E-Learning In The Time of Coronavirus

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How is the way we educate changing in today's landscape and what changes are here to stay for good?

As I sit here writing this blog post, it feels like a day just like any other. Steam rises from my ever-filled coffee mug, sun stretches lazily through my office window, and the dulcet tones of a lofi hip-hop/chill beats YouTube video (you know the one) blankets the room. Caffeinated, cozy, serene. Outside I occasionally glance cars gliding by, a sporadic parade of silvers and blues and whites and now-and-again reds. Resilient flowers are in bloom in spite of a recent cold spurt, and the welcome green of Springtime leaves goes hand in hand with the reviled yellow of the season’s inescapable pollen. In a few hours I’ll stop for lunch, and a few hours after that call it a day and leave for a quick workout before dinner. All in all, it’s just another normal, everyday day.

Except, of course, today — and every day for the last few weeks and into the foreseeable future  — was/is/will be anything but normal.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen to that.

I never would have imagined

What started as something that seemed too far off to touch us back in January has now invaded every aspect of our lives. In-person socializing has been all but illegalized. Streets once clogged like a junk food addict’s arteries are now free-flowing, even vacant. Going to the grocery store feels like the event of the season, albeit more dangerous. People are scared; people are being laid-off; others are dying.

And yet, as I stare at the clear cerulean sky out my window, fingers flitting across my keyboard, I can’t shake the feeling that everything feels…normal. To imagine that a calamity is unfolding in real-time around me seems ludicrous. How can that be possible when it’s such a beautiful day outside?

It’s hard to fully express the novelty of our current situation, but I think this one viral tweet gets to the heart of it:

Surreal is the perfect word to describe these strange and unprecedented times.

Normal, Revised

But as people adjust to this new norm, as they stare down the barrel at uncertainty, there’s one thing for sure: everyone is moving online. Streaming services have seen a massive spike in traffic. In an effort to salvage an entire season’s worth of lost revenue, event planners are quickly organizing online versions of festivals, conferences, and conventions. Businesses both big and small have moved operations from at-your-desk to on-your-couch. No matter the industry and no matter the cost, COVID-19 has forced everyone into an e-environment, for better or for worse.

Even after the dust settles from this pandemic, this shift will have long-standing repercussions. Telecommuting will almost assuredly see a drastic uptick, for one. Operational models will most likely pivot, too. However, the area where we’ve seen the most astounding shift to online work is also a) where we’ll see the most long-lasting effects, and b) something that fundamentally affects the future of our nation.

I’m talking, of course, about education.

Prelude to a pandemic

In order to fully grasp how the coronavirus will change e-learning forever, we need to think back on the world pre-pandemic. I know that seems impossible, given the state of the world at the moment, but I assure you the memories are there. Close your eyes, you can do it! That’s right, you remember now: an office filled with co-workers, a bustling restaurant on a Friday night, handshakes — they did all exist, once. And during this Ante-COVID era, during this time before time, e-learning was already on the rise.

According to a recent article from InsideHigherEd.com, “…the number of students taking an online course grew from 31.1 percent in 2016 to 33.1 percent in 2017 and 34.7 percent in 2018.” While these increases by 2 and 1.6 percent year over year don’t seem like much, that equates to literally thousands of people. What’s more, some states — e.g. Florida — require high school students to take and pass at least 1 online class in order to graduate.

But e-learning isn’t just growing in the classroom, it’s sowing seeds in the boardroom, too. Back in 2017, Small Business Trends reported data that predicted 98% of businesses would rely on e-learning by 2020. Well, given our current state of affairs, I’d wager that number must be pretty spot on, if not higher. The message is clear: e-learning, digital learning, remote learning, whatever you want to call it, has been gaining in popularity for years.

The exception being…

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That is, except in elementary and middle school education. While the enrollment in e-learning has steadily increased for high schoolers, collegiates, and even working professionals over the past decade, the numbers for primary schools have remained staggeringly low in comparison. Which, when you think about it, makes sense. So much of early education hinges on the informal social lessons gleaned from kid-to-kid interactions. In many ways, playing tag at recess is just as important for a child’s development as learning their alphabet. Sure, little Timmy and Sarah can learn how to read online. But is that really the same as them sitting across the table from one another, reading back and forth, each reacting to the other as they go? Probably not.

But then COVID-19 hit and everything changed, maybe forever.

Going the distance… learning

March 11, 2020: a date which will live in infamy.

