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Essay - Is Online Education an Inferior Model of Learning?

Before you read this essay, this was my entrance essay to LIS as part of the admissions process. I know now that it passed what they were looking for in an essay. Not the reason I didn't get in. So if any new applicants need to write an essay here is an example you can use!!! Please do not copy this though. It is my work that I want to share with the world because I feel it offers a unique perspective.

The statement ‘online education is an inferior model of learning’ at first glance sounds reasonable and previously I might have blindly agreed with this statement, having heard many friends and fellow students complaining about how hard it has been to focus in this past year of forced remote education. The problem with this conclusion is that it doesn’t take into account that the online learning they are talking about occurred during a worldwide pandemic that everyone struggled through, and that no one was prepared for.

Our schools weren’t prepared. Back in February 2020, when the possibility of lockdown was starting to be talked about, I was student governor at my college and I witnessed first-hand the confusion as senior staff were not able to communicate what was going to happen, as they were making the strategies up as they went with no assistance or guidance from central government. In hindsight our college handled it much better than most. They took our feedback into account and did their best to support students. Even so, they were noticeably shorthanded, under-resourced and unsupported.

With all this in mind, why would we therefore consider this as an adequate example of online education, when the circumstances surrounding the onset was about as far from ideal as it is possible to be? It shouldn’t be. Like any method of education, it shouldn’t be rushed into, with untrained staff and without the necessary technical support or structure. It’s not that teachers didn’t know how to do their jobs, they do. It’s that there are very different skills that are needed in the online environment, such as learning to present classes to engage students via a screen, maintain discipline from a distance as well as support those students who are struggling. Not to mention dealing with hastily cobbled together technology systems and dealing with a very stressful pandemic for them and their students. No wonder this instance of online education foundered.

Globally, our most immediate experience of online learning has been sudden implementation. Making it easy to forget that there is more than this one model of online learning. The internet is simply a tool. A tool that we use to store and communicate information. Like with face-to-face education we have different styles. There isn’t one singular method for either form of education and they aren’t mutually exclusive either. Many times, in developed countries, students are encouraged to use online resources to supplement their in-person classes. For example, YouTube videos, and the use of supplementary educational sites, thereby reinforcing that the internet is a tool to access education and not a model in itself. However, it is still a type of education that we should consider as our society becomes more technologically dependent.

How do we measure a good education model? In one article I read by George Veletsianos* he talked about how we view online versus face-to-face as a binary, just like good and bad. In making it binary we ignore the complexities that come with education. He brought up research done by Dr Dave Merrill which said we should measure education by using the 3 e’s: efficiency, effectiveness, and engagement. George adds the point that we should add an additional e to this set which is equity and something that is actively becoming part of the discussion today. These 4 e’s provide a good framework to analyse how appropriate any system might be.

First, we should look at what these 4 e’s mean with regards to the provision of education. Efficiency looks at how quickly, also accurately, one can educate someone on a set topic. Effectiveness looks at how successful education is at educating a student. Engagement looks at whether the education catches and keeps the student's attention so they can learn about said subject. Equity looks at how accessible the education is to different kinds of people regardless of their socioeconomic positioning, their cultural or ethnic background or their different level of ability or disability.

Online learning has many advantages in efficiency. The provision of education is virtually instantaneous with no need for travel or the provision of physical infrastructure. It is also possible to scale teaching almost infinitely with no additional time, effort or expense involved in educating additional students. Another advantage is that the teaching and the learning don’t need to happen simultaneously. The teacher can record classes at a time that suits them and likewise, a student can schedule their lessons to suit their own individual schedules. Yet there are certain subjects where online learning has additional constraints to overcome. The arts often require resources that can be freely provided in school or are best experienced in a group setting. In science students need to execute experiments that are too dangerous to perform unsupervised or they don’t have the equipment for at home. And conversely for online learning, the very flexibility of scheduling can be a problem for some. At an educational institution students tend to change rooms between classes. This transition time has been said to help students change their focus to the next class**.

This last 18 months has unfortunately seen many people denigrate the effectiveness of online teaching, with many people finding it difficult and, as a result, a lot of student’s education suffering. I’ve already discussed that it is not reasonable to judge a system based on the circumstances we have just experienced. There are many reasons for people to be convinced that the problems encountered are the fault of the way classes were taught. One of the core reasons I can think of is people’s natural bias against anything that is new or strange. Often they don’t recognise the digital education that they have participated in as learning. They’ve watched educational videos in class or work training. They’ve watched TED talks online, or they’ve used language apps to pick up phrases before travelling overseas. Perhaps the best way to measure effectiveness is to look at the many universities globally that successfully provide online courses such as Massey University in New Zealand, Harvard University in the USA, University College London and Edinburgh University here in the UK. Their many successful graduates prove that online learning can be very effective indeed.

Engagement of pupils is the biggest challenge for any teacher, in any environment. We’ve all suffered through the class that doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter if the subject is interesting to us, a poor teacher can make anything insufferable, and a good one can have us finding inspiration where we least expect it. This doesn’t change when the classes go online, but the skills required to get the message across differ. There will be some teachers more suited to one format, and some to the other. Likewise, for the students, the potential engagement will differ between individuals. Some prefer the in-person interaction, some will like the accountability of having to turn up at classes every day, whereas the self-motivated will prefer the independence to manage their own learning and may find the use of technology itself engaging.

There is no doubt that in person communication is more nuanced. You can finish a conversation, clarify explanations, and answer questions. You can respond better to cues such as body language. You only have to look at social media to see the problems with misinterpretation of text. However, if online courses weren’t engaging, platforms like Skillshare, would not be able to make a profit or spend as much as they do on marketing.

In terms of equity, both online and face-to-face education have their shortcomings. For online education, equity is having the access to the internet and a device to connect to classes or find resources. On the other hand, face-to-face learning is limited by access to the institutions themselves. The ability to physically attend a school, the cost of transport, and their own availability. Of course, there is the issue of equity even between establishments – the example of family’s desire to move into school zones is the perfect example of this, another being the competitiveness for admission to prestigious universities. The distinct advantage that web-based learning has is in the delivery of education for disabled students. For people with physical disabilities, learning can be done in an environment that suits them, for those with learning disabilities, lessons can more easily be tailored to their needs.

The provision of distance learning is something that has been provided in different ways by governments and organisations prior to the availability of the internet. Previously radio*** and television**** have been used. By sending out a broadcast that students and their families can tune into for free, you reduce the impact on a student of socioeconomic disadvantages. Another example I am familiar with is The Correspondence School in New Zealand*****. This was initially for children who lived rurally and too far from any school. It is now provided for children who are unable to attend a traditional environment for a variety of reasons, including health issues or having been excluded from school. My cousins were both taught from the ages of 5 & 7 for the next five years of their schooling while they were living on a boat and sailing around the world with their parents. They have both gone on to graduate from university and have good careers, so distance learning was no inhibition for them.

To conclude, I do not believe that online education is an inferior model of learning. Education needs to fit the circumstances and resources available. Therefore we should have varied types of education that are flexible and structured enough for all students. Just as there aren’t two people who are the same, our education system should reflect that by including models that use different tools to provide effective, efficient, engaging and equitable learning. Online education isn’t an inferior model, it’s simply one that works better for some and not for all


Let me know if you agree with this or not in the comments below or on my Instagram page @uniqueboredomblog!

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