Online education is the ‘new normal.'New' it’s for sure but very few things in online learning could be called 'normal' given the challenges faced by the students and teachers who have had the ‘new normal’ unexpectedly thrust upon them. Learning depends on the healthy interaction between teacher and student, educators will tell you.Does this vital connection between the two sides suffer once the process takes place with a screen in between them?

Many an institution began using online platforms to catch up on the time lost due to COVID-19 lock-downs. Students soldier through hours of online learning per week as a result,with sessions running into many hours per day.  How effective is this mode of learning? Have the providers  looked into the outcome in their rush to complete semesters and syllabuses?

Undoubtedly the method puts both teacher and student in a tight spot.The highly unfamiliar setup requires quite a while for a teacher to get the used to and it is a whole new ball game when the student is forced to do formal education in his own room.

Besides the obvious challenges involved in technology and familiarization, there’s another –culture and attitudes.

It may take some doing for a young adult student to come to terms with the new method of learning, so one can only wonder the impact  the abrupt change in settings has on them.

The reality of unfamiliarity could be lost to institutions forcing online learning on their learners. For the generations that associate education with the classroom, it might be a quantum leap for them to make the familiar classroom turned into something virtual, therefore alien.

One may have mastered the art of teaching in a classroom setting .But even a seasoned teacher would find out that his /her methods, tools and style need a total makeover in the new medium.

Its 9 a.m. and Hishan is seated, head  glued to the screen of the desktop in front of him, A physics lesson is on .The teacher has fixed a white board at his home with the camera trained on it. He labours on with the rather heavy content, making  an effort to be heard over typical background noises of a Sri Lankan home. Meanwhile one student is busy texting his friends unseen to his teacher.

Nishantha, a teacher for CIMA has been at online teaching for the second month straight. He has done his homework on the art of online teaching with many hours of research on the dos and don’ts of teaching over the internet .His lessons are quite sleek, neat and compact with each lesson in PowerPoint .The subject matter is backed by selected visuals in the form of images, graphs and video clips. Every lesson is set for 90 minutes with a break of 10 minutes in between. Nishantha has done his bit to tweak his lessons as he progressed, yet he isn’t a happy teacher. According to him the marks obtained by students in mock tests based on online lessons have been more than 30% less than the average obtained in usual classroom sessions.

‘Scores don’t support the effort,' he says. Reason? He is at a loss to put a finger on it.‘Perhaps home may not be an ideal formal learning environment for adult students.Distractions are plenty.Students need to be detached from everyday life for the hard grind of subject learning.At home he is actually in the middle of it all’.

Tharindu, a teacher in Management Accounting sees similar outcomes. But his reasoning is different. A high degree of analytical learning needs  constant eye contact between the teacher and student according to him. ‘It’s this crucial point of communication which convinces the teacher of the degree of understanding taken in by each student in each step, each sum as he guides the team towards the desired lesson objective . ‘In a practical sense the video feeds of students’ faces don’t help at all and the only evidence left by a student is the message in the ‘chat’ which is a poor mode of communication in a lesson involving formal learning’, he says.

The challenge is that confronted with the current realities, the places of education might not be back to normal for long, if ever. Possibility of disruption to regular mode of education is an issue the educators need to face in real time. Thus; online education may be looked at more than as a fall back option. The true challenge in fact is bridging the obvious physical distance created in the novel medium.

Vishu, a student following ACCA is looking back at nearly 100 days of online education as a ‘waste’ –a strong word from someone who has postponed sitting for his exams indefinitely.

‘Anjana ‘ an executive in tourism trade currently following a course of study in HR finds ‘somewhat at home ‘ with Zoom. He credits his prior experience in the industry as a reason .However ‘there’s a big gap between a session and a lesson’.

Dilan, another student in HR, thinks that the screen is a hindrance to interacting with the lesson .In his opinion, simple audio support by the teacher with the printed content in the hands of students works more effectively than staring at a screen.

It would undoubtedly take many semesters for resource people to increase the quality of the lessons to move away from the current level of e –reading, as opposed to e- learning. Students themselves need time to adjust and adapt, which would be a long time coming, no matter what the need is, as what requires is in revolutionary proportions for both teacher and student alike.

Let’s admit, even in most wired communities there exist a substantial population not attuned to the cyber world. Such a conversion as immediately required would be beyond the realm of a social scientist.

Children love learning together.Education is highly social exercise whichever way you choose to look at it.  Where does the social component exist in Zoom lessons? What does it take to get there?

Institutions need a careful strategy at online education .Leaving it at the hands of teachers to figure out a way would not serve the purpose well enough.

A national approach would be a necessity since the disruption to regular classroom education could be the reality for a long time to come.

What if Sri Lanka expands into distant learning rather than opting for a narrower focus on online learning?

It would be worthwhile to look at distance learning projects run by various nations before Sri Lanka takes up a national strategy. Quite a number of nations have been using radio as a highly effective means of distant education .Low tech as well as low cost in terms of affordability and coupled with far better reach than the internet, radio channels have proven their worth as a formidable tool for learning.

‘School of the Air’ run by Australia for primary and secondary level children has been a lesson in itself on how to develop and nurture a learning project to suit the local socio-cultural environment. With a history of over 80 years and Universally hailed as a success story, School of the Air still depends on radio as much as other mediums .This project that serves the outback communities with a 360 degree approach involving radio, television, internet, telephone along with direct access to teachers has produced results even better than the typical classroom based programmes.

Even nearby Maldives has been using radio as an effective means of spreading learning across its far flung archipelago.

Use of radio and television as a major medium of public education has a history of decades, thus their higher quality and acceptability in countries such as Saudi Arabia. China, with China Central Radio and Television University [CCRTVU] has provided higher education to millions of young .The Open University of Bangladesh depends  extensively on  radio and television .Both Nicaragua and Thailand have produced highly successful outcomes through ‘Radio Mathematics Schools’.

It’s true that nations such as Russia with projects such as Russian online school, Yandex etc. cater to vast student populations with online learning .But these nations have been at online learning for a long period of time .In the USA, many institutions such as  New York University,with its NYU Tandon online has been teaching highly complex active learning in online courses,again for decades .

But for a nation like ours which has been attempting online education purely as a response measure without a history of experience, the time may be right to make a shift from over reliance on online, for familiar, cheaper and yet more effective methods in reaching out to students.

A shift from complete dependence on internet-based education to a strategy of distant learning with the use of multiple tools could produce better reaction as well as results among the students of Sri Lanka.

K.S