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Self-isolation boosts interest in online education

COVID-19 driving use of remote platforms, but can the trend outlast the pandemic?

Isolation measures instituted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are boosting the use of online education tools for more than just B.C. school students.

However, whether this spike in use will translate to a continued wave of demand for online learning after the pandemic wanes is unclear. School and business leaders say that how much headway cyber-education makes may depend on how positive an experience students have during their forays online during COVID-19.

Local schools like the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Langara College and Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) almost all shifted to online classes in March. Meanwhile, online language education programs such as Duolingo Inc. and Lesson Nine GmbH’s Babbel have reported spikes in North American users and sales since March 13 – a day after the National Basketball Association suspended its current season.

“Since people globally are bound to their homes, we see a steep uptake learning activity,” said Babbel CEO Arne Schepker, noting similar spikes in places like Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain. “This is something that makes us extremely humble and grateful. If our work helps to make your day just a little bit better, I think this is more than we ever could have asked for.”

Leeann Waddington, KPU’s manager of learning technology, has followed the online learning trend in Canada closely. She referred to the 2019 Canadian Digital Learning Research Association annual survey, which showed enrolment in online courses jumped 14% from 2016 to 2018 in Ontario; the increase in Western Canada was a more modest 8%.

Given that KPU and other schools have also shifted courses online to keep students and faculty at home, she said that number will likely jump for 2020. “KPU started building out a new tool for virtual synchronous delivery – like a Skype for Business, but for a school environment – in the fall last year,” Waddington said. “We had a very slow uptake, but this week, we have 700 classes running on there. People are jumping in and doing the best they can…. This is giving everybody a really big shove, in less-than-ideal circumstances, in trying to learn something new.”

Aside from college students having to go online to complete their schooling, the increase could be attributed to the sense of control online education programs give to a wide demographic of students who are facing unprecedented uncertainty as COVID-19 paralyzes travel, trade and business and interrupts basic daily life.

“Really well-designed online learning programs help students learn autonomously and offer the flexibility of time, space and pace, which hopefully provides them a little more control over what element of development they need in order to go in a new direction,” Waddington said.

Monica Molag, chairwoman of Langara College’s nutrition and food service management department, also noted that the social aspect of learning may be driving people online as isolation efforts persist.

“At this point, with the COVID situation, everybody’s isolated,” Molag said. “So if we can reach out and engage our minds and get some sort of benefits out of the fact we are isolated, I can totally understand. It’s the desire to get more information and to learn.… And who knows? This may be the opportunity to investigate where else your career could go, because there are so many platforms available.”

Molag’s program has been available online since 2002, and its status as the only one to provide the certification required to work in the field in B.C. means that the Langara has seen many years of students grappling with online learning as a platform.

She warned that while many people are now jumping into online learning, results will depend heavily on the learner’s level of dedication. Molag said many students in her program had so much trouble staying focused in online courses that the school suggested, prior to the outbreak shuttering classrooms, they take at least one physical class on campus, and take the online class from campus, as well.

Waddington said that is why she is unsure if the popularity of online courses will last beyond the pandemic-induced isolation period – but she is urging schools and platform designers to think beyond the current pandemic about the resources and investments necessary to keep the online education momentum going after COVID-19 fades.“When you are shocked into a situation under challenging circumstances, maybe before you are ready and with less-than-perfect training and support, we could have people that say, ‘This was horrible, and I never want to do this again,’” Waddington said. “But I’d like to think that the things that are driving the needs for this type of education have been pushed to the forefront in this crisis.”

Molag is more optimistic.

“I think if people get comfortable with any technology, there would be a higher uptake,” she said. ”I don’t see physical classes disappearing…. Some people will always want to get a sense of community that is easier to get in a classroom, but there may be others who tried it and said, ‘It’s not as bad as I thought.’ So there just might be more uptake after [the outbreak].” •