Blanaid O' Regan on E-Learning: Transforming the Delivery of Education
Education is a journey full of little milestones and big achievements, traditionally populating one’s life until early adulthood. With a global pandemic, the way, where and when we learn has changed forever.
Throughout the pandemic the issue of school closures and restrictions was an emotive one. Unsurprising, given the mix of actors and issues at play.
Parents, students, teachers, mental health experts, all conscious of the impact on education and learning, child development and socialisation or physical and mental wellbeing. While fair, it must also be remembered that the shift to remote learning was not a carefully planned and designed process. It was an experiment in emergency remote learning necessitated by the extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic.
As we approach another school year, the positive expectation is that students will return to classrooms or lecture halls. It’s critical we take the experiences, good and bad, from e-learning during COVID-19, apply them and adapt accordingly to ensure it remains a significant and responsive part of how we deliver education. Partially due to COVID, remote learning is flourishing. Benefits include the ability to work at your own pace, greater personal control over learning and potential savings on transport and accommodation.
FTTH (Fibre-To-The-Home) connectivity should not be considered a luxury rather an essential utility accessibility to all Irish homes.
The improvements in connectivity resulting from increased availability of high-quality fibre broadband networks has democratised access to education. Marginalised groups in society, lifelong learners, mature students among others enjoy greater options. Connectivity is enabling a more inclusive form of education delivery to develop; fundamentally changing the traditional meaning of what it is to be a student.
Remote learning is also rapidly transforming what it means to be a student by providing alternative routes to qualifications vs. the time spent in lecture halls. It’s not that one way is better or worse, it’s more that technology and connectivity has given greater choice and options on how and where education is delivered – expanding access to groups where the traditional onsite approach just didn’t work for them. Students are increasingly voting with their keyboards, with online courses becoming more favoured.
A CSO study covering Q3, 2020 underlines the trend:
- 21% of Irish internet users used an educational website or portal.
- 18% took an online course in 2020 vs. 5% in 2017.
- 25% used online learning materials (online learning software, electronic textbooks).
As much as remote learning can expand access to education at any stage or age, in Ireland connectivity and high-quality broadband remain a barrier for many. To accommodate remote learning, you need reliable connectivity. Those working remotely, know well the dreaded buffering of Zoom and Teams calls, with signals dropping in and out regularly. Now, imagine that for a teacher facilitating an average class size of 25 or more. Challenging, to say the least.
Naturally, the more people participating on a call with video and audio included will increase the bandwidth requirements for these applications, and the factor of “peak” or “off-peak” times will skew the figures too. Therefore, FTTH (Fibre-To-The-Home) connectivity should not be considered a luxury rather an essential utility accessibility to all Irish homes.
Progress is being made. Fibre broadband is now available to 53% of Irish homes and businesses, but the urgency with which the remaining 47% (or as close as possible to it) needs to be rolled out cannot be overstated. Estonia shows what’s possible. As far back as 1997, Estonia declared internet access a basic right and set an example of what Ireland should put into practice in terms of Digital Learning. These included connecting all schools with connectivity, equipping them with smart learning devices and introducing ‘eKool’ – a system which both manages the school and includes digital exercise books, learning materials and an online overview of grades and performance. The result? Estonia sits top of European league tables for digital learning.
Connectivity is enabling a more inclusive form of education delivery to develop; fundamentally changing the traditional meaning of what it is to be a student.
Our Department of Education is currently developing a new Digital Education Strategy. It’s timely, coinciding with several factors changing our view of future digital education. COVID, is one factor. The attainment of a fully connected Ireland with access to high-speed fibre broadband, in the not-too-distant future, as companies like SIRO rollout their fibre network, is another. Both must shape our thinking on digital education for the years ahead.
The pandemic showed us elements of the future in an exaggerated fashion but also how, once challenged, all stakeholders can adapt to better ways of working. Delivery of education should be no different.