Among many other changes, COVID-19 has geared up to online learning. However, Is it just a crisis management tool like makeshift hospitals? In fact, the rapid uprising of the Internet, smartphone, and laptop adoption offers colleges and universities a new option. Online learning offers students and institutions great flexibility, and thus, online courses are increasing in number and scope. However, Advantages and Disadvantages of eLearning are not clear yet. Are the advantages of eLearning more than disadvantages? Are we on the road to having an online learning platform as a strong substitute to campus-based learning practices? Therefore, it is necessary to look at the details.
Online learning has become a lifeline for the continuation of learning during the shutdown. The advantages of distance learning over the Internet are not free from disadvantages. Many ask whether educational technology should play a more significant role in student learning beyond the immediate crisis. And what that might look like.
Of course, there are some obvious benefits of online education. It’s cheaper due to both scale advantages and less need for physical facilities. It also takes less time as travel time is saved. On top of it, it offers a self-paced learning opportunity. Moreover, it is modern. Consequentially, this mode of distance learning has been gaining popularity. Particularly to serve the purpose of learning by maintaining social distance, there is no other option. Moreover, eLearning overcomes the distance in making quality learning materials readily available to all. However, along with benefits, it also suffers from limitations.
Advantages and Disadvantages of eLearning are evolving
Major advantages of eLearning are:
- offers a quality education at an affordable cost,
- increases equality and inclusiveness,
- offers personalized, adaptive learning,
- augments existing methods of delivering educational services.
- building life-long, self-learning capability,
- offers continuous educational performance assessment and
- improved effectiveness and efficiency–the time required to learn is reduced to 25%-60%.
But it’s not free from disadvantages. Some of the major drawbacks of online classes are 1:
- Isolation and distraction
- Cheating and plagiarism,
- The limited scope of practice, and hands-on experience,
- Often inaccessible due to technology limitation, particularly in rural areas of developing countries
- Lack of face to face communication and warmth limits motivation and tacit knowledge transfer,
- Limits social, communication, and teamwork capacity development,
- Laboratory work for science and engineering education could not be handled.
Despite often-cited these disadvantages, during this COVID-19, students and teachers all across the world have been compelled to get used to online learning in virtual classrooms. Because we have no alternative. Once the situation changes, will we give up eLearning and go back to our campuses? Or are we transforming our means of learning, making eLearning as the preferred means? Hence, there is a need for careful analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of online or distance learning over the Internet contribute to net benefits.
Deserves careful analysis
Careful analysis of the pros and cons of distance learning also helps us to take necessary measures to maximize benefits. Moreover, technology development eases the disadvantages of distance learning. In fact, the need for education as well as training is in constant flux too. This reality places us in a challenging position. Therefore, we need to have a fair comparison between the advantages and disadvantages of assessing the net benefit. Such reality demands us to dig down further in the evolution of distance education. This evolution is driving both advantages and disadvantages of online learning simultaneously. For example, online education demands less time. But it also increases social isolation. Moreover, decreasing attention span due to smartphone addiction is continuously eroding the advantages. Therefore, we need to have a detailed analysis to assess net benefits.
A bit of history
The concept of online education first came into being back in 1989 by the University of Phoenix of the USA. In the later years, as the Internet started evolving every day, the idea of eLearning started flourishing by opening doors for new possibilities. The increasing features of computing devices, starting from the built-in webcam and wireless internet connectivity to easily pluggable tablets and AR/VR gears, are improving eLearning benefits. Moreover, some of the emerging technologies like data analytics and AI are offering new tools that are not available in conventional education systems.
Technologies driving online education
Technologies driving the eLearning evolutions are i. Desktop/Laptop, ii. CD ROM, iii. Internet, iv. Tablet PCs, v. Smartphone, vi. Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR) gears, vii, Data Analytics, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), viii. Foveated Imaging Technology, ix. Video conferencing tools like Zoom, and x. Learning management software applications. Moreover, the ongoing development of technologies is continuously changing the landscape of the advantages and disadvantages of eLearning. Therefore, we need to keep monitoring and assessing unfolding the pros and cons of online education.
Along with technology, the content has also evolved. It started with simple text-based online document sharing. Along the way, it added Graphics, Images, Multimedia, Simulation and Visualization, Interactivity, and Immersion in AR/VR. The addition of AI offers personalized and adaptive learning. Online lecture delivery over video conferencing platforms has taken it to a new height. Software tools are also being developed for assignment submission, grading, and plagiarism check.
