An Online Learning Experiment – How Education Technology is Evolving to meet the Demands of Online Learning

Publisher’s Note: This is the second article of a two part series. While Part 1 explores the disparities in education that arise in a remote environment, Part 2 takes a look at how innovation in education technology may be helping solve these very challenges. Take a look at Part 1 here!

For the first time since World War II, over one billion students are unable to attend school due to measures to stop the spread of Covid-19. In the midst of this crisis, our education system has been thrust into an online learning experiment at warp speed, an experiment of unprecedented scale and scope. 

The dynamic between technology and education has never been straightforward. For as long as we can remember, society has held on to this intangible value of the traditional teaching experience.  It is important to acknowledge that the rich, face-to-face interaction that occurs in the classroom is irreplaceable by technology, no matter how advanced or innovative. Hence, as the rest of the world evolves with technology, we stand witness to a classroom that, for the most part, resembles the same blackboard and chalk rooms our parents went to school in. 

But just for a second, if we let ourselves give in and imagine what technology could offer, the opportunities seem endless. True investment in this field could provide every single student with an adaptive and personalized education. The instant feedback and ubiquitous communication that we crave — technology has these answers. We could pull and synthesize from a bank of knowledge far larger than any single teacher could possibly offer. We could interact and learn from peers that exist beyond classroom walls, with diverse backgrounds and experiences. And most importantly, if technology was widely available and feasible, we could have a true shot at creating better accessibility to education across all socioeconomic groups. Yet we’ve never had the chance to try. Change within education is hard due to the sheer number of stakeholders. But, now, for the first time, we have the invaluable opportunity to experiment. 

These past few months have brought innovation in education at a pace unlike anything we have seen before. With virtual reality, artificial intelligence, new forms of social media, and online mentorship, we are seeing a boom in education technology that is allowing us to explore the potential of learning in the virtual realm. For example, Rumii is a social virtual reality space, where students can learn and communicate together in creative and unique environments. Language teachers are using this platform to connect people across the world in a virtual experience, providing an immersive cultural experience far richer than the straight memorization of vocabulary and grammar. Jamey Heit, an english scholar and gifted writer, founded Ecree — an AI- powered, interactive writing assistant. This tool draws on varied forms of writing expertise to give rapid feedback to young writers in real-time.

Existing education technologies like Edmentum are designing new products that allow students to receive personalized education through technology that keeps track of student performance and needs. Further, college students have taken this chance to create technology targeted towards lessening the gaps they see in a remote education. CovEducation, founded by Harvard’s Evelyn Wong, is an online platform to pair mentors from higher education with K-12 students who are affected by school closures. And, over the past semester, I’ve been working as part of a team on Project Leafe — an app that resembles TikTok but for learning. The technology is targeted toward motivating middle-school students to continue their education from home by making learning an engaging social experience. 

CovEducation, an online platform to pair K-12 students with higher education mentors. Source: http://www.coved.org

The rise of education technology has given us a taste of one of its most addicting advantages — something called networked learning. This simply refers to a form of collaborative, online learning that uses technology to not just educate, but more importantly to connect the learning community. Jeanne Allen of Forbes writes:

“Learner-generated, informal interactions, short messages, and nonverbal media are the norm in these networked learning situations.”

Traditional education has an inherent divide. The classroom is for orderly discourse and the deliberate building of academic knowledge. Meanwhile, our spontaneous conversations and informal interaction — the foundation of networked learning — are saved for social spaces outside of the classroom. 

However, with the current remote environment stripping us of the luxury of such social spaces, we have no choice but to integrate. And we’ve realized that this integration has a host of its own advantages. As Allen puts it, “No longer are we worried about ‘warming up’ the online environment — it’s plenty hot! No longer are we pondering the advantages of deliberate, reflective, collaborative knowledge construction in a formal threaded discussion forum. We are tapping into a cacophony of rapid fire exchange.” 

The current remote environment may be highlighting the need for such networked learning technologies, yet these technologies are in no way limited to this environment. Why can’t we use these interactive online platforms to enrich the traditional top-down, center-out way of teaching we are used to? The rapid short-term changes that educational technology is bringing could have exciting long-term impacts on our classroom. 

It often takes circumstances like these, where we are forced to dive headfirst into change, to realize what we are missing. Perhaps these circumstances were the impetus that technology needed to build upon and enrich education as we know it. Yes — there are most definitely aspects of education that can’t be replaced by technology. Yet, simultaneously, there are aspects of education that would be unfair to leave unreformed in light of the technology we have.

Writer’s Note by Manciana and Siona

Writing these two pieces, we realized that our claims inherently conflict. On the one hand, we saw technology finding ways to create accessibility to education from home, enriching and personalizing education despite the trying circumstances. On the other hand, we didn’t think it was fair to highlight these technological advancements without considering the complexity of the current situation. What do these advancements in technology mean if not everyone has equal access to that technology and isn’t able to take full advantage of it? Are we trying to use technology to solve problems that technology is in-part responsible for creating? 

The answer is definitely not black and white. However, no technology has ever been perfect upon creation. We iterate and innovate to overcome the challenges we face. With that said, we recognize that some of these challenges may be unsolvable by technology alone. But, ultimately, we’ll never know if we never try.

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