Why teach online?

06 Jul 2020

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The writer works at Oxford University Press Pakistan.
The writer works at Oxford University Press Pakistan.

MANY schools and universities have been resisting the need to plunge into digitising education, due to various technological and organisational challenges. Many of them have been waiting for the tide to turn, hoping that we will be able to resume ‘normal’ life in the near future. Whilst we don’t know when the world will emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, what is getting clearer by the day is that there has been a paradigm shift in education, and the quicker educational institutions get onto the online bandwagon, the better for the students they have been established to serve.

Students have changed dramatically — they are now accustomed to the pleasures of learning anywhere, anytime, in the comfort of their beds and the safety of their homes. They have also been introduced to digital socialising and, as teachers have witnessed, chat boxes are full of students sharing stories with each other during and after class. Students also use search engines more deftly and independently. They are working on collaborative projects with greater ease, showcasing stages of a portfolio, sharing pictures or YouTube videos that they have made.

Bandwidth issues notwithstanding, students are learning fast how to become digital leaders in this brave new world of online education. They have found a springboard for their digital footprints, and have discovered that there is learning beyond borders, space and time. We are in the process of creating a generation of independent learners, YouTubers, bloggers and digital entrepreneurs who need direction, encouragement and empowerment. Schools can contribute with setting up the infrastructure — the driving tools as it were — for this post-pandemic growth. Many institutions find themselves stalling this growth, hoping for a return back to ‘normal’ soon. Whilst we all hope for the best, what this ‘normal’ will look like, is anyone’s guess.

Change is always hard, but it is also perhaps the only certainty we have in life and, as they say, every change can be turned into opportunity. Online teaching gives educators a wide platform to increase their outreach and impact — it’s highly improbable for a university professor to speak regularly to a group of audience that extends to hundreds or goes into thousands, but live webinars provide the opportunity to share teaching and learning in unprecedented ways. Knowledge sharing has always led constructive change in the world — online teaching now offers this revolutionary capacity.

Every change can be turned into opportunity.

For researchers who have been unable to find a traditional platform to publish, digital outreach offers the tools of podcasting and broadcasting. Individuals can now be entrepreneurs of their own intellectual capital. However, those who are a part of an established institution would fare even better with direction and structure. That is where the state can play a role to facilitate gaps in learning — like individuals, institutions need directives, with a plan and goals in place. The state can buffer institutions, especially those catering to higher education, as a means of retaining students and facilitating the path to graduation. In the post-pandemic times, we will need our graduates and young adults to be the engineers of our struggling economy.

Quite recently, Canada has announced support for university students to get paid internships as part of a Work Placement Programme, recognising the need to help students and fresh graduates stay afloat through the pandemic and beyond. Other places like the UAE have developed structured directives to help schools through online education and a safe return to school in September. We might do well to learn from such states as they provide expertise and financial support to buffer the education sector.

Whilst many schools have been struggling with the transformative techno­logical tools, there is much to celebrate too. Most private-sector schools in the UAE are now running some kind of online education programme, albeit on a trial-and-error basis. Many of them have started attempting new techniques such as enabling students to upload their homework, giving digital assessments and venturing into new teaching strategies such as flipped learning. They have gone into uncharted territory and are encouraging students to learn unprecedented ways of acquiring education. The time is also ripe to incorporate cross-border learning by using student apps that couldn’t previously become a part of classroom teaching, such as online games, animated storybooks and infographics.

The challenges of online teaching are manifold, but so are the rewards. Connectivity issues, technical hurdles and lack of expertise compound this problem and we do have to learn fast to cater to the intense demand for online education. However, when we come out on the other side, we would’ve opened doors for posterity, to a wider, braver new world with far more opportunities than we ever had before.

The writer works at Oxford University Press Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2020