Online Learning: The Now Big Thing, By Stanley Olisa

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It is no longer news that coronavirus is forcing the physical isolation of people around the world at great cost to their economies and learning system, but with the promise of slowing the spread of the disease. In its subtle and more deadly form, the outbreak is driving an ideological wedge between nations with the tech sector being the major gainer.

Before the advent of COVID-19, the world has been experiencing varying shades of technological revolution, which has advanced tech explorations, and engendered paradigm shifts in virtually all facets of human existence.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the status quo, creating new standards and setting new expectations as well as challenges across board. For instance, Annual General Meetings are now held virtually. Thanks to Zoom and other virtual meeting apps.

Importantly, education has also had its share of these strides in technology. A lot has changed, as the lockdowns worldwide have positioned technology as the only solution to continue to further learnings, even in remote environments. Indeed, this has shrunk the world into a global village, according to the forecast of Marshal McLuhan, ‘Technological Determinism’.

Those that left mankind five decades ago could not have envisaged the height of technological innovation education now enjoys. Online learning is part of that innovation and this piece explores how it is ‘the now big thing’.

Today, terms like e-learning, distance learning, virtual learning and hybrid learning have become part of our lexicon and they are all offshoots of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), which is radically redefining conventional education.

In concurrence, the Director, Doctoral Studies for the Isabelle Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University, Michael Barbour, states: “There’s no question things are changing. One thing we can say is that the schools of tomorrow won’t look anything like the ones kids go to today.” Online learning is gaining massive adoption in this generation and it will be perpetuated further as mankind makes more inroads in education technology.

One cannot dismiss the flaws of online-based education and critics’ misgivings about its viability. An objective assessment of online learning and how it is being widely adopted, even in Third World climes where we have technology deficit, is sufficient to prove that this non-traditional education has abundant benefits to offer.

And how do you tap into these benefits? By using a computer system, a smartphone or a tablet, and Internet connectivity. The proliferation of these electronic devices and increased broadband penetration have popularised online learning. This is education made easy, without the rigours associated with physical classroom experience.

Online learning is helping to plug global literacy gaps as it expands access to cost-effective education. Accessibility is a major attraction of online learning. It is also inclusive. With online learning, there are no physical barriers to deter you from pursuing your academic aspirations. Your electronic gadget and Internet give you access to online courses, which you can run simultaneously with a full-time job.

This accessibility is not just for the learner but also for the tutor who does not have to grapple with the pressure of attending physical classes willy-nilly or complying with a strict schedule. Learning online is flexible and students can tailor their studies in line with their situations and priorities. So, you learn when you’re most receptive to it. Tutors can teach and administer tests from anywhere. Learning online is also convenient and when there is convenience, the student tends to assimilate seamlessly and achieve learning objectives faster. Traditional education scores low in these qualities.

Similarly, there is no gainsaying that online learning is affordable and offers the student various payment options. Running an online degree course can be 40 or even 50 percent lower than the offline equivalent. It allows for prudent use of finances, avails you scholarship opportunities and discounts, while giving you top-class knowledge. Through online learning, low-income students can acquire the degrees of expensive institutions. This makes for some social equality.

In Africa where exponential population growth is stretching the capacity of available education infrastructure, online learning offers an invaluable opportunity to manage the challenge. In Nigeria for instance, the available government universities are not enough to admit the teeming secondary school leavers annually. This repeatedly culminates in most of them sitting at home for some years before finally getting lucky or paying their way through. But with online learning, this pathetic situation is assuaging gradually.

A good number of Nigerians are starting to embrace online learning for both academic and professional gratifications. However, there is a class of people who still despise online learning and consider it inferior to traditional learning. Online learning may not be able to totally replace traditional classroom method but it will viably augment it. It will gravitate to a point where it can stand head-to-head with the conventional method, and its degrees will have more recognition than they do now. In this near future, priorities will be the sole determinant of learning method – online, offline or a hybrid approach.

The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, which has hoisted on us the practice of social distancing and the ban on large gatherings, is another reality that is rapidly beefing up the adoption of online learning. The coronavirus-induced uncertainty has made several people appreciate the value of online learning.

In Nigeria, schools are still closed and students have been advised to take advantage of online learning until normal activities bounce back. Some observers have projected that even when normal academic activities resume, the school system will never return to normal. Some things are bound to change. One certain aftermath is that schools will develop a blended learning model. It could be 40 percent offline and 60 percent online. But online learning will definitely witness increased ascendancy. It is unmistakable.

In conclusion, online learning has its shortcomings like solitary learning and not having adequate human feel, but the pros outweigh the cons. Besides, edtech experts are now designing better online learning platforms that incorporate more social elements. Online learning has not reached its peak because as man scores more points in ICT, more astounding possibilities will be unlocked.

Stanley Olisa is a Lagos-based Media and Communications Consultant.

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