COVID-19 Special Report

Online vs. Classroom: Why we were so unprepared?

A viral video which has made the rounds in recent weeks shows Microsoft cofounder, Bill Gates, warning an audience some 5 years ago that we are grossly unprepared for the next global pandemic. Speaking in the shadow of Ebola and Swine Flu, his words may now carry and almost prophetic echo, but why were they necessary and why was it that we all seemed so grossly ill prepared for this global pandemic.

If not a global virus, any number of other vital disasters that may force the closure of our educational institutions are easily conceivable. Yet around the world, our response to these circumstances have always been to relocate and re-administer education in the same say, simply in a different setting.

For years, online education seemed like an afterthought or an ugly duckling encroaching on our tried and true educational systems. Who amongst us hasn’t looked on with disdain or at least with a roll of the eye as online schools advertised their ever growing list of credentials – all of which a mere decade ago were entirely the domain of traditional institutions?

In looking back at these years, it seems that this rivalry may be part of the reason why we are so grossly under prepared for the circumstances of this pandemic. In many cases, traditional and online schools competed for students and resources. This inevitably created hierarchies and the dreaded “us vs. them” mentality. Even within institutions offering both styles of learning, online programs often occurred independently, or at least supplemental to the core programs.

Perhaps now, we might consider a different model and recognize that online and classroom learning may simply be two sides of the same coin. Neither style is without drawbacks; online learning may be more accessible, efficient, and economical yet the efficacy of these programs has yet to be established, particularly in subjects demanding practical or hands-on training. Conversely, classroom learning has been shown to increase engagement, attention and retention of subjects – though it remains inordinately expensive and access to quality education, even in the 21st century, largely depends on where you live, who you know, and how much money a student’s household has.

As we are emerging from months and semesters of online learning, it may be worth considering if we can bring in elements and the hard-gained lessons into the regular curricula. Might we, for example integrate online forums for extracurricular activities between schools; could we not share the insights of expert teachers either professionally amongst other educators, or in the classrooms for students who otherwise may not gain these experiences? Is it even time that we consider to so-called reverse classroom model where students learn the elementary facts of a lesson online at home, and use classroom time for discussion and application.

Whatever decisions arise, putting all our eggs in one basket may seems ill advised as we look to an uncertain future.