Edtech, Part 2: How Online Learning Fails

Online learning is the new normal - but should we let it be?
20 July 2022

In Part 1 of our look at online learning and its place in our future, we looked at the impact it had during the pandemic, and the way in which is could transform the learning process in the post-pandemic world. But nothing in the tech world is ever entirely straightforward.

Online learning was always seen, in the pre-pandemic decades, as a last resort – something that could be used as a “better-than-nothing” safety net, when getting together in a single space for one-to-many teaching or lecturing was not possible. There was an instinctive understanding that it wasn’t “real” teaching – that documents supplied electronically would never be looked at after the teaching or training was finished, and that there was little by way of attainable certainty that the learning had gone in and stuck in the minds of the learners.

Then the pandemic of (so far) 2020-2022 hit the world, and multiple lockdowns meant that neither normal schooling nor normal training could be carried out in its previous way, with students and tutors in the same room.

Online learning became a savior of some kind of normality – schools scrambled to translate their curricula into lessons that could be taught online, and colleges followed suit. Even workplace training developed to meet the challenges of the time.

But the question is whether, now that in most cases, communal spaces have been opened back up, there is any good reason not to return to them, and to a model of teaching that worked for generations, rather than maintaining the lockdown mentality of online learning.

How Does Edtech Fail?

The answer seems to depend on whether we teach for the sake of passing assessments, examinations, and the like, or whether we teach to impart knowledge and understanding that lasts.

If we’re aiming to impart long-term knowledge – particularly technical, detailed knowledge – it might be time to get back in the room with our tutors.

The Technology Gap

Firstly, we like to think that we live in the age of ubiquitous computing, and ubiquitous connectivity infrastructure.

That’s often shown to be an American Pipe Dream though. In 2021, a county-by-county survey of people able to access the internet at more than 25 Mbps showed great swathes of the country where the numbers amounted to less than 15% of people in the county able to achieve this connection speed. The connectivity infrastructure of the USA is not what Hollywood tells you it is – so the ease of connection for online learning with regularity is not what Hollywood tells you it is, either.

That in itself could lead to a zip code lottery when it comes to online learning, meaning that even post-pandemic, it is not a one size fits all solution, and cannot be treated like one.

Add to that the combination of a technology spiral where any computer over three years old is likely to be outdated in terms of the programs it can comfortably run, and real-term, post-inflation household incomes that have been decreasing month on month since December, 2021, and the ability of any given family in the US being able to afford an acceptably new computer is called seriously into question.

So for all that we muddled through with online learning during a worldwide pandemic in 2020-22, the idea that it’s a panacea that should be pursued into the post-pandemic era is significantly less than a certainty at least at the moment.

Rigid Content Vs. Various Learning Styles

The idea that you can simply take offline learning materials and techniques, transfer them to an online learning platform and expect to get the same results is sadly and obviously false. While having backup materials like lesson recordings and electronic documents can be useful to neurodivergent people who might otherwise struggle, there is a flipside, where some students need particular attention, others need significant facial interaction to make connections between material and conclusions, and so on.

The online learning process, by distancing students and tutors, can easily turn a lesson that was engaging in a real-world situation into so much noise that quickly disengages – the equivalent of Charlie Brown’s teacher – while being out of a group learning room offers a whole range of easy distractions, so the moment engagement is lost, it’s lost more deeply and for longer than it would have been in a one-to-many real-world environment. The ability to tun off cameras, mute microphones, and pick up the backup material, drives many students to disengage – especially if the translation of the material from an offline, real-world teaching environment to an online one has not been done with meticulous care to maintain engagement.

That care, incidentally, means tutors are having to essentially redraw what their curricula look like, re-envisage their lesson plans, and cope with delivering amended lessons or training at one remove, rather than necessarily being able to read the room with one glance.

Personalization Matters

We know that since the start of the pandemic, the tech community has been busy launching start-ups to help shift the learning process online. But large-scale online learning experiments have shown that what really works as a way of driving knowledge home is personalization – the adaptation of learning or training to an individual’s learning style. That’s not only extremely difficult to achieve in an online learning environment, it’s also difficult to design apps or programs to compensate for.

There’s a likelihood then that while online learning may well prove to be a boon to the tech industry, the degree to which the vast marketplace of apps and add-ons to help make the online learning process more interactive and “sticky” may prove to be a distraction from the real business of learning anything.

Online learning, beyond any shadow of doubt, helped the world get through a global pandemic. But the argument that it delivered well enough to be a “one size fits all” education and training panacea for the 21st century brings several real-world challenges into sharp relief. Both the technology gap, and the need for specialization – easily deliverable in a real-world classroom, and practically impossible to reduce to an app – argues strongly for the idea that online learning should retake its place as a back-up system to real-world learning as soon as is humanly possible.