OPINION: Can online learning replace class room teaching in Oman?

By Saji Uthuppan
October 12, 2020 9:10 am

The times have dictated schools’, colleges’ and universities’ closings and the rapid expansion of online education. Can online lessons replace face to face classes? When we went back to our college this new academic year, the classroom as we’ve known, has gone, and our instructions are more critical than ever.

The unexpected outbreak has led to crisis in all academic institutions, and teachers have scrambled to find online resources and master remote teaching techniques. A more deliberate approach, this academic year could mean a better experience for students.

Clearly online time cannot provide many of the informal social interactions students have at college, but how will online courses do in terms of moving student learning forward? Research gives us some clues and also points us to what we could be doing to support students who are most likely to struggle in the online setting.

The use of virtual courses among college students has grown rapidly in recent years. Many European universities, for example, require all students to take at least one online course. Online learning can take a number of different forms. Often people think of massive open online courses, where thousands of students watch a video online and fill out questionnaires or take exams based on those lectures.

In the online setting, students may have more distractions and less oversight, which can reduce their motivation. Most online courses, however, particularly those serving higher level students, have a format much more similar to in-person courses. The teacher helps to run virtual discussion among the students, assigns homework, and follows up with individual students. Sometimes these courses are synchronous (teachers and students all meet at the same time) and sometimes they are asynchronous (non-concurrent).

That’s a daunting combination, but it’s what the pandemic has delivered.

In both cases, the teacher is supposed to provide opportunities for students to engage thoughtfully with subject matter, and students, in most cases, are required to interact with each other virtually.

Online courses provide opportunities for students. Students in a college that doesn’t offer statistics classes may be able to learn statistics with virtual lessons. If students fail math, they may be able to catch up during evenings or summer using online classes, and not disrupt their math trajectory at their college or school. So, almost certainly, online classes sometimes benefit students.

Obviously, in comparisons of online and in-person classes, however, online classes aren’t as effective as in-person classes for most students. Only a few research studies have assessed the effects of online lessons on higher level students, and even less have used the “gold standard” method of comparing the results of students assigned randomly to online or in-person courses.

Most of the research on online courses for higher students has used large-scale administrative data, looking at otherwise similar students in the two settings. It is not surprising that in-person courses are, on average, more effective. Ensuring the feel of a face-to-face classroom in an online environment is an area that instructors often struggle with. Being in person with teachers and other students creates social pressures and benefits that can help motivate students to engage. Some students do as well in online courses as in in-person courses, some may actually do better, but, on average, the outcome of students with weaker academic backgrounds are still unconfirmed in the online setting. However, in general, students enjoy online classes to a great extent. Both the students and teachers had an opinion that online learning modalities had encouraged student-centeredness during this lockdown situation. The students have become self-directed learners and they learnt asynchronously at any time in a day and synchronously for any clarifications.

Educators can avail themselves of good design practices to make their online classrooms transparent and authentic for a rich learning experience.
Students who struggle in face to face classes are likely to struggle even more online. Many of my colleagues found disparity in learning for high-performing students in the online and in-person settings.

On the other hand, low performing students have experienced several problems in online courses than in in-person courses.

But just because students who struggle in in-person classes are even more likely to struggle online doesn’t mean that’s inevitable. Online teachers will need to consider the needs of less-engaged students and work to engage them. Online courses might be made to work for these students on average, even if they have not done in the past. Though, many students have to face technical issues frequently, they try to enjoy their maximum being at home or in their own comfort zone.

Just like in brick-and-mortar classrooms, online courses need a strong curriculum and strong pedagogical practices. Teachers need to understand what students know and what they don’t know, as well as how to help those learning new materials. The teacher will need to set norms for engagement, such as requiring students to regularly ask questions and respond to their peers that are rather different than the norms in the in-person setting.

Obviously, online courses are generally not as effective as in-person classes, but they are certainly better than no classes. A substantial research base developed by Karl Alexander at Johns Hopkins University and many others shows that students, especially students with fewer resources at home, learn less when they are not in college. Right now, virtual courses are allowing students to access lessons and exercises and interact with teachers in ways that would have been impossible if an epidemic had closed educational institutions even a decade or two earlier. Therefore we may be skeptical of online learning, but it is also time to embrace and improve it. While all modes of learning have their benefits and drawbacks, after the current crisis, it is pretty sure that some form of blended learning will evolve with e-learning forming a crucial part of the overall teaching-learning process

About the author : Saji Uthuppan is a lecturer based in Muscat.

Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of TAS and TAS does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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