments would be nearly mimic the breadth and depth to those occurring in physical settings.
Another interesting aspect to look at is accountability provided by school systems. Final examinations are supposed to ensure that students study regularly, thereby maintaining a degree of minimum participation. A major setback of MOOCs on platforms such as Coursera entails ineffective assessment. The lack of obligation to do one’s best on these assignments could be a reason justifying a high-dropout rate. An education model that predominantly teaches us course content in order to prepare us for a set of questions to answer under timed conditions that then determine our future life chances (or so are we told), we are often obliged to perform well. MOOCs are designed differently, entailing an intention to learn and develop one’s skill set. Frankly, there are no short-term direct adverse effects for not doing well in a MOOC or even quitting, thereby justifying a lack of necessity in completing them which result in high dropout rates.
A potential solution to this could be schools stepping in to ensure that students virtually complete such tasks on time. And when such classwork assignments are replaced with important examinations, the vast majority would at least make an appearance. With that said, let’s consider The College Board, an example of a centralised assessment board that has administered their 2020 Advanced Placement (AP) exams virtually. Controversies, however, arose. Inflexible testing windows and shorter time allowed to complete the tests have attracted petitions, one from the European Parent-Teacher Association as well, to cancel these examinations. One AP test-taker has labelled this process as ‘downright unfair’ in assessing months of hard-work over two questions spanning forty-five minutes, instead of the three-hour norm. Technical difficulties in submitting work calls upon The College Board to critically assess their IT systems in order to significantly reduce the margin of technical errors during test-taking conditions. Significant consideration must be given to maintaining the integrity of online tests. Minimising e-malpractice is a seemingly difficult task, but one that can be tackled by robust proctoring systems such as RP Now, an automated program that monitors background audio-visuals throughout the test. With such software being continuously optimised, the possibility of online assessment replacing mainstream traditional examination settings remains optimistic. Furthermore, the extensive use of technology by centralised education boards and countless university departments to administer exams has been an unprecedented outcome of COVID-19, one that may serve as a stepping stone in combining technology with education.
Even though a virtual end of course exam is a viable option, a fascinating point to note is the effect of physical distance between learners and educators. Some studies show a positive correlation with distance and the Hawthorne/ Observer’s effect. This effect states that the presence of an observer (the teacher in our brick and mortar classroom) changes our behaviour. To visualise this phenomenon, briefly consider the differences you would encounter when speaking in person versus texting from behind the screen. Hawthorne’s effect would well explain a higher level of engagement from some individuals in a classroom setting who would otherwise procrastinate endlessly.
To conclude, it appears that virtual classrooms would fully substitute for traditional ones in the future. E-learning platforms, as per status quo, fall short in fulfilling the social roles of education, and integrating us into a larger community. Yet, many of their benefits- in providing access for example- must not be overlooked either. Rather, efforts should be channelled into permanently amalgamating them into our existing system- a revolutionary hybrid that brings the best of both worlds: the social and the technical, thus symbolising a new post-COVID normal.