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To Improve Education, We Need to Keep on Learning about Distance Learning

The pandemic has given many of us several months’ worth of firsthand experience with distance learning. Sure, the information age has been here for years, and who hasn’t learned something from YouTube how-to videos? But with kids getting into virtual classrooms daily instead of going to school and their parents standing by to observe and support, we can appreciate the difference.

Closing schools was always going to be an emergency measure, the last resort to uphold the health and safety of children, even at the cost of the educational experience. But as we approach normalcy and schools reopen, distance education won’t prove a similar stopgap solution.

Distance learning is here to stay. Moving forward, the best schools will be the ones that have learned the most from this pandemic-enforced experiment. Improving overall education is intertwined with how well we do on this front.

Addressing the skills gap

Why do we need an education, if not to emerge from the system better-prepared for the challenges of living as an adult and making a contribution to society? This seems a basic assumption, yet recent educational outcomes reflect a growing failure on this fundamental goal.

Think tank McKinsey projects that by 2030, 85% of today’s students will be working in jobs that don’t even exist today. And as for the current workforce, they’re already struggling to adapt to a vast and ever-broadening skills gap.

What was taught in school just a few years ago is already outdated due to the pace of digital transformation. And with Industry 4.0, further emphasis will be placed on cross-disciplinary competencies and interpersonal skills, helping workers to stay relevant in the world of automation and big data.

For schools to address these needs, it’s vital to integrate distance learning even further into the system. This isn’t merely for the sake of being on the cutting edge of new technology. Rather, it has to do with changing students’ attitudes and approach towards learning.

Flipping towards andragogy

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One major advantage the internet offers to modern instructors is its potential to flip the classroom. Traditionally, teachers use the bulk of class hours to facilitate low-level learning in the form of understanding and remembering concepts.

With virtual classrooms, the expectation is reversed. Students must come to class with those learning activities already handled in their spare time. It allows the teacher to spend more time on high-level analysis and application.

This difference in approach ties into a vital transition that every student must undergo sooner or later: moving from pedagogy to andragogy. When we start our education as children, our learning is pedagogical or constantly being led by adults. Parents and teachers guide us according to what they deem most necessary for us to learn at a given time.

Through distance learning, with its subtle emphasis on the student’s taking ownership of the low-level cognitive activities, we create more self-reliant learners. Even if the curriculum doesn’t fully cover the skills needed in a changing world, we equip our graduates with the tools of being adult learners.

Handling the downsides

As vital as distance learning can be in the future of education, we also have to learn about its drawbacks using this pandemic experience.

As you’ve probably experienced while working remotely, virtual interactions play out differently. It makes managing relationships difficult, even among employees who’d meet daily in person at their offices before Covid-19 struck.

The same goes for students, and interactions may be even more awkward for them. Children mature and develop social skills at different rates. In a virtual environment, it’s harder to make the same connections, especially with students you don’t meet in the physical classroom.

Instructors will need all the support they can get from their respective institutions. Further professional development may be necessary specifically to deal with the needs of being a better distance educator. For instance, training to be an online counselor can help you be more sensitive to students’ mental health issues, which can be difficult to detect and handle.

As we’ve seen from the pandemic, schools that excel in distance learning possess two key attributes apart from the overall quality of instruction. One is expertise with technology. The other is a culture of flexibility and teamwork. It’s time for schools to start addressing those needs and enabling their teachers to be on top of their game in this essential new frontier.

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