Good or Bad?

Great power comes with great responsibility, and that is particularly true of new technologies. Each month, Tech for Good discusses the potential benefits and dangers of technological advances that are coming to market. This month we ask: Is online learning better than in-person teaching?

Tech for Good?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth a new way of teaching — online learning — which is set to change education forever. Distance teaching is flexible, affordable and sustainable. The UK’s Open University has found that online courses equate to an average of 90% less energy and 85% fewer CO2 emissions per student than in-person courses. And the quality of teaching doesn’t suffer. A 2012 study from Babson/College Board showed that 77% of academic leaders believed that online education offerings were just as good, if not better, than traditional education.

The benefits of online education can already be seen. Students with disabilities or that come from low-income backgrounds have long been complaining about the lack of accessibility of educational institutions. Online learning allows these students to access educational materials of the same quality as their peers, bypassing the cost and accessibility frontiers. It also allows students to learn to manage their time and work around other activities or jobs, should they wish to. Thanks to online education, learning can reach places it wouldn’t have otherwise been able to, truly establishing education as a human right.

What the expert says:

“The reality is, classrooms can be anywhere anytime. Students can be working on projects in virtual contexts with other students from around the world at any given moment. Technology can change learning forever and we need to embrace it and manipulate it to our advantage.” Professor Tricia McLaughlin, RMIT School of Education.

Tech for Bad

School is much more than the teaching curriculum. Face-to-face teaching allows students to make friends and develop social skills. In June 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that extended absence from traditional school environments can produce long-term academic and emotional damage, and stated that doctors have already started seeing the negative impacts of the 2020 school closures on children. Moreover, it also warned that disabled and low-income children suffered the most from online learning.

One of the things that makes online learning so positive is also one of its biggest downsides: accessibility. Online learning is more accessible, but only as long as students have the means to get hold of the necessary technology. Many families cannot afford to purchase computers for all of their children, therefore limiting their access to educational resources. According to OECD data, a quarter of the population will have major trouble in accessing e-learning as an educational method. Moreover, the Pew Research Center found that 1 in 5 teenagers are not able to complete schoolwork at home because of a lack of a computer or internet connection This technological “homework gap” disproportionately affects children from minority backgrounds, widening inequalities. Until measures are put in place to ensure all students have access to technology, face-to-face teaching will continue to be the best and fairest option.

What the expert says:

“Watching a young child on a screen for several hours at a time is like witnessing the life being sapped out of them. I don’t mean to exaggerate but we know that excessive screen time is correlated with higher rates of obesity, shorter attention spans, and a decreased ability to read emotional cues from other people.” Naomi Shafer Riley, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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