Image: Wikipedia

I am beginning to come across reports of how different countries around the world are moving to online learning as a result of Covid-19, and the results are not pretty. I have selected reports from sub-Saharan Africa, Iran, Japan, the UK, Canada and the USA. Now I have to say that the selection below is by no means a stratified random sample – the emphasis here is on random – but they are nevertheless interesting and certainly revealing.

Africa

Thanks to Clayton Wright for pointing me to this.

Mukeredze, T. et al (2020) Student bodies say e-learning is unaffordable and elitist University World News, April 22

Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) spokesperson Allan G Mawaya said in a statement that the union’s position, after “consideration of the majority of students and their benefactors”, was “a total rejection” of the Zimbabwe government’s e-learning proposals.

Why? ‘Only 41% of Zimbabwe have access to electricity…. and an even smaller share have access to mobile networks…and Zimbabwe has some of the continent’s most expensive mobile data tariffs’. Everton Mutsauri, the president of the student command of the little-known Economic Freedom Fighters-Zimbabwe stated: ‘Only the elite will be able to attend all online lectures. This is an example of policies being enacted by the elite for the elites.’ Several universities though are still charging the same fees for programs that will be delivered online as for campus programs.

In Ghana, the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) has called on the government to stop online learning in universities until a resolution between students and university authorities had been reached and has called on universities to refrain from conducting any examinations or assessments during the lockdown period. NUGS President Isaac Jay Hyde said the authorities must also ensure that students are given financial waivers like free online data and bursaries to continue learning.

In South Africa, the South African Students Congress (SASCO) has called for a national boycott of online learning, arguing that it is not equally available to all students. However, Witwatersrand University is working to ensure students are ready for online learning. The university is lending 5,000 laptops to disadvantaged students. He said all lectures would be recorded on the university’s learning management system and could be accessed at the student’s convenience with academics on standby to assist students. The next two weeks would be used to acclimatise to the online learning process.

Iran

Bizaer, M. (2020) Pandemic reveals Iran’s online-learning challenges Al-Monitor, April 17

To minimize the effect of the school closures on the education system, Iran’s Education Ministry introduced an online app, the Social Network of Students (Shad in Persian), and presents daily lessons for different grades on state TV. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology ordered companies that provide home internet access to increase network speed fourfold. The government also prepared self-study packages and delivered them to students living in areas with poor communications services or those completely cut off from service.

The locally designed app can serve as many as 16 million students, including those with physical impairments, but its official launch was delayed to ensure security after recent incidents in which information of millions of Iranians was leaked.

Some people have voiced concerns that, given some students’ lack of access to the internet and digital devices, focusing on online learning might further deprive many students of quality education. However, according to Iran’s Telecommunications Ministry, only 70% of Iranian families have internet access. The same report adds that access rates vary from one province to another. For instance, in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan — one of Iran’s least-developed regions — more than 53% of its 2.9 million residents don’t have internet access.

Saeed Yaghmouri, an academic affairs expert in Iran, said some good work has been done to advance the process. He urged education officials to end their “monopolistic view,” explaining that distance learning won’t succeed “as long as the ministry continues to be both a decision-maker and implementer.” “The ministry’s launching of the exclusive system [Shad] — which it wants millions of Iranian students to use — is a clear indication that it is continuing its old policy of keeping full control over the education system.”

Japan

Thanks to Doug Strable for pointing me to this:

Unascribed (2020) Universities in Japan try to soften blow from pandemic with internet subsidies, scholarships and tuition cuts Japan Times, April 25

Some universities in Japan (many of which are private) are moving to subsidise online classes, through grants to purchase adequate internet bandwidth and computers. Grants though are quite small, in the range of Y50,000 or US$450. Some plan to offer special scholarships to students whose families are experiencing acute economic hardship from the pandemic, such as loss of earnings and sudden unemployment, but again these are relatively small, in the range of US$300 a month.

Most institutions though do not intend to reduce fees, one saying that it vows to provide the same high level of education as in normal years, even though part of it has to be done through online teaching. This though seems unlikely. Many universities in Japan have never required most students to use a computer before in their studies, many do not have learning management systems installed, and there is little training for faculty in how to teach online (although my book, Teaching in a Digital Age, is just now available in Japanese, thanks to Doug Strable and Professor Kamiya Kenichi.)

United Kingdom

Hall, R. (2020) No campus lectures and shut student bars: UK universities’ £1bn struggle to move online The Guardian, retrieved April 25

Hall, R. and Batty, D. (2020) Durham University retracts controversial plan to provide online-only degrees The Guardian, retrieved April 25

The Guardian newspaper reports: ‘UK universities need to spend hundreds of millions of pounds to deliver degrees online, with warnings that many are unprepared to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students’ education.’ Only 20 (just under one fifth) are in a good position to provide a range of high-quality online courses by the start of the new academic year in September, according to Prof Sir Tim O’Shea, the former vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University (and a former colleague of mine at the Open University.)

