A New Way of Learning for the Post-COVID-19 Era

Now that Canada’s post-secondary institutions have shifted to online learning during COVID-19, it has become clear that this pandemic will have lasting effects on the makeup of our higher education system. While all Canadian schools were forced to move online, the pandemic has also given these leading institutions the permission to further embrace a digital landscape. COVID-19 is simply driving educational reform at a faster rate than we previously imagined.

Technology has caught up.

Keep in mind that this current shift to online modality is an initial solution as opposed to the final outcome. Fundamentals like remote access and basic communications are a priority. We are only scratching the surface of immersive, sophisticated online education models.

The technology required for schools to realize this greater potential has been available for some time and is continuing to develop. “Out-of-the-box” learning management systems like Blackboard, Edmondo, Backpax, Ares, Buncee enabled distance education for thousands of institutions well before COVID-19. Meanwhile, major consumer platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Suite have been embedded into the typical learning environment. As users, these platforms have become standard to our way of life. Integration into this new learning environment is of less concern. COVID-19 has further conditioned us to embrace remote technologies.

Policy has caught up.

We’re no longer setting precedent for educational models of the future. Since the early 90s, Canadian schools have been breaking ground in distance and online models. By 2018, more than 1.3 million online course registrations were accounted for among Canadian Universities and Colleges, representing 8% of all course registrations nationwide. Roughly one in every five Canadians are taking or have taken some form of online course for credit.

The Government of Canada as well as provincial Governments recognize this immense uptake. Among all eligible schools, provincial student assistance programs like Ontario’s OSAP or StudentAid in BC recognize distance and online courses. This is now the case for non-degree and certificate students.

The Government of Canada has announced that international students enrolling in online courses will remain eligible for postgraduate work permits. According to The Toronto Star, international students, contributing $21.6 billion in tuition and spending to the country’s GDP, are crucial to our economy contributing to over 170,000 jobs in 2018 alone. This new policy allows students to complete 50% of their studies from their home country while they apply for a permit.

How we learn will be closely aligned with how we work.

The percentage of businesses that will remain distributed (i.e. working from home) post pandemic is not yet clear. A recent survey conducted by MIT indicates that many employers will likely remain with the new model in favour of lower operational overhead. At the same time, productivity has been down according to American research firm Gartner. Further research indicates that “face-to-face work” is ultimately more effective.

Whether our workforce remains home or the majority return to the office, it is clear that many businesses will remain distributed. Major Canadian employers like Shopify will not be returning to their office buildings. American tech giant Twitter has set a similar precedent. Our learning models will continue to reflect our employment models. For the majority of students, Universities and Colleges are a path towards a career in the workforce (as opposed to a career in academia.) If the future workplace is virtual, why would our education systems not follow suit?

Major corporations are recognizing the value of embedded education models.

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned my appreciation for businesses like Samasource and Andela. Companies that have leveraged embedded education models to train employees while securing valuable human resources. Both of these organizations do so with a greater social mission in mind.

We may not be far off from experiencing this sort of embedded education on a much larger scale. Tech giants like Amazon, Google and Apple remain some of the largest recruiters from major Canadian universities. As we transition to a broader educational environment, perhaps there is a future where Fortune 500 businesses operate their own embedded education models?

What does a shift to online modality mean for the future of our schools?

Some schools will thrive. As previously mentioned, well funded Universities and Colleges have been moving towards online models in earnest. It represents an opportunity for lower overhead, a significantly larger number of students in each virtual classroom.

Some schools will struggle. They will be forced to pivot and specialize or face the potential of significant loss. Smaller and less funded institutions have not been able to respond at the first degree of emergency transition, ultimately closing their doors all together during the pandemic. As the market begins to shift toward robust, online education management systems, they will have to adopt not only technology but entire e-learning systems. From curriculum to staff – the investment to remain competitive will be significant.

What does this shift mean for the future of students?

Quality of education is first to mind. Technology is not a supplement for proper instruction. Consider your smartphone – a device that is intuitive, constantly being updated by the parent company and using artificial intelligence to learn about its user. While this is the expectation of education mediated by technology, the instructor will also play a vital role. How do we ensure education is not simply a “chalk and talk” experience? How do we ensure human connectivity between student and instructor? How do we ensure e-learning plans offer the same depth of personal exploration that is synonymous with traditional education models? Control and oversight of the learning environment is of major concern. How do we ensure academic integrity?

The experience of attending a school should not be disregarded. A campus is not only a place of learning but also a place of community. In some contexts, a campus is a safer environment than a home or community centres. It is in this sort of environment where students interact in meaningful and unexpected ways. Ways that often go beyond their expectations of a formal education, conducive to meaningful personal growth.

COVID-19 is a catalyst for significant change within our education system. These past few months have prepared us for some of what is to come. Although it is not yet clear where we are headed. As the future continues to unfold, perhaps it is time for us to ask a very fundamental question: What do we value most in our educational experience?

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