The concept of education has changed dramatically over the last few years with many questions being raised as to what the best mode of instruction is with the advent of technology and the Internet. But did you know that distance learning is not as new of a concept as we think? Surprisingly enough, distance learning was first introduced in the 18th century in parallel with the postal service, but it didn’t pick up steam until communications technology evolved in the 1990’s.

At this time, universities, like NYU and the California Virtual University, began experimenting with online learning, and began to offer courses. Unfortunately, many of these new programs did not survive, mostly due to the lack of understanding of the World Wide Web and how it could be used by students and faculty effectively and seamlessly.

Fast forward to today, and online learning is all that anyone talks about. Technology has made massive strides in accessibility and development, and with Canadians spending more time online now, the debate of whether online learning is the next big transformation in education is almost no question.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) conducts research every year on Canadians’ internet usage and access. The organization’s 2019 data shows that “Of those Canadians with a home internet connection, 95% noted that high-quality internet access enables them to easily and reliably download information, load web pages and use applications is important to them.”

Their report also acknowledges that, “more than half of all Canadians (51%) are still using desktops and laptops when they head online.”This is essential when looking at the plausibility of online learning in Canadian households. Do children have access to the internet? Do they have a desktop computer or laptop they can use? These are all important questions that have been accelerated with the pandemic.

Here are three major reasons why the view around online education has changed.

COVID-19 has forced school closures worldwide

With countries around the world being at different points in their “COVID-19 infection rates, worldwide there are currently more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries affected by school closures due to the pandemic,” according to the World Economic Forum. And for those in higher education settings, such as universities, most, if not all classes have been moved online. With working from home becoming the new norm, will that translate to learning from home? It’s very possible that this pandemic has changed the course of education and that it might never go back to how it was before the virus took over.

As Cathi Li, Head of Media, Entertainment and Information Industries, and Farah Lalani, Community Curator, Media, Entertainment and Information Industries, at the World Economic Forum write in their article, COVID-19 has changed education forever — here’s how, “Even before [the pandemic], there was already high growth and adoption in education technology, with global edtech investments reaching USD$18.66 billion in 2019.” This isn’t surprising as we know that online learning made previous attempts to go mainstream decades ago.

They note that the “Overall market for online education [is] projected to reach USD$350 billion by 2025. Whether it is language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, or online learning software, there has been a significant surge in usage since COVID-19.”

Although the hope is for students to go back to the classroom in September, many won’t be doing that. And with the second wave of the virus expected to fit sometime in the fall, demand has increased for online learning, resulting in a “demand driven market,” which will consist of “skills upgrading, reskilling, and micro-credentials.”

With the lingering uncertainty over the virus coupled with the wait time for a vaccine, many Canadian post-secondary institutions have decided to move classes online.

These institutions include McGill University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa—all of which have created instructional plans for the fall.

Technology adoption paving the way for online learning

The rapid move in March towards online learning was made possible by technological developments that have become vital tools and platforms for students and teachers alike. UNESCO has gathered a list of educational applications to help with the transition to online learning. Here is a list of some of the tools recommended:

  • CenturyTech
  • ClassDojo
  • Edmodo
  • Edraak
  • Google Classroom
  • Moodle
  • Hangouts Meet
  • Skype
  • WeChat Work
  • WhatsApp
  • Zoom
  • Duolingo
  • Facebook Get Digital

This list is just the tip of the iceberg.

In the spring, teachers needed to shift their teaching tactics, so many created websites for students to check their daily tasks and lessons. With virtual classroom calls scheduled, teachers experienced the learning curve of moving in-person activities to an online setting.

As noted in a journal article written by Shivangi Dhawan, Online Learning: A Panacea in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis, learning how to properly enact online education is crucial right now. Dhawan highlights the example of China and how “there was an overnight shift of normal classrooms into e-classrooms, [and how] educators have shifted their entire pedagogical approach to tackle new market conditions and adapt to the changing situations.” The nation’s success is attributed to the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Technology joining forces to “Ensure that Chinese students continued learning when classes were disrupted due to the coronavirus outbreak.”

A major market and increased retention

Reaching more popularity in the span of a few months, the global education technology market size is now anticipated to reach US$285.2 billion by 2027 at a compound annual growth rate of 18%. A report from Grand View Research notes that “Digitization is increasingly penetrating the education sector with technologies used to deliver education, skills, and knowledge in new and creative techniques. The use of such technologies has enabled learning and development to a lifelong process.”

The report adds, “The K-12 and higher education sectors have witnessed increased adoption of EdTech solutions and offerings. Apart from formal education, there is an increasing role of digital learning in supporting adults to scale up their skill sets throughout their career.”

The Grand View Research report also notes that “Technology is anticipated to play a vital role in supporting adults in overcoming several challenges, such as enabling students the flexibility to learn the new skills without being restricted to a specific geographical location or availability of resources.”

If online learning has been anything like working from home, then it’s become much more flexible especially when it comes to wearing pajamas all day. Li and Lalani’s article explains that “On average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom.”

It adds, “This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.”

While these are averages, retention rates certainly depend on the age of the student and it’s arguable that younger children need a more structured environment. The good news is that older students can take advantage of the internet and the ability to learn remotely.

The conversation surrounding online education has been happening for decades, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic hit that the industry was forced to make transformative changes overnight to preserve its institution and student learning. What we are seeing now is increased calls to make online learning mainstream, and for it to hold for years to come. At this point it’s uncertain how the pandemic will be resolved. Of course the hope is for an effective vaccine, but the damage has been done. Online learning could be the new norm, if not full-time, then certainly part time.

For higher level learning, there’s never been a better time to see what’s out there and enroll in a course from the comfort of your own home. The need for data and technical-based work is increasing so why not consider web development, data analysis or even graphic design? The beauty is that these courses can be done online.

Lighthouse Labs is a great hub for programs like these. So, it’s time to “find your why” and see what could be out there for you. With everyone staying home the majority of the time now, why not choose an online course and accelerate your knowledge?

By: Kaylyn Frecker & Eva Bieniarz