As classrooms closed across the world, teaching shifted towards online learning tools, video conferencing and remote learning. Live broadcasts and YouTube videos started replacing in-class teaching methods, while services such as Google Classroom took over from the physical learning space. In Wuhan – where the outbreak started – some 730,000, or 81%, of school-age pupils were signed up to use Chinese tech giant Tencent’s classroom software by mid-February.
Schools around the world are slowly starting to reopen, but in stages and with social distancing measures in place. So remote teaching and online learning look set to stay. But what will the long-term impact be? Even before the outbreak, global investment in education technology – or "Edtech" – was estimated at $18.66 billion (£14.73bn) in 2019 as its use in the classroom rose, according to research by Metaari. And even before the pandemic hit the sector has been forecast to grow: last year ResearchandMarkets.com predicted that Edtech would be worth $350 billion (£277bn) by 2025.
The recent surge in Edtech usage certainly seems to reflect these supposed benefits. Educational communication app ClassDojo, which is used by 95% of kindergarten-to-eighth grade classes in the US and in 180 countries, saw the average class share four times more content during the week of March 25 than the week before. And new Edtech companies are benefiting as investors look to get involved in the sector. UK company Tech Will Save Us that uses tech in its toys to encourage children to become "digital creators" recently raised just over £840,000 ($1.1m) in funding, having originally only sought £200,000 ($253k).
But others point out that the quality of education with online learning is heavily dependent on the level and standard of digital access. Nearly all (95%) 15-year-old students in Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia and Switzerland have access to a computer for schoolwork, while only 34% in Indonesia do, according to the OECD. However, this discrepancy is also reflected within communities – in America nearly all students in economically-advantaged schools have access to computers, compared to just three in four in disadvantaged ones.
A similar trend can be seen with internet access. About 60% of the world may be online, according to DataReportal's Digital 2020 report, but the type and standard of data connections can massively vary. While most students in Western Europe can access an educational app on a laptop, their peers in a less developed countries or areas may be dependent on receiving assignments via email or WhatsApp. As such, any gap in socioeconomic equality threatens to exacerbate existing gaps in educational equality.
The pandemic has highlighted that internet access is a necessity and that, without it, many students risk falling behind. The UK government has sought to address this during lockdown by providing free laptops and 4G connections to disadvantaged teenagers in England. But some argue that such moves don’t go far enough to address the digital divide and that many such students risk falling further behind once goodwill shown during the pandemic is over.
The lack of social interaction is proving particularly pronounced now that pupils worldwide are returning to the classroom, but as part of the "new normal". Many countries have started bringing back pupils in a phased return, often starting with the younger, transitional and/or final year groups. To reduce class numbers, groups are often split in two – with some taught simultaneously by one teacher across two rooms, as in some parts of Germany, while others are told to attend school on alternate days, as in Austria.
As the pandemic is ongoing, and a vaccine or agreed treatment has not yet been found, many parents not yet comfortable sending their children back to school, such restrictions look set to be in place for some time. It may be too early to tell but if the success of India-based Byju, the world’s most valuable Edtech app after being valued at $10 billion (£7.9bn) in May, is anything to go by, digital learning isn’t going away anytime soon. Byju saw its registered users in India and the Middle East soar by 25% to 50 million and an 85% renewal in its yearly subscription rate during the outbreak.
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It is not yet possible to fully gauge the impact of school closures and disruption of education that the coronavirus will have on younger pupils. But an Oxford University study into the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan indicates that interrupting schooling put children’s test scores 1.5 to 2 years behind their peers in unaffected regions. But e-learning could help mitigate a similar potential impact in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Higher education has also been severely hit by the pandemic. As the virus spread, academic institutions worldwide cancelled classes, closed campuses and encouraged those studying abroad to return home, while others were left unable to return to their places of study. Classes rapidly moved online using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other video call software. The global closure of borders could also hit the sector in the longer term, with Chinese students making up 33.7% of the foreign student population in the US alone.
As well as disrupting this year’s teaching calendar, coronavirus looks set to impact next year’s university admissions too. A recent International Association of Universities poll showed that almost 80% of respondents around the world expect the COVID-19 pandemic to have an impact on enrolment for the next academic year, with almost half (46%) believing it will impact both domestic and international student admissions.
UK universities are expecting to face a potential £760 million ($962m) hit to their funding as one in five potential students said they would not enrol if classes were delivered online, according to the University and College Union (UCU). Several institutions, including Cambridge University, have already said they are going online-only for the 2020/21 academic year. Cambridge plans to instead offer “blended learning” – a mix of e-learning alongside tutorials and in-person seminars, if possible.
Cuts also mean potential job losses. Another report from the UCU said that 30,000 jobs are at risk as UK universities face a total £2.6 million ($3.3m) financial hit, with nearly three-quarters of institutions facing a “critical financial position”. In the US, at least 48,086 employees in academia have already been affected by lay-offs or furloughs, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, while more than 21,000 jobs are expected to be lost at Australian universities.
Once seen as a threat, online learning could prove to be universities’ saviour and the pandemic could bring about "a learning revolution", according to an article written for the World Economic Forum by Salah-Eddine Kandri, global head of education at the International Finance Corporation. Despite online learning only accounting for under 2% of $2.2 trillion (£1.7tn) global higher education market, appetite for digital offerings is only likely to increase. Indeed, the older age and greater ability of its students to handle tech could make the higher education sector the most likely to trigger change.
Indeed, moving classes online and making them more readily available could prove beneficial to university’s finances, according to Caroline Hoxby, a professor in economics at Stanford University. She told Times Higher Education that putting classes online was “not terribly expensive” and that more people at home with “extra time on their hands” may enrol in courses that they otherwise wouldn’t in order to improve their skills and their employability.
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Others argue that moving classes online could also shake-up higher education by making it more accessible. Gaidi Faraj, dean of The African Leadership University, told Forbes that the pandemic was a “massive opportunity to break out of old habits and create new, impactful relevant modes of learning”. Although, as with earlier forms of education, steps to widen access to technology and avoid increasing the digital divide will be vital to make sure more disadvantaged learners are not left behind.
A potential model for traditional bricks and mortar universities to follow would appear to be the the US-based and online-only University of the People. The digital university has over 31,000 students in more than 200 countries enrolled on its books. Across the Atlantic, the UK has a similar option for those wishing to take a degree online in the form of the Open University, which has helped more than two million students in 157 countries for five decades. Offering everything from short courses to online degrees, its free-to-access OpenLearn site saw around a million sign-ups during lockdown alone.
With millions across the world out of work or furloughed as coronavirus restrictions began to bite, many adults have turned to online learning in a bid to prepare for the post-pandemic ‘new normal’. In May Google put its Grow with Google courses online or "On Air", offering free webinars and coaching sessions in the search engine's digital tools. While the FutureLearn site, which includes a wide range of free and paid-for courses from top cultural institutions and universities around the world, has seen a million enrolments since the start of March as many seek to widen their skillset.
Coronavirus has undoubtedly sparked an online learning revolution for both young and old. Indeed the pandemic is accelerating trends already seen before COVID-19’s arrival, with e-learning for US companies already growing 900% between 2001 and 2017, according to TechJury.net. Now the biggest challenge is to address the digital divide, and make sure it remains accessible for all.
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