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How the Pandemic and Online Learning Can Level the Playing Field for Motivated Learners

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As the months continue to pass since the pandemic first burst onto the world stage, it’s becoming apparent that it will change our lives profoundly on many levels. What started as a global human tragedy is now creating ripple effects in many aspects of society.

Covid-19 has forced schools to shut down and then reopen intermittently. Kids and teachers have experimented with online learning to varying degrees of success. Parents are concerned about their children’s safety, but that comes with a matching concern for the quality and continuity of their education.

Some have already heralded online learning as a success and the new frontier for education. But many valid questions will have to be addressed. One way or another, people are wondering: what does this mean for learning in the future?

The potential of online learning

The internet has been around for roughly three decades now, and while much of its potential is still being explored, older capabilities have become highly refined and sophisticated. E-commerce is a prime example. Amazon has proven resilient to the pandemic and has grown in value by becoming the default retailer for online shoppers.

Online education is no different. There have been some online courses offered since the ’90s. But the medium only began to take off over the last decade or so. Sites like Coursera and Udemy host a variety of learning modules, often in partnership with top universities.

Those traditional institutions themselves have increasingly come to offer online degree programs and certificate courses. This appeals considerably to adult learners, who have limited time to attend in-person classes, but can squeeze an online program into their work-life balance.

Like so many other trends, Covid-19 figures to further accelerate this one. Before the pandemic, over a third of post-secondary students took a class online and nearly a third of graduates took online classes exclusively. Out of necessity, students of all ages across the country will now have a lengthy, up-close look at online learning and how it works for them.

Overcoming big challenges

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Clearly, online learning can be good. Not just for students who’d otherwise be risking their safety to attend classes amid a pandemic, but for society as well. It’s our collective responsibility to help educate the next generation and prepare them for the challenges of the future.

But this move can also backfire. Some of the most concerning challenges involved with online learning involve limited access for students from low-income families. Without reliable access to a high-speed connection, the learning experience can suffer. And students who can’t afford a personal laptop or desktop computer will struggle to complete their course work.

The medium itself is also new. Even though instructors and students alike can be digital natives, their familiarity is usually limited to leisure. They use the internet to browse, watch videos, or go on social media. They aren’t necessarily adept at using it for focused learning. Older instructors are even more likely to struggle, as their decades of experience in the traditional classroom won’t transfer entirely.

The change can even encourage Uber-style instructional models to arise and try to fill in the void. Even when done with the best of intentions, these raise questions about quality and regulations. Worse, you raise the potential for discrimination against certain student profiles and accusations of diverting funds.

Taking ownership

There’s no way to predict how the future of education will shake out. What the pandemic has certainly done, though, is cast a spotlight on issues that required addressing.

Too often in recent years, employees and employers alike have complained that what’s being taught in schools is insufficient to prepare them for work challenges. The world keeps on shifting ever more rapidly beneath our feet. It’s the price we pay for continuous technological advancement.

Along with that issue, many schools don’t teach timeless skills. For instance, financial literacy can spell the difference between managing your portfolio of investments as an adult or having to consult with a bankruptcy attorney. Students spend little time receiving focused instruction, emphasizing listening actively, demonstrating empathy, or collaborating respectfully with one another. Yet all of these qualities are absolutely invaluable as we become functioning adults seeking to find our way in the world of work.

These are uncertain times, and there is no clear solution that has emerged so far on how to proceed with one’s education. The best thing anyone can do right now, whether they are students, parents, or educators, is to foster intentional learning. Take control of the principles and methods of learning. No matter how things play out, you will be able to steer your own course in the future.

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