Online Learning Series (PART 4): Will learners determine their own pace in the future?

As schools reopen across the country region, it’s as good a time as any to ponder on the impacts of online learning and the likely future of education since the emergence of digital learning.

After talking to students and teachers who were involved in online learning, we realised that the availability of digital technologies has enabled the learning process to continue throughout the lockdown, despite the various challenges faced by both teachers and students. The availability of digital technologies, albeit at an infancy stage, still managed to safeguard jobs within the education industry.

With this sudden shift towards digitalised learning, people are wondering whether the adoption of online learning will continue to persist in the post-pandemic era, and how such a shift would impact the worldwide education market, the idea of teaching/learning, and the participation levels of students, especially the younger ones aged between 5 to 12.

A fact to realise – online learning has been around for some time to cater for the working class to obtain higher certification. Hence, nothing much has changed for those who have been involved but what’s new is the implementation of online learning for full-time students, which prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, did not even have to think about attending classes through a mobile device.

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For them, online learning was a choice but now, it is a necessity. How will this affect the learning process of students, especially those involved in practical, research, and lab works, and those at kindergarten and primary school levels? Will this move require parents to sacrifice their jobs so that they can supervise their kids? Or will this be the birth of a new job scope for babysitters?

While some believe that the sudden move to online learning will result in a poor user experience due to the lack of preparation, others believe that a new “hybrid model” of education (a combination of online and offline learning) will emerge to cater for those that do not have the privileged access to the required tools and technology.

“Technology has changed many aspects of our society over many years, but school structures have largely stayed the same. Now, we have solutions that have the potential to transform and improve the system so students can achieve more and develop valuable skills with better outcomes. The question for us now is: How can we use technology to rethink education?”, said Sean Tierney, Microsoft’s Director for Teaching and Learning Strategy, Asia for an article on Microsoft’s website.

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Industry 4.0 technologies such as Big Data Analytics (BDA), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Internet of Things, coupled with a range of digital devices and tools such as mobile phones, laptops, and even tablets, can empower digital learning, transforming the roles and relationships of students, teachers, and parents in the aspects of education.

As we have been saying since the first article of this series, the sheer flexibility online learning promotes will enable students to be empowered to learn themselves, often in collaborative ways, both inside and outside classrooms at their own pace. Setting their own pacing will allow students to diligently follow their own interests at the same time and be challenged where appropriate. This is how asynchronous learning takes place – enabling each student to learn according to their own thresholds thus ensuring no one gets left behind.

Teachers, on the other hand, can have access to real-time data on the performance of each of their students in various aspects such as in-class performance, co-curricular involvement, and soft skills development. This will allow teachers to strategically devise new challenges while offering support for each student in their weak points.

With the availability of huge sums of meaningful data, parents will be better informed of, and involved with their child’s education that is backed up with detailed, meaningful data which can help parents, or the students themselves to decide their next approach in terms of education.

Even before the pandemic forced the transition towards online learning, the education technology (EdTech) sector recorded investments reaching 16.32 billion USD (RM 69.39 billion), the highest number ever recorded, according to Metaari. To put it into perspective, the total investments recorded in 2018 and 2019 far outweighs the total combined investments made between 1998 to 2017, which is a twenty-year period.

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The sudden influx of investments shows increased confidence from industry stakeholders, signifying the bright future of online learning. Despite the lack of preparation during the pandemic to develop a whole new education system based on digital learning, the education sector still managed to leverage and utilise readily-available technologies to migrate existing education systems to suit online learning in an immensely short period of time.

Teachers have been using commonly used mobile applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram to disseminate learning materials while some have used digital platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom. Nonetheless, the process of learning continues despite not being at a physical classroom.

With the increased participation and confidence from investors, we strongly believe that learning, through digital means is the way forward and the COVID-19 pandemic has been a blessing in disguise to further solidify the capabilities of online learning.

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