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3 Insights From a Year of Online Learning

Online Learning
Published on Sep 03, 2021

One word that perfectly describes 2020 is disruption. 

Every aspect of our lives was upended by the pandemic: work, family, health, entertainment. And then there is education. 

According to UNESCO’s estimates, over 1.5 billion children worldwide were forced to abandon their usual learning environment. Most turned to online or distance learning. 

Had a large-scale transition like this happened even 20 years ago, most educational institutions could not have made the leap, let alone most households. Last year, we bridged the gap with technology. 

As production rapidly scaled in the last decade, devices have become cheaper and more accessible. Combine the scale with accelerated innovation in cloud technology, which has made the storage and communication of information faster and more efficient. 

While that in itself is extraordinary, there is so much more to how technology has transformed learning. As Shantanu Sinha, Director of Product Management at Google and Founding Board Member of Khan Lab Schools, has reflected, technology has helped us manage the disruption, but at the same time, it has also raised serious questions around its role in education, who gets to access it, and why. 

To answer the critical questions, Google collaborated with students and educators, from K-12 to Ph.D., who engaged in remote or hybrid learning in the past year. Here are the 3 major discoveries that stood out. 

1. The need for accelerated innovation 

The goal of technology is to make our lives easier. But easier for what? 

Technology must evolve with our needs. The problem is, we expect needs to change in years. In 2020, our needs changed in weeks. Could our technology keep up? For the most part, yes. 

Zoom and Teams, for instance, made rapid changes to their applications to allow more and more people to join group calls. Even though a class may typically have at most 100 students, video calls can be joined by over 1000 people, making ample room for large-scale programs. 

Further, advances in cloud technology and machine learning made the experience more inclusive and easier for both students and educators. Consider the Upper Grand District School Board in Canada, which deployed a trained virtual agent to resolve queries regarding online safety and technical support, an endless torrent of which kept pouring in, as students and parents adjust to the transition. 

But the work is far from finished. 

If hybrid learning is going to be the norm, we need to further innovate to create smarter and more reliable, and more accurate agents. The ultimate objective is to create digital solutions that require minimum or no human intervention, such that educators can only do what they do best: connect and educate. 

Another breakthrough would be an increase in translators and reading assistants. Language processing is also the domain of machine learning, and we need new, faster, and cheaper solutions to make digital learning more inclusive and accessible. 

Let’s also not forget that not everyone has a computer. Mobiles are ever-faster and cheap, and many households would count one as the only computer they rely on since it is the only computer they can afford. Which is why we need to do more to improve mobile experiences. 

2. Bridging the digital divide 

Although, having a mobile is not enough. After all, what is its use if it cannot be connected to the internet? 

Before the pandemic, Common Sense Media reported that out of the 50 million households in the US, around 15 million only had access to either a device or the internet. Most, in fact, around 60% of those 15 million, had access to neither. And that is just the US, the world’s leading superpower. 

The answer to the question of who gets the opportunity to learn and why mostly comes down to luck. It has been consistently demonstrated that where you live, from the continent, country, city, right down to the neighborhood, has a lot to do with the opportunities you get in life. 

The purpose of education was to bridge that gap, but as education itself has become a privilege, the inequality has in fact further widened. Already, the access to educational resources, like books and computers for programming, was grimly disproportionate. And then, a pandemic took place, leaving many households unemployed, making things even worse.  

The inequality also translates to technology, as only a privileged few can access it and hence use it to learn remotely. Then, the cycle continues: access to technology leads to access to education, which leads to access to opportunities, which leads to access to technology, and so on. 

To break the cycle, we need public institutions to step in. And many have. Japan, for example, has promised to provide a device to every child from grade 1 to 9, as part of their $4 billion educational initiative. The state of Mississippi passed a $200 million bill, which saw the distribution of computers to schools across the state. 

But distributing devices is not enough.  

Are we doing enough for students and educators with special needs? We need to ensure that everyone can benefit from technology, not a special few.  

Here is where we turn again to innovation: breakthroughs in machine learning, and ultimately AI, that can enable translation and depiction of captions in near-real-time, or at their own pace. Innovation in broadband technology and manufacturing to make devices and access to the internet cheaper. 

The discovery is not new. But until recently, the challenge seemed larger and more complex than we could imagine. It still is, but less so as breakthroughs in technology have enabled us to understand it more deeply. And, hopefully, will enable us to overcome it in the future. 

3. The value of human connection 

As Sinha rightly remarked, “there is no substitution for in-person human connection.” 

Even though students and educators and advisers and counselors were connected digitally, each group agreed that the connection was less genuine and hence fulfilling for learning. 

EdWeek’s research revealed that 61% of district leaders and educators identified the mental health of their students to be their top priority. Indeed, 67% anticipated an increase in social-emotional programs. The problem is, assessing the well-being of students digitally is difficult, while students have found communicating in the absence of body language somewhat jarring. 

The problem is particularly worrisome for students who need more attention, students who demand one-on-one interactions. Let’s not forget parents and guardians, meetings and check-ins with whom also need to be more personal and authentic. 

Features like polls make conversations more immersive. Educators also have turned creative to overcome the challenge. Pre-recorded videos, for example, have made lessons more engaging. So has showcasing student projects. Though, without doubt, nothing can make up for the loss of real human connection in education — a connection that has been cherished and celebrated since antiquity. But any connection is better than no connection, even if it is grainy and two-dimensional. 

If anything, the loss has made the longing for it more intense. Because we are not here talking about just educators, but also friends and peers. And soon the longing will be fulfilled, as we prevail over the pandemic with another miracle of technology: vaccines. 

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