Evolution of eLearning affecting advantages and disadvantages
In its long journey, eLearning has been evolving. Along with the growth of technologies, eLearning has evolved through phases reaching the fourth stage.
It began with the idea is to facilitate the learning and communication process. At this stage, eLearning was based on static web pages for reading and downloading digital content, mostly text, though. It also lacked interactivity tools. In fact, it was basically the sharing of texts in digital forms.
The emergence of social networks became very useful for group interactions. Subsequently, active collaboration through a group of technologies and content sources, like blogs, podcasts, video, wikis, etc. took eLearning to the next level. Writing content and sharing knowledge started to take off.
Semantic web and active user engagement became the driver of increasing the advantages of eLearning. The focus changed from passive content delivery to individual learners. Consequentially, educational content delivery was adapted to Learners’ behavior and their response.
Same as in Web 3.0, it’s critically important to monitor students’ progress and behavior for fixing weaknesses along the way. Tools for performance tracking and analysis are being developed. Subsequently, going mobile has been an emerging trend. Personalized and Adaptive approach is being leveraged. Leveraging mobile devices connected with the Internet offers an opportunity of addressing a key challenge. It is now feasible of delivering knowledge right to the recipient rather than dispersed with no specific targeting. In fact, the obsessive use of mobile devices led to smartphone addiction issues. However, technologies like Foveated Imaging will enable us to track eye movement and adapt content based on the interests or difficulties expressed through learners’ eyes.
Major developments and issues of eLearning
Some of the significant developments affecting advantages and disadvantages of online learning are followings:
In 2001, MIT announced the project of bringing online learning materials on the web. It was a surprise to many to have access to MIT class materials, including video lectures online. Despite high interest at the beginning, such learning materials started eventually found their place as additional help. It failed to meet the hype of being a substitute for the participation and interactions in the physical classrooms. As opposed to the fear that MIT would lose its edge by making courseware open over the Internet, online learning materials could not erode the importance of physical classrooms. Therefore, urgency was felt to have further advancement.
MOOCs, first introduced in 2008 and emerged as popular learning platforms in 2012, stands for a massive open online course. To overcome the disadvantages of traditional distance learning through online learning materials, MOOCs leverages social media discussions. User forums offer community interactions among students, professors, and teaching assistants (TAs). It also leverages user forums to provide immediate feedback to quick quizzes and assignments. The use of social media is not free from disadvantages.
Research finds social media addition often highly detrimental to learning productivity. In its 8th year, MOOCs have massively grown with 100 million learners (excluding China), 900+ universities, 13.5k courses, 820 micro-credentials, and 500 MOOCs based degrees (By the numbers: MOOCs 2019). Major MOOCs providers are Coursera, edX, Udacity, FutureLearn, and Swayam.
There has been an exponential growth of enrolment in MOOCs platform. But research suggests that the average completion rate for such MOOCs is approximately 15%. The largest provider Coursera reached 45 million enrollment, 3800 courses, 420 micro-credentials, and 16 degrees. But early data suggest a completion rate of 7%–9% only. This is an alarming observation indeed. Moreover, learning productivity, knowledge retention, and soft skills development, among other learning outcomes yet to be assessed. Therefore, it could be fair to say that we need to wait for research findings for assessing the quality of credentials or degrees offered by MOOCs.
It came out as the extension of the tutoring exercise of Salma Khan and took the shape of Khan academy in 2008. Video lectures displaying recording of drawings on an electronic blackboard is an iconic feature of Khan Academy’s course materials. In addition, progress tracking, practice exercises, and teaching tools are helping to provide a personalized learning experience.
Instead of replacing classrooms, Khan academy has taken as a recent project to augment classroom-based learning. To begin with, Mr. Khan’s company has built a new software tool. It is designed for classroom use and piloted in five school districts in the USA — in the 2019-20 school year. Students who practice Khan Academy sessions under the supervision of teachers significantly improved their performance on statewide standardized tests. Supervised practice of at least 30 minutes per week produces visible improvements. Henceforth, eLearning materials of Khan academy play the role of offering supplementary help for reviewing and practice.
Learning outcome issues
Despite the tremendous enrollment increase of online learning platforms and the rapid growth of video conferencing based online classes, there are issues. Related to distance learning over online platforms, major issues are: (i) Goal should be more than technology distribution, (ii) Often we fail to understand the learners, (iii) Information overload, (iv) Often lonely and isolating, (v) Lack of interactivity, (vi) Long, dull and boring, (vii) Generic and meaningless, (viii) Unresponsive and inflexible, (ix) Passive and uninvolved, (x) Low knowledge retention rates, (xi) Not evaluated properly, and (xii) Low completion rates. However, research is taking place to address them.