The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and, for lack of a better phrase, all hell broke loose. As different sectors scrambled to reconcile the situation, educators were left with a truly Herculean task: moving their entire operations online. K-12, public or private schools, it didn’t matter. Everyone was swept away in this mass exodus, or “Great Distancing,” if you will. In some cases literally overnight, teachers had to rework curriculums, get digital classrooms prepared, and update parents on the new rules of engagement. Tackling any one of those things on short notice would be tough; taking on all three at once seemed impossible.

However, by and large, teachers made it happen. Through the power of the world wide web, teachers kept their classes together and continued doling out lessons as best they could. E-learning modules were fired up and online learning kicked into high gear. Of course parents had to get more involved in the process, and yeah, there were definitely hiccups aplenty. But the fact remains that educators somehow made the unfathomable a reality.

A victory, short-lived

Sadly, with grim projections continuing to dominate the headlines, many school districts have since called it quits on the 2019-2020 academic year. That doesn’t lessen the impressive feat that teachers pulled off, though. In fact, compared to the uncoordinated, ambling efforts by many American businesses to move operations online, these men and women are superheroes.

The question is: what happens now? School may be out, but parents don’t want their kid to fall behind. Similarly, businesses might be experiencing growing pains as they move into remote work mode, but that they’ll need to catch up fast. In short, life goes on, and for the time being parents and underprepared employers must make the best of a tough situation. Children need to keep up with their school, and employees need to get up to speed on new and evolving businesses processes.

The teachers might not have been able to keep schools open, but they had the right idea in mind. In the coming weeks and months, the need for online learning will be clamorous. E-learning and digital education will be vital in maneuvering the quagmire that is the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s more, the standards we set now will most likely dictate the future of education as we know it. So we better make sure we do it right.

The many modes of e-learning

Just like classes and training sessions, e-learning comes in all shapes and sizes. As e-learning content creation inevitably ramps up to warp speed over the next few months, you’ll see plenty of these variations firsthand. That said, knowing exactly what they are and how educators and employers alike will use them moving forward could prove useful.

Webinars

Undoubtedly the most straightforward style of e-learning, webinars have already been a big thing for years. All it takes is a decent camera, a knowledgeable professor or professional, and a willing audience and you’ve got yourself a passable webinar. When it comes to teaching a mass number of people easily and efficiently, webinars are the most direct route.

However, while they may be relatively easy to produce, webinars are also easy to do wrong. I call it the “Biology 102 Phenomenon.”

The Biology 102 phenomenon: an aside

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For me, Biology 102 was easily the most insufferable course of my entire college career. It’s not that the subject matter was boring — far from it, actually. Psychology was one of my majors, and I was actually pretty stoked about a deeper dive into biological studies. But the format…oh god, the format. Like most seminar courses at a major university, Biology 102 was conducted in a large auditorium filled with hundreds of students. The professor was amiable enough, and clearly he had been teaching the class for eons. The problem was he taught AT us rather than engaging us. I still cringe recalling the long, droning lectures. It was as if the professor thought that by merely speaking the information at breakneck speed without interruption we’d all just get it. I soldiered through it (got a B+, if memory serves) but I hated every second.

Webinars (cont’d)

Just like my knowledgeable but educationally inept professor, webinars can fall into similar traps. Talking unendingly in a lecture hall is bad; rambling on over a video feed when your students have all the distractions of the internet at their fingertips is worse. The problem in both cases is a lack of engagement. Students today need strong visual aids, amusing corollary asides, lesson interactivity, and lots of interesting questions to keep their attention through a lesson. This rings true in real life and virtual classrooms, alike.

Because they are so easy to create, we’re all gonna see a lot more webinars in the coming months/years. The ones that are actually successful, however, will find creative ways to present information and utilize cool visuals to keep students across the world entranced.

E-learning modules

While not as widespread or easily produced as webinars, e-learning modules are arguably a more efficient and comprehensive teaching tool. As I’ve mentioned, one area where webinars can fall short is engagement. Well, e-learning modules have engagement in spades! In fact, e-learning modules don’t work without direct, extensive participation from the student.

Consider the very definition of what an e-learning module is. An e-learning module (or e-module) is about 10-15 minutes in length, contains no more than 2 novel concepts, and blends together teaching, assessment tools, video, and sometimes even gaming elements. So the definition is nebulous, but the possibilities are endless! These bite-sized lessons are packed with such a variety of content that students are always on their toes. Breaking down what would otherwise be entire chapters of textbooks into digestible e-modules both increases student attention and leaves them feeling more satisfied at the end of each lesson. Practically speaking, e-learning modules are education’s answer to the ever-shrinking attention span of the average student.

