28. Oktober 2020

O Captain! My Captain! – Navigating e-learning and its pitfalls

Remote working is hardly limited to paid labour or office work. Many people all over the globe spent their time working in education: in schools, universities, or vocational schools. Rising Covid-19 cases and consequential lockdowns in various countries forced educational institutions to adapt to a new way of management and teaching at an unprecedented scale. Often with varying degrees of success.

A Comment by Christoph M. Abels and Nicole Stein 


With social distancing rules, primarily presence-based teaching had to reinvent itself on the fly, as made incredibly clear by the impact of the crisis: at the height of the pandemic (so far), more than 1.6 billion children were affected by school closures, according to UNESCO. As of early October, this number is still above 500 million. 

Given these numbers for schools alone, the necessity of creating a more flexible and location-independent learning environment becomes evident. Yet, the switch to e-learning comes with some downsides. Limited resources, a lack of online teaching experience, and a missing understanding of students’ needs created sometimes unsolvable problems. 

As the World Economic Forum points out: a stable internet connection as well as necessary hardware in the form of notebooks or tablets are crucial to enable students to take classes online. These issues became painfully obvious, when news broke about two U.S. students being dependent on the WiFi of Taco Bell to access their coursework. For reasons like this, the Wall Street Journal largely declared remote learning a failure in the U.S. context. 

Pupils from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds often cannot fulfill preconditions required for successful e-learning arrangements and are therefore unable to keep up with learners with necessary resources, potentially widening not only a digital but economic divide in the long-run. This tendency has been already obvious pre-Covid-19-times in the context of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). 

Although MOOCs “have been hailed as an educational revolution” with the potential to “override borders, race, gender, class, and income” the reality is much less promising, as stated by Ezekiel Emanuel. Especially well educated persons take and finish MOOCs, and therefore widen the gap between them and their peers. 


Organisational problems and societal outcomes

A digital gap also becomes visible on an organisational level. Given the rapid development of events, very little preparation was possible for most educational organisations. Institutions that already had proper e-learning arrangements in place were able to cope with the situation better. Hardware issues were figured out relatively fast, and most students and teachers had been quite experienced with remote teaching and learning. 

Even without these preparations, access to resources – mostly money and personnel – could help manage these challenges that accompanied social distancing. If your organisation had none of the above, you probably had a hard time switching to online teaching. 

But the problem is not limited to infrastructure in a broader sense. Becoming familiar with online teaching takes time, changing schedules as well, if many classes could not be taught digitally (e.g. some science classes) or only with tremendous effort. Further, everyday stress of living through a pandemic – both for educators and students – had also to be dealt with somehow. The pandemic has put a mental strain on a lot of students, resulting in record levels of psychological challenges

The stress of e-learning during the pandemic, however, does not only affect students. Faculties are facing high-rates of Covid-19 triggered burnouts in educators. Especially, when addressing not only the scheduled curriculum including emotional teaching and guiding, educators easily fall into a state of constant availability, endangering their own well-being. 


Monitoring transformations is crucial when it comes to education

A revenue drop from one quarter to another is quickly identified. For educational organisations, the impact of the pandemic is not measured in immediate numbers. The danger lies in long-term effects, some of which are already looming over education systems around the world. A number of smaller colleges in the U.S. might never reopen. 

Australian universities could cut more than 20,000 full-time jobs this year, a government report said already in May. Europe might decrease public university funding across the continent in the next few years as governments tend to prioritise other economic sectors.

Organisational performance therefore directly translates into educational outcomes. As immediate outcomes are not systematically measured, only long-term effects become visible, such as drop out rates and gross graduation ratio. That creates a substantial time lag between problem emergence and their manifestation on students’ degrees, which does not allow for any interventions at the right time. 

Switching to online teaching therefore has to be accompanied by a close monitoring of educational outcomes and intermediating factors, e.g. by using short-term indicators such as test performances, monthly number of cancelled classes due to sickness of teachers, etc. to avoid long-term negative effects which could otherwise threaten students’ educational careers. 

These monitoring efforts should be designed in a way that creates opportunities for corrective action. That could be achieved by collecting test results, anonymising, aggregating and comparing them to other schools – nationally and internationally – and thereby allow an informed judgement of an organisation’s performance. 

That would also create opportunities to increase cohesion in the EU: if some countries struggle to successfully manage the transition to online education, they could be supported by better performing countries. In the long run, this will lower the chance of some countries being left behind – a two-speed Europe is no option in educational affairs.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image via unsplash

Christoph is a PhD candidate at the Hertie School in Berlin, where he studies the reach and impact of disinformation and misinformation. Christoph co-heads the programme Digital Transformation & Cyber Security at Polis180. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Hagen and a master’s in public policy from the Hertie School.

Nicole is an entrepreneur and researcher at Wuppertal-Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and research associate at IE Applied – Tel Aviv University. Her work focuses on the interplay of sustainability and digitisation, especially focusing on new business models and AI-supported activities. She is part of the Digital Transformation & Cybersecurity programme at Polis180.


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