The sector seeks to expand online education in a bid to offset huge losses from tens of thousands of international students cancelling their studies due to Covid-19. Most universities would face costs of at least £10m to create five or six new online degrees in different faculties, said O’Shea. This would total well over £1bn (C$1.75 bn) across the sector. The University and College Union (UCU) forecasts that the sector could lose around £2.5bn next year in tuition fees alone if the pandemic continues.

Meanwhile, Durham University has retracted controversial plans to provide online-only degrees due to the coronavirus pandemic following a backlash from students and lecturers. Durham University was going to use an online program manager, Cambridge Education Digital. However, academics at Durham University complained that CED’s estimate of six hour’s training to teach online was completely unrealistic.

More than 1,000 current and prospective Durham students signed a petition opposing the plans, with a letter sent to heads of departments ahead of the senate meeting adding that “online teaching should not be considered an equitable substitute to in person degree”. Nearly 500 academics also signed a letter opposing the proposals.

USA

I’ve already reported on an initial survey of faculty moving to online learning in the USA, and also on how two universities have successfully managed the transition. In short, many universities and colleges (around 50%) already had experience in developing and delivering online learning before the Covid-19 crisis. Nevertheless even for those with considerable experience, it has been a challenge ramping up from around 30% of students with some online learning experience to the whole campus. For those without prior experience, it must have been much worse, but we will have to wait until we have more data before we can judge the full impact of the crisis.

Meanwhile for those into schadenfreude, I refer you to the following horror story in the k-12 system in the USA:

Natanson, H. (2020) Top technology official out at Fairfax Schools, as fallout continues from online learning disaster Washington Post, April 22

Canada

Similar concerns about equity, whether students should pay the same tuition for emergency remote learning, and difficulties in making the transition have also been present in Canada. However, in the university and college sector, a good majority of institutions (around 70%) already had experience of online courses. Although there are still inequities in internet access, particularly in more remote areas, most students at post-secondary level have reasonable internet and computer access. This allowed many instructors without prior online teaching experience to move quickly to Zoom-based lectures, although this too is not without its problems, but as a short term emergency strategy it has been more or less acceptable.

The main challenge has been scaling up experience of effective online teaching rapidly and in particular supporting those faculty with no previous online teaching experience. The biggest challenge still remains though. That will be in September, when the new academic year begins. A particular challenge will be the large first year introductory courses.

Alex Usher has already called for a national strategy to provide common online first year introductory courses. However, his plan for sharing courses still does not deal with the biggest problem: learner support. The one lesson we know about online learning is that students need not only preferably continuous assessment but also significant instructor presence and social-based learning (discussion forums, etc.). How do you provide that to classes with 200 students or much more?

Canadian institutions need to rethink their whole first year teaching methods and instructor allocations to deal with this problem. They will need to throw all their resources behind these courses. This may mean cancelling all non-essential research and co-opting all available instructors, or bringing in many post-graduate students to help with the first year teaching, just for the fall semester.

What can we learn from this?

I think it may be best to let you draw your own conclusions, but here are some of my thoughts:

  • there is no one solution that fits everybody, and there is no ideal solution for anybody. You need to craft the best solution under the circumstances for your particular context. This may mean in many countries not moving online at all.
  • half-measures are not going to work. Grants of $500 for equipment or internet access won’t solve the access issue; just moving your lectures online will only work once. What do you do for the next semester, and more importantly long-term?
  • Covid-19 has magnified very clearly the current inequities in the system and the importance of universal and low cost internet access for education. It’s not that online learning has failed, but that its value has been under-appreciated and as a result unplanned for in most countries
  • institutions will need to rethink their tuition policies as more students move online. Why should online students pay for all the overhead costs of being on campus when they are not there?
  • I have the utmost sympathy for those suffering from the coronavirus, for all the health care and essential service workers. I also have sympathy for teachers, especially, but also instructors and even senior managers thrust into this difficult situation. But also let’s give some thought to the students. Their lives have been turned upside down by this crisis, and they should be always the first consideration when plans are being made to move courses online.
  • for all these reasons, online learning, for all its faults, has a really important place in the future of education. It needs though to be used judiciously, and built so that it is resilient and enables rather than hinders equal access.

1 COMMENT

  1. Nice article,
    Even in India, Government has taken steps to encourage Online Learning, Indian Government has dedicated 3 channels for E learning, But still Online learning is still a difficult access for rural Indians.

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