Online learning gets its moment due to COVID-19 pandemic: Here's how education will change

Digital learning goes mainstream in a hurry and that's going to upend current education practices, models, and processes going forward.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

It is online learning's big moment and education is about to be revamped just as much the industries that are going to remote work due to the novel coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced K-12 school districts and universities to close and send students home. This reality has forced a crash course for online learning plans and technology for students and faculty.

In many respects, the education industry's move to remote instruction rhymes with the work-from-home move in enterprises. Video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and WebEx are being used heavily as are learning management systems like Instructure's Canvas, Blackboard and Google Classroom. In addition, there are enabling software such as Proctorio, a Google Chrome extension that monitors students taking exams online.

And like the enterprises, education's giant online education experiment is going to accelerate changes that were already in play. I'm experiencing the online education experiment as a parent and an adjunct professor at Temple University.

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Here's a look at the moving parts and the ripple effects from the grand online learning experiment.

The technology

The only reason that universities and some school districts K-12 have been able to go to remote learning is that the technology stack has evolved a good bit in the last four years.

Yet that stack could use further improvement. I've tried most of the big learning management systems to some degree, and generally speaking, I'd sum up the category this way:

  • Google Classroom benefits because it is familiar to many.
  • Canvas has an ecosystem of add-ons and solid workflow, but user interface could be cleaner.
  • Blackboard is similar to Canvas.
  • Video conferencing is critical to the education stack so there is a big opportunity for a company like Zoom to make a play for a younger almost-professional customer base.
  • Apple, Google, and Microsoft have various parts of the education stack, but the process on the backend is where online education is enabled.

In the end, learning management systems are a bit like ERP in that they get the job done, but you're aren't going to get warm and fuzzy about them.

Overall, I'd give the online education stack an average grade with lots of room for upside. But, yes, online education is possible, and the stack works just in time for COVID-19.

Upskilling takes center stage

The educational process is going to be recast on an accelerated timetable due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Is education about continuous learning or landing a degree and a career? Is education about self-exploration and being more well-rounded? Or is education in a physical setting too rigid? And perhaps the biggest question of all: What are the returns on education in relation to current debt loads?

All those questions move to the front as I watch this crash course in digital learning unfold. As a parent, I watch my high schooler suffer from sleep deprivation due to sports, starting times, and homework load. I watch the discipline required for online learning. I look at a falling 529 college savings plan and wonder about how digital learning may stretch tuition dollars. I also think about how learning can be time-shifted to address multiple issues.

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I'm not going to pretend I know how these questions get resolved, but I'd argue that the recasting of education is probably going to revolve around continuous learning. Time being sheltered in place due to social distancing has enabled folks to think more about their own learning and interests.

There are enterprises like PwC that have invested heavily in upskilling and reskilling. Should the population get used to digital learning, it's going to make upskilling more likely and credentials more fluid. Platforms like Coursera have always looked interesting, but there's a mental hurdle involved with going completely digital to learn. That mental hurdle will dissipate in the months to come and may make Coursera more of an option. LinkedIn Learning and badge-based skill acquisition systems from companies may also be more of an option.

Should upskilling become a mainstream concept, the very idea of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a four-year degree may be in question.

The cultural change

Like all technology shifts and transformation efforts the biggest challenges usually involve cultural change. A few items worth pondering:

  1. Online learning requires discipline. Education requires discipline too, but online learning has less handholding. That reality is going to favor a certain type of student over ones that are trying to find their bearings on their own timetable.
  2. Learning will be digitized. Paper is somewhat comforting, as are overpriced textbooks. Both are going away (not that I'll miss the textbook price gouging). This process change will mean the faculty has to go digital and change styles.
  3. Existing faculty may push back and usher in a new generation of instructors.
  4. Analytics will become more prevalent. All you need to do is see some of the analytic capabilities in learning management systems to know that there will be a barrage of new learning metrics to ponder for students' and faculty's effectiveness.

The digital divide issues

The biggest concern with this digital learning acceleration revolves around the digital divide. All you need to do is talk to two teachers -- one from a well-funded school district and another from a poor one -- to see the digital divide at work.

Some students aren't toting Chromebooks with digital lesson plans. Some students don't have broadband. Some students lack structure at home. And some students need paper packets and supervision.

Also: How to work from home: IT pro's guidebook to telecommuting and remote work TechRepublic

This digital divide problem will appear at every level of education whether it is something as simple as needing a webcam or something more severe like Internet access and a computer. The issue is most pronounced K-12.

The digital divide problem in education isn't new, but it is magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures. Physical schools provide a structure, respite, and shelter in ways that digital learning never can.

What's next?

The fallout in education from COVID-19 and the mass move to remote learning is going to be dramatic. Here are just a few issues that are going to appear in the months to come.

Possible margin compression for universities. The debt load for students has been unsustainable and the issue is going to become more acute. Consider the following:

  • College savings are taking a hit from stock market declines.
  • Parents with college students who paid for a spring semester that went digital may want some fees refunded.
  • Is an online degree from an Ivy League school (or any other one charging $70,000 a year) as valuable as a traditional one?
  • Universities love real estate and buildings. What happens if half the student base goes digital? On one hand, universities save money by going digital yet can't raise tuition and fees to pay for new libraries.

K-12 digital divide issues escalate. The school year is likely over already in multiple areas. How is that learning gap closed for those on the wrong end of the digital divide?

Hybrid models emerge. Given the financial moving parts of tuition, affordability, and costs to deliver online education versus physical, look for universities to offer hybrid models to deliver returns on investment.

The mainstreaming of remote education. COVID-19 has already pushed remote learning mainstream and some institutions are going to be caught flat-footed. As learning goes digital, there will be budget upheaval ahead that administrators will have to navigate.

Quantifying the intangible. There are significant benefits to finding yourself in college. What should those intangible benefits cost? This question has been emerging as tuition annually creeps higher. Digital learning just brought that question to the forefront.

New entrants to education. If there was ever an industry waiting to be disrupted, education is it. Now, education is digital for the foreseeable future, and there are alternative models on a back of a napkin somewhere.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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