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By Samson Tan, Head, Centre for Innovation in Learning, National Institute of Education
In early 2020, the advent of COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the global economy, and battered education systems, shutting schools across the world. By the end of April 2020, UNESCO reported that more than 1.6 billion students in 188 countries in all levels of learning were affected by school closure. As a result, education has changed dramatically, with the discernible rise of online learning, whereby teaching and learning are conducted remotely via digital platforms. UNESCO observed that not only has this brought about disruption in many people's lives, but it has also heightened the issues of inequalities between those students with resources and technological means at their disposal, and those without access to these resources.
In responding to an unprecedented situation, Cathy Li and Farah Lalani revealed via World Economic Forum that BYJU, the world's most highly valued education technology company in online tutoring, started offering free access to their services to meet the surging demand. At the same time, Tencent classroom had seen extensive usage after the Chinese government instructed a quarter of a billion full-time students to continue their studies via online platforms during the lockdown in early 2020. The massive and sudden shift from classroom teaching in many parts of the world resulted in many analysts wondering whether the adoption of online learning will persist post-pandemic, and how such a shift would impact education.
For perspective, even before COVID-19, the world has witnessed high growth and adoption in education technology, with global edtech investments reaching US$18.66 billion in 2019 and the overall market for online education projected to reach $350 Billion by 2025. Cathy Li and Farah Lalani reported a significant surge in the usage of language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, or online learning software since COVID-19.
While the pandemic has brought much pain and anxiety, it might just be the catalyst needed to trigger a long overdue and welcome rejuvenation of our education systems. More profoundly, COVID-19 has prompted us to question deep-seated notions of when, where, and how education is provided, of the role of schools and universities, and the distinction between traditional and non-traditional learners. OECD suggests that the pandemic has been a great leveller offering educators, learners, policymakers, and society at large to reconsider our current education systems' vulnerabilities and shortcomings.
To seize this unexpected opportunity offered by pandemic-induced digital culture, higher education institutions need to adopt an innovative mentality, open leadership as well as abundant imagination and creativity. While the partnerships between universities and education technology providers ameliorate the needs for online learning during the pandemic, optimising the application of learning sciences is more critical than ever as higher education shift from face-to-face classes to more online or blended learning. Hence, learning design, multimedia production, and data analytics would likely to gain more importance. Correspondingly, teaching faculty must acquire capability in undertaking pedagogical shift in adapting and redesigning their courses and programmes.
Given more time and space, educators should develop capabilities to experiment with different digital learning solutions, leveraging technology to foster deeper student learning, and developing into facilitators of student learning, blending their expertise as a profession. Last but not least, the opportunity arises for institutional leadership to explore how students can learn in different places and at different times via digital learning solutions and bring communities, homes, and schools closer together, empowering students with the agency and autonomy.
This writer concurs with Cathy Li's and Farah Lalani's postulation that significant world events are often an inflexion point for rapid innovation as evident in the rise of e-commerce post-SARS. While it is still not clear at this stage whether this will apply to online learning post-COVID-19, it is one of the few sectors where investment has surged while others dried up. The pandemic has driven funding of edtech startups in 2020 to record highs at more than $8.9 Billion. Singapore's state investment firm, Temasek Holdings, prompted by the Covid-19 induced demand in digital health and education services, is slated to invest in these two emerging sectors. Nevertheless, what has been made clear through this pandemic is the importance of sharing knowledge across borders, and collaboration with all segments of society. If online learning technology can play a role in creating a better future in education, the onus is on all of us to explore its full potential.