Disruptive, challenging, or from some perspectives even terrifying are just a few of the labels that can easily be attached to last year’s impact on our society. First and foremost, hit by what it still is a health crisis, 2020 has proven to be a problematic year with wide-ranging repercussions on many levels of our daily lives. At a larger scale, the challenges brought by COVID-19 have multiplied across different industries, and the negative impacts might be long-lasting and far-reaching.
Looking at the educational industry in particular and with no intent to rank the problems we’re facing or to provide an exhaustive list, here are some of the elements that came out of a virtual discussion with a few of my colleagues and that we thought have shaped our industry in 2020.
The impact as a whole
According to UNESCO, at its peak, the pandemic affected close to 85% of the total number of worldwide enrolled learners (1,484,712,787 learners in 172 countries that decided to impose school closures). Let those numbers sink in; for a while, most of the world learners had no access to a traditional education system.
While the closures were justified, especially when enacted promptly, and were meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 through preventive measures such as social-distancing and self-isolation, the overall impact on education was nevertheless significant.
The rush for solutions
Cue in online tools and resources! These have provided a lifeline for many institutions that were in a rush to salvage the school year. And for the most part, they did what they were supposed to do – they offered a quick solution to a growing problem. However, they also emphasize the fact that many educational institutions did not have a proper online strategy. That was even more problematic for higher education institutions with business models highly dependent on international students, left with no proper means to provide education.
The advice from a wide range of organization multiplied and for the most part helped create a makeshift background that sustained an educational goal. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has even created a framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 Pandemic for distance learning. This report aimed at “supporting education decision making to develop and implement effective education responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic. […] Based on a rapid assessment of education needs and emerging responses in ninety-eight countries, the report identified the most salient needs that should be addressed […], as well as the areas likely to face more implementation challenges.”
Technology does not mean education
As any tool out there, technology, however, is only as good as its use. No matter their availability, online tools and resources offer the frame to create a learning environment and do not equate to learning by themselves.
One of the problems made evident in creating online solutions was that copy-pasting content from in-class to a virtual medium does not translate very well. Learners do not engage in the same way and do not similarly perceive information in the two different modes. A need for proper online instructional design has proved essential. Of course, there is also the problem of professors’ readiness to teach online, which brings another array of problems.
The online education will most likely face another problem. That will be the fact that learners, even after the end of the pandemic, might still associate online education with the poor experiences provided in a rush by educational institutions. This might create disbelief in the benefits of well-established elearning solutions.
Economic disparities have become even more evident
Apart from the health crisis, COVID-19 has put as well an emphasis on the economic differences between learners. While some take technology and connected devices as a given, the pandemic cut short the access to education for many that did not have the necessary means. As the OECD report points out, “on average across OECD countries, 9% of 15-year-old students do not even have a quiet place to study in their homes.” On top of that, online learning doesn’t just require a place to study, but also a computer, with disadvantaged households often not having access to one. Further, “the existence of devices does not say much about their adequacy.” Add to that the need for a reliable internet connection without which access to online education can be significantly hindered. In short, the most vulnerable in our societies have become even more so from an educational perspective in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elearning has the power to democratize education and deliver an agile and up-to-date curriculum to a broader audience of students; however, this means governments need to be all-in for the future of learning. You cannot deliver online education to all students when internet access is still a significant issue. Or to low-income family students where purchasing a single shared laptop might be problematic.
Mike Talamantes – Accounting Clerk
Online solutions with online problems
Even when the online solutions in providing education seem to work, they come with their particular challenges. Contract cheating and academic file-sharing were acknowledged as being problematic. Online proctoring solutions, while existing, received push-backs from students concerned with their personal data privacy.
One of the challenges concerning online learning is cheating. To counter this, proctoring tools were used to help prevent cheating during online exams. This brought to light some privacy concerns. We saw so many petitions in Canada, the US and elsewhere in the world of students pushing back against those proctoring tools. Where’s the line between the violation of privacy and ensuring there’s no cheating? And how do we assure students that access to their devices is appropriately restricted to the exam elements only?
Cynthia Sarette – Vice President, Human Resources
One other aspect that seems to have slipped through many of the educational crisis response was the lack of proper accessible solutions for learners with disabilities.
I would say (as probably many others as well) that incorporating accessibility in education, or more specifically inclusivity, was the biggest challenge in 2020 and will continue to be a challenge in 2021. We are still learning and more importantly improving our approach as we go along. But when it comes to adapting for inclusivity successfully, it’s not just a question of evolving our practices and processes; it’s also a question of mindset and acceptance.
Carmelo Cipolla – Lead Interactive Developer
The strain on mental health
The connection between mental health and academic achievement should be evident to everyone. The pandemic pushed the boundaries of our social gatherings to online spaces. While a sense of community can be successfully fostered in online environments, it works as long as the rest of our lives maintain a certain level of societal freedom. The confinement measures had also eliminated some of the mental health services that many learners received through their educational institutions. The pandemic may worsen many learners’ existing mental health problems through a combination of a health crisis, social isolation, and economic issues.
In many cases online education was a lifeline, for both education institutions who were able, thanks to online learning, to continue supporting their students and avoid closing altogether, and for people who, stranded in their homes, found refuge in so many courses online available from a multitude of sources and institutions. On the other hand, for many learners, adults and children alike, moving to online learning also meant forcedly cutting their social interactions, the camaraderie of learning among or even from a group of peers.
Patricia Munteanu – Implementation & Course Coordinator
In 2020, I created courses for online learning, but I also took two master’s level courses online. One was set up in a synchronous mode and the other asynchronous. I was surprised to realize how much more I enjoyed the first one and that I really need human interaction, not just fast information.
Emmy Huot – Creative eLearning Specialist
While the pandemic’s impact is felt throughout our society, it also brought a tremendous push for innovation. Quick responses supporting educational continuity have provided much-needed help for many countries, which proves that change is possible once again. Improving current educational systems is no longer advisable, but mandatory and increasing the flexibility of learning access, particularly for marginalized groups, should be an essential item in any educational strategy.
The crisis might push educational institutions to test out blended learning approaches and create viable strategies that will respond to the possibilities offered increasingly by technology.
2020 has provided universities with an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of their online learning capabilities through a real-life test. This year, I think, we will see a lot of investment in preparing professors for teaching online, improving technology from storage, security to applications, and creating/adopting social networking platforms for student to student and student to teacher communication.
Stephanie Trott – Director, Course Development
All in all, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on many aspects of our lives, but it also pushed us to tackle problems from different angles, to reinvent ourselves and to work together. And even more so it might push us to look at the disparities in the educational systems worldwide and address them sooner that one could have hoped for. In every problem resides a solution or, as Nelson Mandela said it “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”