Remote learning was a major challenge at the start of the pandemic, but I always hear that it will be the future of learning. What will be different? originally appeared on Quora: the place to acquire and share knowledge, allowing people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Over 15 years in online education, I have seen the same evolution happen many times. Online Education 1.0 is about trying to replicate the traditional experience, falling a bit short, and making it clear that the online experience is “the best thing to do” for those who can’t get to the physical classroom. This is what we have seen with cameras in lecture halls delivering the first MOOCs, with voice lesson formats on PowerPoint, etc.
Online Education 2.0 begins when institutions begin to lean heavily on the benefits of technology and give up on apologizing for the differences from the physical classroom. You see a lot more interaction between students in this phase – more ways for students to give answers and ask questions more frequently, more student control of on-screen tools, more mini-assignments and real-time feedback, etc.
And Online Ed 3.0 is gaining momentum as organizations begin to develop tools, content, and experiences specifically for the online format.
With the onset of the pandemic, districts and teachers were thrown into Online Ed 1.0 very quickly – they were tasked with recreating the in-person experience online, doing it with minimal prep time, and doing it while juggling all sorts of other challenges (trying to figure out a mobile device and internet access for students, dealing with the realities of the pandemic in their own homes and families). Many teachers have come to Online Ed 2.0 purely on the basis of repetition, experience, and the desire to make a better experience. But overall, we missed the 2.0/3.0 experiences that really are the future of online education.
So what will the future hold when educators can be more intentional and thoughtful about online education?
1) Scope of Offerings and Access.
A big part of the promise of online education is that it takes geographic and physical constraints out of the equation. A brick and mortar college, for example, is really limited in the number of electives and extracurricular activities it can offer. Each needs a room and a teacher, which means each really needs a minimum of something like 30 children to even have a chance of being viable. And then you need a teacher who’s ready and expert in tackling that topic, finding and creating the activities, and everything else. But online, it’s really easy to bring together the handful of kids from each school who have a really particular interest, whether it’s graphic design, robotics, cooking, or whatever. There may be thousands of learners who would like this course or activity at the same time, but only a few in a given school. Online means you can offer so much more.
And the permutations then become fantastic for the learners. A student who was bored by a general computer course could really jump into their computer-aided design course; a student who enjoys reading science fiction might find their flock to a science fiction book club and see it trickle down to their other classes because they are engaged in reading and learning.
So, the future of online learning involves greater availability of learning opportunities, and this personalization has the power to truly motivate and engage learners where they are.
2) Personalized participation
Educational research is pretty clear about two things about classroom participation: the more learners participate, the better they do. But also, just about all learners censor themselves from participating as much as they should. And online learning has many advantages here. In a traditional class, you really feel comfortable asking a question, offering an answer, asking for help after class. Raising your hand puts you on stage, speaking in front of the whole class puts you on stage, being seen going to talk to the teacher after class comes with a certain social stigma.
But online, there are so many ways to participate. There are anonymous polls, there are private discussions, there are breakout rooms. There are easy ways to track who’s been active or passive and provide helpful, friendly nudges as needed.
Over the years I’ve spent training teachers to teach online, the biggest trepidation was almost always “I’m going to miss interacting with students” and a week or two after teaching online, they would come back and were saying “wow this is way more interactive than anything I’ve ever taught.”
3) Multiple Modalities
Technology unlocks many types of activities and demonstrations that can lead to very varied and engaging lessons and experiences. Mini-quizzes and assignments can be administered, graded, and processed in real time, providing teachers with seamless opportunities to differentiate instruction or simply direct it where needed. Video and audio can be integrated and distributed easily. Students can see and manipulate 3D models of scientific phenomena. And that’s before we even get into the augmented and virtual reality that’s coming so soon.
We’re only scratching the surface of all the ways teachers can provide online demonstrations and activities. Learning is best done when learners are actively involved, when they can interact directly with the material. And we’re now at a place where not only can we seamlessly distribute high-fidelity visual aids, but where kids can start manipulating them and really interacting with them. Where activities can incorporate video, audio, and digital images to feel much more authentic and dynamic, and student responses or opinions can help determine what comes next. It’s really exciting.
4) AI and adaptability
We all know that learners learn best when challenged to a level they can handle but have to work to handle. But how many assignments in our lives have just met the “middle” so that struggling students are quickly overwhelmed and unchallenged ones are left to daydream or doodle for the better part of a year. class period?
Adaptive assignments and activities are able to give a boost to students who need revision or confidence and challenges to those who are on the verge of boredom. But that’s just the beginning: we’re about to learn which examples are most powerful for solidifying a concept, which review material can help save a student from poor performance or just to check, including metacognitive questions a system might ask a student to help them correct their course before they make the same mistake again and again.
Adaptive homework currently does a very good job of providing challenges and confidence boosters when needed and using students’ time much more wisely, but the future is even brighter as the activities learn to adapt to complement education, engage students in ways that build knowledge, and much more.
So overall, mainstream education got a lot of online education 1.0 in 2020-21, just to replicate the in-person experience with technology. We’re in Online Ed 2.0 on our way to 3.0 right now in many cases, but not quite in all areas. But the tools are being developed to not only build on what’s great about online education today, but to make it all it could be. And note that with everything I’ve written above, the goal is not to replace in-person education, but largely to improve it; we’ve also seen in recent years how essential it is for so many learners to meet face-to-face, have those informal interactions, and engage in the full school experience. So the online education of the future is not “everything online” but rather a way to take full advantage of what technology can do so well with all the things that traditional learning is so good at. The future is hybrid (even if this is a term that also had loose connotations in 2020 as well).