Online learning in the time of a pandemic: opportunities, challenges, and the way forward

The Covid-19 pandemic has unceremoniously thrusted into the spotlight the value of online learning in education at a time when physical interactions and traditional face-to-face learning are restrained.

To look beyond the ill effects of this pandemic, I believed that this pandemic has brought in its way a peek of an unseen benefit to most of the Bhutanese, and that is, to advance digitalization efforts, which might otherwise have taken decades. Having transitioned from “Old Normal” to “New Normal” we have seen digitally mediated interactions in work, play, and learning. In terms of learning, for example, we have seen educators in Bhutan conducting many effective and inspiring online learning courses and programs.

This pandemic has brought immense opportunities for learners like me who is always on the lookout for new knowledge and skills. There are numerous online learning platforms, such as Coursera, Future Learn, Edx to name a few that provide free online courses. This is exemplified in the initiative undertaken by the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources to provide free online Coursera courses for 10,000 users, which otherwise would have cost around 50 dollars to attend and to get certification for each course. Similarly, various video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom and WebEx are being used heavily to conduct conferences, symposiums, and seminars. Likewise, learning management systems like Canvas, Blackboard, and Google Classroom are also used for teaching.

Let us now consider why online learning programs have become a popular form of learning in the times of the Covid-19 pandemic. The possible reason could be due to unprecedented opportunities for people to get easy access to education and; moreover, there is a shift in paradigm for the educators to deliver the highest quality of education through various online platforms.

Opportunities

The advantage of online learning is that it allows learners to participate in high-quality learning situations when physical and schedule face-to-face interaction is impossible. Learners can participate in classes from anywhere in the world, provided they have a computer and internet connection. In addition, online learning allows physically challenged students with more freedom to participate in online learning.

Additionally, through online learning, dynamic interaction is created between the learners and the instructors and; importantly, among learners themselves. It also creates continuous synergy, and learning materials and ideas are shared seamlessly among the learners.

Moreover, in the online environment, learners have a certain measure of anonymity. It also promotes unity and harmony as discriminating factors, such as age, race, physical appearance, disabilities, and gender are largely absent. Instead, the focus of attention is clearly on the content of the discussion and the individual’s ability to respond and contribute thoughtfully and intelligently to the material at hand.

Furthermore, learners can have unlimited access to resources and materials that may be physically located anywhere in the world. It also enhances learners’ creative thinking and independent learning through online learning.

Online learning programs have significant strengths and offer unprecedented accessibility to quality education. However, there is some inherent weakness associated with the use of this medium that can pose potential threats to the success of any online program or the learners.

Challenges

Lack of accessibility of the internet and technology is the biggest drawback of online learning because the majority of the learners reside in rural areas and cannot afford the technology. I also believe that internet access is the biggest concern because the internet is not easily assessable in some areas of Bhutan; moreover, the cost of the internet is expensive in Bhutan.

On the other hand, online learning can be an effective platform for adult and self-disciplined learners while it can be challenging for young and dependent learners. It also gives learners control and autonomy over their learning experiences as compared to face-to-face learning; however, learners are placed with greater responsibilities for their learning. Therefore, online learners must be well organized, self-motivated, and possess a high degree of time management skills to keep up with the pace of the course.

Synergy, a notable advantage, is developed among learners via an online learning platform. However, in larger classes, the synergy level is low due to a greater number of online learners, and interaction among learners and instructors is also limited.

In order for an online program to be successful, the online course, the instructor, the technology, and the learners must be carefully considered and balanced to take full advantage of the strengths of this format and at the same time avoid pitfalls that could result from its weaknesses.

Way forward

Online learning, being the latest wave of education, is the only platform to teach learners amid pandemic situations despite challenges for both instructors and learners. The instructor needs to put a lot of effort and time to design the online course. In the same way, learners need to equip themselves with technical proficiency to decipher the course material.

Transitioning from tradition face-to-face learning to online learning can be of entirely different experiences for the learners but they must adapt to new changes. For example, learners with a fixed mindset find it difficult to adapt and adjust whereas the learners with a growth mindset quickly adapt to a new learning environment.  Likewise, time management is a difficult task for learners, as online courses require a lot of time and intensive work.

Importantly, self-motivation is an online learning essential requirement; however, many online learners lack it, much to their surprise. After enrolling in online learning courses, many learners fall behind and nurture the idea of giving up, as difficulties in handling a technological medium also seem insurmountable. Students need to find the motivation to follow the new educational trends and properly equip themselves for future challenges in their education and careers.

To conclude, in the process of exploring the world of online learning, I have learned many things, such as what (not) to do and how to do better. Also, I have learned that through the online platform we can do certain things that we cannot do via the face-to-face mode of learning. In view of all that has been mentioned so far, we will always miss the social interaction of meeting face-to-face. However, having tasted the value of online learning can offer, I believe that many of our explorations have developed our flexibility in using different modes of learning, and placed us firmly on the path of becoming active online learners of Covid-19 pandemic era.

Contributed by,

Singay

Anti-Corruption 

Commission of Bhutan

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