The world is in a turmoil. On Monday, I was given notice that face-to-face courses at Cornell University would be suspended sometime after the spring break. On Friday, the campus was already locked down and I was ordered to stay at home. All learning would continue online. Although I cannot even predict what will be happening with our lives when this article is published, all signs predict that online education will get a serious boost after our lives return to normality. This will definitely offer new opportunities, efficiency, and safety from virus, but digitalisation has areas of caution that will need additional attention.
Estonia set itself the goal of digitalising all educational materials already in 2015 . In December we wrote about the current steps taken by the Ministry of Education to further boost online learning and preserve Estonia’s number 1 position in PISA test results. In Estonia, promising and functional digital education start-ups spring like mushrooms after refreshing rain. Tallinn-based Drops, voted Google’s Best App in 2018, and Lingvist, available already since 2014, boost language learning skills by adjusting to the learner. Guaana and Clanbeat help individuals and organizations in innovation, research and personal growth. Dreamapply makes applying to Estonian universities pleasant as a dream…
The examples show that both in secondary or extra-curricular education digitalisation is already in full swing. The next field where the virus will most probably force a wave of digitalisation in, is higher education. Although top universities in the world are already offering online courses, lockdown has forced universities to quickly come up with solutions how to continue keeping students engaged. They are under considerable pressure. On one hand, they have competitors like Coursera, that has given open access to its courses under these extraordinary circumstances and is offering free online courses for any college or university impacted by Covid-19. On the other hand, the pressure by students who pay up to 60 000 USD per year for getting their money’s worth, mounts. Still there are several issues that have not yet been addressed and it will become evident that good online education is easier said than done.
How Estonia compares to the US in access to digital education
First, students at Cornell and at almost all universities in US and elsewhere were forced to leave campuses and go home. USA is notorious for its lack of competition in the internet-provider market and hence, not every home has high-speed internet. Low-income families are the more likely the ones that may lose connection during a MOOC or at exams. Hence inequality is likely to increase if internet and computer access is not addressed.
Second, online lessons are actually quite tricky to compile. It often takes years to develop a clear enough and engaging course that would be able to substitute face-to-face encounter. An online course I built during my 7 year experience as a lecturer at Tallinn University definitely taught me that even great teachers and professors often lack the immediate capacity to do so. Now, teachers are required to set them up hastily. Meanwhile, the University of Tartu in Estonia switched to remote teaching in just one day, mainly thanks to already using digital learning aids in their lectures.
Most significantly, though, online learning is significantly easier in technical subjects than in areas that require creativity. Although AI can already help teaching adapt to different needs (level of knowledge, language etc) and, similarly, creates individual feedback to students, it is still in its infancy in comprehending the subject matter and detecting new ideas. Human tutoring – having a teacher – who motivates, inspires and supports advancing independent thinking is still indispensable. However, it is crucial that in times like these, human tutoring can be faciliated through online and digital means that are equally accessible to everyone.