Can Online Learning Replace Traditional Education?

Future of learning

That COVID has changed the way we live is not news anymore. The lethal virus has led to tectonic shifts in almost every aspect of our lives – be it business, entertainment, hospitality or education – and we’re still grappling with the repercussions of these radical changes.

What we’re also debating is how permanent these changes are, and what the new normal in each of these sectors will be.

Can online teaching replace classroom teaching? - COVID-19 case

Take education, for instance. Soon after it became clear that this was no passing virus, educational institutions started the move towards online teaching – and students and professors adapted rather quickly to the changing methods of teaching, learning, and grading.

This success, however, has led to widespread speculation that the pandemic has sparked a transformative change, especially in higher education – with many claiming that the future of college education is online.

The truth is that the future is not so black and white anymore – there’s a lot of gray in between. What we seem to be moving towards, is a hybrid model of learning – a mix of online and offline. While in-campus teaching will definitely return (maybe not as soon as we’d like, but return it will), there will also be a wealth of options available online, for those who prefer it.

But, will one take precedence over the other? Not really – because both have their unique characteristics that make them worthwhile. People will learn to use the two together.

However, when it comes to the debate of one over the other specifically for college education, the truth is that online learning can never really replace an in-campus experience.

Here’s why.

The immersive campus-life – not quite the same as a virtual one

University is not only about textbook learning and lectures in class – it’s about the holistic experience of living on a campus; it’s about making lifelong friends and communication with people from diverse parts of the world; it’s about having fervent debates late into the night over copious cups of tea; it’s about sociability and adaptability – about learning to live alone in a new culture, new city, or even new country.

It teaches you to be independent, as you move away from the comfort of your home – online college strips a student of these valuable life lessons.

Online learning vs traditional learning - different students experiences

Also, living experiences aside, in-class learning is also irreplaceable. Being in class, for instance, and asking a question teaches you a certain confidence, with debating and discussing ideas spontaneously instead of typing in anonymous questions.

Not being on campus takes away the post-class discussions – arguing with a friend over dinner about a point made in class. It takes away the ability of students to come together, engage, discuss and create bonds with one-another – forming friendships online is simply not the same as forging face-to-face bonds and understanding different kinds of people, contexts, and cultures.

Digital learning also takes away another crucial aspect of campus life – the opportunity to find new interests and learn new skills by joining clubs and societies. Students sitting at home cannot participate in events like performances, competitions, fairs and mixers that allow them to explore new fields, and develop other aspects of their personalities.

Online teaching: log in from anywhere. Learn anything. Except, it’s not that simple.

It’s true that online learning has transformed the education world, with platforms like Coursera and EdX enabling those living in remote parts of the world to access university courses. But, what must be understood also, is that online learning is a fundamentally elite concept.

To effectively learn anything that is being taught, it pre-supposes that one has the means and technology required to avail of it – a well functioning laptop, high speed and stable internet, and an empty room to sit for ninety minutes at a time without any disruptions or disturbance.

These prerequisites are both highly discriminatory and extremely exclusive – if one cannot pay for a good Wi-Fi connection, or lives in a situation where they cannot get a private, undisturbed area for themselves, online learning can be a challenge.

Only those who have the right ecosystems can truly make the best of online classes.

The great leveler

Outside financial constraints, there also exist social constraints that students from across the world may have to deal with. Students across universities have spoken about mental health conditions that often have triggers at home – for many campus lives is an escape from emotional triggers, underlying mental health conditions, as well as family problems.

Also, being at home could mean leaving students in a suboptimal learning environment – even those with no underlying triggers or condition often claim that it is difficult to focus on academic reading and tasks when at home, since they’re often asked to focus on chores and given other responsibilities at home.

A college campus is crucial as a place to facilitate learning – one that creates an environment where students can focus and learn. The traditional learning serves as an equalizer, where everyone has access to the same structures, services, and resources – including Wi-Fi connections, study spaces, books and libraries, and even one-on-one interactions with professors and counseling centers.

This makes social and financial disadvantages significantly less prominent, and is too grave to discount when considering the future of education.

Film classes on zoom – not quite the same

While it may be easy to adapt to online learning for mainstream theoretical subjects, that is not the case for an array of disciplines and fields that students seek to specialize in. Online learning takes away valuable resources such as lab facilities and studios -resources that are essential for some subjects and cannot be recreated at home.

For vocational majors like theater, film, music, dance (the list is endless) – the switch to online learning is taking away more than it can provide. Being on campus also allows classes to have field visits in the area of their study, allowing them to observe real-life applications of the subjects they are studying. This, too, cannot be replaced by online classes.

Online learning vs traditional learning

Will online learning replace classroom teaching? - summary

Thus, while it’s commendable that the education sector has adapted so quickly to the pandemic, and has allowed those even outside of formal education settings to access lectures, discussions and readings, there’s no online education (especially for university) comes with its own set of challenges.

It can be exclusionary, and runs the risk of furthering the notion that university is simply about theoretical academics. The future of education, therefore, must be a healthy mix of online and offline – with the former being an add-on to the latter.

And campus life must remain unchanged.

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Future of learning


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