Changing need for learning
Technology is facilitating online learning for making learning resources easily accessible. Many people from all over the world can simultaneously access both teachers and recorded lectures. But it is focusing on the transfer of codified knowledge or existing theories. The current state of technology is highly feasible to automate the execution of this knowledge stock. The automation of codified knowledge has already creating net job loss in the middle segment of corporate hierarchies. Such a job loss trend of knowledge workers is raising the question about the efficacy of eLearning. Codified knowledge developed stock among leaders through eLearning appears to be highly amenable to automation. On the other hand, the growing job displacement trend is demanding reskilling and life long learning ability. To address this aspect, eLearning appears to have a unique advantage.
The creative destruction of eLearning as a disruptive force
For certain purposes, eLearning has been causing creative destruction to the conventional ways of delivering education. Does it mean that it will grow as a disruptive force? However, Prof. Clayton Christenson has argued that learning has the potential to grow as a substitute to conventional campus-based educational service delivery. The continued uprising of eLearning will likely have an effect on the existing model. However, whether it will have a disruptive effect is not clear yet. Of course, there is no denying that technology progression has been powering innovation to cause creative destruction in many industries.
Already, there have been growing examples that some people, particularly professionals, are opting for online MBAs. One of the main reasons has been to pursue it without the need of being present on the campus for a year so. Consequentially, the on-campus MBA market has started to suffer destruction from the emergence of this creative alternative. Obviously, the question is will it cause disruption like the way digital cameras did to Kodak? But so far, eLearning has only demonstrated some progress in increasing codified knowledge stock among learners. Despite having many advantages, eLearning appears to be suffering from major disadvantages in building soft skills among learners. Therefore, soft skill development issues should be taken into consideration to assess the suitability of learning in virtual classrooms.
The market of eLearning
The debate about the disadvantages and advantages of elearning yet to settle down in assessing the net benefit. But the market for eLearning has been skyrocketing. It’s being estimated that the Global E-Learning Market to Reach $325 billion by 2025 (Research and Markets) from $107 Billion in 2015 (Forbes). The State of Higher Education learning management system market for the US and Canada report (Fall 2017) found high adoption. It’s being observed that 87 percent of institutions and 91 percent of student enrollments were using Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, or D2L Brightspace.
The cost of emerging technology is an issue. However, the performances of VR and AR gears are growing, while the cost is falling. By the end of 2017, it turned out that youths bought $500 million worth of Sony’s PSVR (The PlayStation VR) units. In addition to gaming, some youths are using them for eLearning purposes. Moreover, traditional educational institutions, like colleges and universities, in addition to corporate training departments, are embracing the digital reality. It ranges from using online platforms to leveraging VR and AR gears for training.
Research finds issues
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released relevant research findings. In fact, some of the factors affecting the benefits of technology-assisted learning are the devices used, geography, and the background of teachers and students using the technology. The level of the intensity of technology and the overall performance of the school system also influences the outcome. Reported findings raise the question about how far online education could be substituted to campus-based educational service delivery. The more engaging role of teachers, both inside and outside classrooms, may weaken the comparative advantage of technology further. Henceforth, we should pay attention on the human role in leveraging eLearning.
On the other hand, there is a scope of improving technology further for addressing limitations. Moreover, to cope up with the automation of knowledge work, the focus of education will likely change. It will likely shift from knowledge sharing to empowering students for generating and pursuing ideas. Such a change will reduce the comparative advantage of technology in education. That does not necessarily mean that we will be using less technology. The role of AR/VR and other emerging technologies will have a far greater role in clarifying existing knowledge. AR/VR will contribute to stretching the imagination of learners. In fact, it could play a critical role in addressing the disadvantages of online education for developing learners’ idea capability. Moreover, technological progress is also aggravating issues, often contributing to the disadvantages of eLearning. Hence, there is a need of looking into both sides of technology effects on eLearning.
Likely future of eLearning
Well, we have to update the quality of teachers and teaching methodology as well. An optimum combination between technology and teachers in physical space might be the future of education. Interaction in physical space is vital for developing idea capability in addition to knowledge absorption. The growth of technology and our changing adoption habit will keep net benefits on the flux. Henceforth, there is no conclusive answer, and we should keep monitoring the advantages and disadvantages of eLearning for ensuring optimum adoption.