Moreover, e-learning modules are just that: modular. You can rearrange them, adjust their timing ever-so-slightly until you’ve built an entire curriculum using them. It may be a bit dated, but just take a look at what our client Adaptive Curriculum has been doing in the e-learning space for almost a decade now:

Even in this nearly decade-old video you can see how effective these e-modules are for teaching high level concepts. And as we get further and further down the well of social distancing, we’re only gonna see more and more of these. Don’t take it lightly when I say that e-learning modules may very well be the education mode of the future.

Animated explainers

Animated explainers: if there’s a better way to educate while also adding some levity to our otherwise dire times, I don’t know what it is.

At their core animated explainers are all about explaining complex, hard-to-grasp concepts through playful visuals. In a lot of ways animated explainers are an extrapolation of the educational concept of “re-framing the problem.” Sometimes our first glance at a problem leaves us disoriented and unsure; but by simply reapproaching it from a different perspective we can crack the code.

For example, take a look a this animated explainer we produced for the Georgia Forestry Commission:

The Georgia Forestry Commission came to us knowing that they needed to get this information out, but also cognizant of how complex these issues were. Their challenges were more than just A to B problems, they involved many moving parts and myriad hurdles to clear. By reframing their story into an animated world, however, we got their challenges across clearly, concisely, and charmingly.

It may not be as easy to produce as a webinar. Nor are they as comprehensive as producing a series of e-learning modules. But the inherent power to reframe an issue will make animated explainers a big part of e-learning moving forward.

VR training

If the last decade has taught us anything about VR, it’s that it’s very much here to stay. Sure, the product has been inconsistent, but that’s just a byproduct of working out the kinks of bleeding edge tech.

Today, the capabilities and applications of VR seem limitless. For one, the 360 cameras you need to capture VR footage shoot higher quality footage than ever before. Plus, they now come packaged in a relatively tiny form factor. Combine that with 10 years of refining the VR post-production process and the space was already primed to blow. Then the coronavirus came along and lit the fuse.

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Just think of the possibilities. From an end user perspective, VR training allows students/employees to “experience” a scenario they need all while maintaining social distance. And from a production standpoint, most VR training can be shot with a micro-crew, which a) saves money [always good during uncertain times], and b) allows production to also comply with social distancing. It offers trainees a sense of immediacy and immersion while also ensuring that everyone does their part to get past this pandemic.

If this sounds far-fetched, I assure you it’s not. As far back as 2015 the Stanford football program started using VR to train their quarterbacks. Shortly thereafter, tons of other programs began mimicking their tactics. If elite tier schools are using VR to train football players, is it such a stretch to suggest that top tier businesses would do the same to train their employees?

One last lesson

It’s night time now as I return to my desk to finish this post. My cats are sprawling at my feet, their eyes drooping and their bellies full. My coffee mug has been replaced with a tumbler filled with scotch (why not?) and the lofi hip-hop gave way to a Charles Mingus record hours ago. Overall, I’m feeling passingly good about today. Of course, that might be the booze. But even if it is, I’ll take it; I feel I deserve this moment of complacency.

However, I know I’m in an enviable position. I still have a job and I can perform it more or less the same as ever. I’ve had more than enough to eat today and, blessedly, I’m on my way towards having more than enough to drink, too. My worries center on what I’m gonna write about tomorrow, not “what will tomorrow bring?” I’m not a school teacher desperately still trying to keep classes going from behind their laptop. I am not an employer trying to get employees up to speed on new remote protocols. I feel for these folks. And in the days to come I know I’ll do everything I can to help them. But at present, I’m mostly just a little drunk.

Perhaps it’s in spite of my intoxication, and perhaps it’s because of it, but I still can’t shake this surreality. Things are changing day by day, hour by hour, constantly re-upping our state of uncertainty. In fact, the only thing certain about it is it’s undeniably happening, and it will change things forever. 

The takeaway

But, as scary as that sounds, could there be a silver lining in all this? People have been complaining about the state of education in America since long before this pandemic struck. Could this terrible incident be the spark that lights the flame of revolution? Will we look back at this time as what changes education of all kinds forever? 

If you ask me, I’d say we will.

Education is the cornerstone of our society. Without the urge to know, to question, to explore, we are nothing. Education will help us ensure catastrophes like COVID-19 never happen again, prepare workers for new norms, and ultimately get us through these trying times. In the end, though, it just might look a little different.