C19 Pandemic Gives Unexpected Boost to Push Global Education Online


Since the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the world, one of the first parts of life to be disrupted was education. With schools and universities forced to close and students sent home for the foreseeable future, the pandemic has caused an education crisis unlike anything in history.

According to UNESCO, nearly 90% of the world’s student population are out of school, a figure that equates to over 1.7 billion learners. The effects of these closures impact more than just students, teachers and families, they also have broad social and economic consequences.

Across the globe, Brunei included, the beginning of social distancing measures has coincided with a hurried, forced crash course in online learning and digital technology for the entire education industry. Let’s take a closer look at how society is adapting to this new norm, paying special attention to technology and the ripple effects across the industry.

The (Ed)Tech

It may seem remarkable that so many schools and universities have been able to pivot to online learning so quickly, but it will not come as a surprise to industry insiders who have witnessed educational technology (EdTech) companies make deeper inroads into institutions over the past decade.

Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) or Learning Management Systems (LMS), are interchangeable names for the increasing number of EdTech platforms and applications that schools and universities are using to continue learning remotely. Each big VLE has a similar range of functions, the most important of which enable:

  • creation virtual class groups with teachers and students

  • teachers sharing resources with students

  • teachers setting tasks and assignments for students to complete

  • facilitating participation in class discussion

  • analytics and data-gathering on student participation and performance

  • online communication between teachers, students and parents

  • video-conferencing

Some of the big brand names in the VLE/LMS space are Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Apple (Classroom, Schoolwork and Classkit apps), Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard and Chamilo. Though they have similar functionality, all of these online learning stacks are definitely not created equal.

Canvas and Blackboard both have a good ecosystem of add-ons, but the user interfaces lack the ease of use when compared to others.

Google Classroom carries benefits because it can seamlessly integrate with the rest of the Google Suite (Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs etc), and this brand familiarity makes it much easier for all parties to navigate. Microsoft and Google’s EdTech stacks share the same benefit.

In terms of functional inequality, some of these platforms enable video conferencing and sharing, which is great for interactive learning but causes very costly data bills, meaning some will not be able to afford access.

All in all, the fact that online learning systems were previously used as supplements to traditional school, means that they are not yet as all-encompassing and fit for purpose as traditional schooling. However, the current situation proves that they are definitely workable, and the quality of the tech will only improve from here.

A Change in Learning Culture

Many social theorists and writers are beginning to view the Covid-19 pandemic as a seminal moment in human history, one that sparks an accelerated trajectory towards taking life digital. Education is bound to be a key contributor to that, and one of the questions that arises is whether this mass movement to online education will change the nature of education for good.

Online learning changes both the relationship between teacher and student, and the relationship between learning and time. In the case of the former, with video-conferencing being the nearest form of ‘individual attention’ that a teacher can give to a learner, there is bound to be significantly less handholding in the learning experience. Much more responsibility will be placed on the learner to self-teach.

In the case of the latter, both the learner’s home environment and their enthusiasm will affect the speed at which the learner completes the curriculum. A particularly bright student with lots of time spent at the computer may be able to get through a three-month syllabus in half the time, or an entire year’s work in four months. This reality will need to be addressed as people young and old reconsider (a) the pros and cons of school versus online learning, and (b) whether the point of education is a degree or a career.

These questions could very well cause a shift away from universities and colleges, towards digital learning platforms like Udemy, Coursera and LinkedIn Learning. If online learning becomes an accepted credential in the professional world, these badge-based skill acquisition systems may become much easier (and cheaper) paths towards a profession than a four-year university degree.

No Child Left Behind

With death tolls and infection counts dominating world media at the moment, we haven’t heard much about the fallout of shortcomings to this new push to move schools online, but there have been some inspiring instances of governments and institutions around the world taking steps to make sure no child is left behind. In Brunei, the national network service provider, Unified National Network, acted decisively in enabling free, high speed access to identified online learning platforms to allow schooling to become digital.

While that initiative does a lot to lessen the digital divide between the rich and the poor, there are many countries, particularly in Africa and South Asia, where digital penetration and computer technology is not as widespread as in here in Brunei. In cases like these, institutions and governments have had to be particularly creative to find solutions, focussing not on what they don’t have, but on maximising the effectiveness of what they do. In Liberia, the national TV broadcaster has begun to broadcast national TV classes throughout the day, so that learning can continue even at home. In this way, it is encouraging to see people using whatever technology they can access to make sure that education continues, whether at distance or not.

Next Steps

So where do we go from here? With no end to social distancing in sight, it’s clear online or remote learning will be a reality for a while. Once it ends, however, policy makers, parents, schools and students will all be forced to consider some important things:

  • If online learning is viable, should more parents consider this route for kids?

  • With the rise of online courses, will there now be a viable, affordable path to a good career alongside traditional tertiary education?

  • Should schools and universities all invest more in online learning to secure their future viability?

  • Should institutions offer hybrid curriculums with both online and traditional learning pathways?

  • With so much growth and potential in EdTech, should all parents start to view laptops as essential learning tools for their children?