From Coursera, Edutopia and Udemy to the veritable sea of new online offerings from established universities, the world of virtual learning is expanding by leaps and bounds. With the onset of the Coronavirus, things may get even busier for online educators. Every day it seems that there’s a new university opening an online portal that offers its degrees to future students that never have to set foot in the classroom. But what does this mean for the horizon of productivity as the cadence of distance education outpaces students’ and teachers’ capacity to keep up?
And what about the dilatant nature of E-Learning? Will there be a Wall Street style bubble in that will eventually burst? Are there questions to credibility among online universities and workshops that will create a working class with surface level knowledge that potentiates a generation of under educated leaders? Will online instruction dismantle the 4th century establishment of the Socratic Method, which formed the foundation of most of the world’s institutions of higher learning?
I’ve taught at universities all over the world – two in the U.S. and a handful abroad. Since my very first class in 2008 (which, incidentally, was also my first semester of distance instruction), I’ve employed an online component in each subsequent class. Since that first class, I’ve always noticed that no matter how simple the lessons, or advanced the student, there was always a gap between the information and the learner – just as in standard classes.
I’d love to say that this gap was created solely by the lack of effort and attention by the student – that, because work was to be turned in online, deadlines should never be an issue. But honesty requires that I admit of my own failures as a growing professional as well. I’d like to also claim that the problem lay strictly within the human factor – the notion that whenever humans are involved, there will always be human error. The truth is that there is no one, singular answer that solves all the variables in this equation.
At the time I started teaching, online universities were not seen as reputable or even advisable options for either employment-seeking graduates, or diploma-seeking students. Part of the reason for this was that anyone with an internet connection and a hobby can write themselves up as an expert in their field, publish a handful of seemingly well researched articles and then promote that product at a rate the market would bare – all with a surprising measure of anonymity. This, of course drew questions of instructor ethics, and the student’s responsibility to fact-checking.
If that’s not a stark enough debate, in my first international teaching post, it was found that one of the instructors had a completely falsified diploma from a well-known university. Another instructor had a real diploma from a not-so-reputable college that awarded certificates based solely on the applicant’s experience – and presumably the fee. These instances, in turn, reflected on the university’s lapse in its own regard for fact-checking.
As we are finding with the necessity of homeschooling in the midst of an international crisis, collaborative and creative direction is needed if we hope to maintain our current level of progress and productivity. I might argue that we need an even more aggressive focus to meet the goals that technology will place in our path on the road ahead – especially with the knock of 5G at the door. The power of this new network, and the new technologies it promises to unfurl in the years ahead, will garner fast-moving, exponentially explosive challenges in the field of education.
Just as the application of technologies like Blackboard and Zoom on the 3G and 4G platforms has allowed online universities to levy greater sway on the collegiate communities at large, 5G will open the floodgates like never before. For instance, with 5G, a medical professor in Singapore can conduct an instrument-free autopsy on a cadaver in a morgue in Prague, which is simultaneously viewed by students all over the world.
While it’s captivating being a professor during a time of such heightened change, it’s also a bit unnerving to witness a much less sharp curve in the absorption of such information on both the teacher and student level.
Until we find the solution, the question remains: will the gap between the lesson’s facilitator and its observer, ever be bridged by the efforts of both? The jury is still out, but perhaps the patterns that have emerged in just the short few years from the early days of distance education hold the promise of what’s to come in the years ahead.