This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on February 8, 2021 - February 14, 2021
Digital learning has been around for some time. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, there was already high growth and adoption of education technology (edtech) around the world.
But in the wake of Covid-19, which has led to mandated physical distancing, education is being forced to digitalise fast as many are reliant on technology to provide alternative ways of learning. Unesco says more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries were affected by school closures when the global lockdown ensued.
Pandemic or not, the experience has proved that edtech-enabled online learning has been effective in increasing retention of information and reducing the burden of administrative tasks for teachers, helping them to become more versatile in their pedagogy, says Nick Hutton, regional director of Asia at D2L.
“Edtech didn’t come about because of the pandemic. For a long time, it has given schools and institutions an additional mode of delivering teaching when in-person classes are less effective or less ideal by comparison.
“Schools and institutions are definitely more aware of the online options in the market. At the end of the day, it is not about just delivering classes by replicating the in-person experience online but finding ways to automate mundane tasks while ensuring student engagement and success. All this adds up to improving the reputation of public schools and being able to take in more students, removing geographical boundaries.”
D2L is a global software company with offices in the US, Canada, Singapore, Australia, Europe and Brazil. It is the developer of the Brightspace learning management system (LMS), which is a cloud-based software used by schools, institutions of higher education and businesses for online and blended learning.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), global edtech investments reached US$18.66 billion in 2019 and the overall market for online education is projected to reach US$350 billion by 2025.
As educators, students and parents now have to pick up remote learning solutions for either children in school or young adults in higher education, this trend will continue beyond 2021.
Learning is being revolutionised with a strong focus on connectivity and versatility, and effective learning is not confined to bricks-and-mortar classrooms. Those who have tried and tested edtech acknowledge its capabilities to automate and streamline faculty work while delivering outcomes that ensure student success.
Hutton says edtech adoption in Asia has lagged behind regions such as North America, Europe and Australia. “This is mainly due to the long-held belief that education has to be conducted in a classroom for a qualification to be credible, and also the inconsistent access to internet connectivity in Asian countries.”
Because of the traditional belief that it is better to have classes in person, technology-aided teaching and learning was an upmarket good-to-have when finances permitted, especially for schools and colleges, he says.
However, schools, colleges and universities now have to look at the way they use technology or risk massive hold-ups in delivering education, which would have a detrimental impact on revenues when students can’t graduate in a timely manner.
As there was little notice before educational institutions were shut, many schools leveraged video and online conferencing tools to conduct classes as these were easily available and complementary — because many did not have the budget to adopt full-scale edtech solutions.
However, the edtech options available go beyond video delivery to replicate the face-to-face classroom. “It is about delivering engaging and personalised courses and content that help the teacher or faculty support their teaching and learning objectives by focusing on the best possible outcomes for their learners,” says Hutton.
D2L’s proprietary Brightspace LMS provides a full teaching and learning ecosystem as a single platform — from building courses for the faculty and tracking student performances to ease of use as a student in a mobile-first environment with a complementary interface that is similar to social media.
At the beginning of the pandemic, D2L rolled out a “quick start care package” that was designed to help schools move online quickly. The intent was to get schools to implement the basics quickly and then allow them to build up and refine their courses progressively, says Hutton.
“What was crucial at that point in time was the need for education continuity and allowing teachers to adjust to the changes, then to discover how they want to move forward with the classes run online,” he adds.
The Brightspace LMS enables educators to build courses with learning activities that can be released in accordance with a specific predefined set of rules that relate to a learner’s mastery of a course. This ensures the delivery of the appropriate content and resources that match the needs of individual learners.
“In the back end, it involves the application of advanced algorithms coupled with diagnostic questions for learners to meet the learning objectives. The Brightspace platform then recommends content based on gaps identified by the system. This supports competency-based education,” says Hutton.
Competency-based education allows students to advance according to their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace regardless of environment, he explains. This would normally be difficult for teachers to manage in a classroom of 40 students, especially since each student learns at a different pace.
“This enables different learners to master topics at a different pace. By using a platform that supports the competency-based education framework, a school or institution can design courses that take full advantage of the function. One of the major benefits of technology adoption is the availability and convenience of student-learner data,” says Hutton.
The LMS also provides learning analytics. This refers to the collection, analysis and reporting of data on learners, which will provide educators with the means to monitor their progress. This also serves as feedback on the class or course.
The Brightspace LMS has tools for educators to monitor student performance and communicate with students through automated personalised messages. For example, messages are sent when students need extra resources or encouragement based on low quiz scores and they are praised when they do well.
“These are simple automated nudges online that help students stay engaged with their own progress and on track,” says Hutton. “The availability of institution-wide learning analytics also aids educators in analysing how students are progressing over time, coupled with predictive analytics to help educators predict the grades of students and identify at-risk or potentially at-risk students so that teachers can intervene early.”
In Malaysia, institutions of higher learning have been more advanced in using edtech. This is mainly because universities are more financially able to fund the technology that facilitates teaching and effective management of quality education for large student numbers in the long run, he says.
For technology adoption to be successful, a lot hinges on funding, he notes. “Smaller schools and colleges were forced to use makeshift solutions because they had to deliver classes at the start of the pandemic. It would have been an abrupt, steep and non-ideal situation to have got started with going online.”
Hutton hopes there will be more financial support not only to aid schools to implement comprehensive learning solutions but also to enable teachers to become trained experts in maximising the use of technology. “Knowing how to maximise the use of technology affects the quality of the online courses which, in turn, influences the level of student engagement and performance when they learn online. Funding of hardware for less-privileged students will also have to be supported,” he says.
“In the long run, it is about getting schools exposed to and allowing them to experience the benefits of going online. Over time, this will help them achieve better student reach and enable schools to scale because there is no need for students to be physically present in a classroom. It also helps them better prepare students for a technology-driven higher education and workforce.”
Once pandemic-imposed restrictions start to ease, we will likely see a “blended learning” environment, he adds.
While the futuristic classroom model has some way to go before it becomes the norm, the hybrid classroom environment, where classes are partially conducted online in combination with in-person classes, is becoming more widespread. “It brings together the best in both online and traditional in-person lessons,” says Hutton.
Elements of in-person communication are essential. “First, because we are social creatures and that’s how we learn social cues to build relationships from a young age. But from a practical standpoint, lessons that involve tactile and olfactory senses, such as culinary or chemistry lessons, still need to be conducted in person. Online learning complements the traditional coursework and provides an added mix to the learning experiences,” he says.
Hutton noted that going forward, gamified learning is expected to take on a more psychologically driven approach. By this he means that game design elements will focus on increasing learner motivation rather than just animated interactive content.Learning will also become more collaborative, especially in the virtual environment, moving away from lecture-style, one-way delivery.
“Online learning also allows students to be more involved and empowered in their learning paths, made possible with the plethora of technological algorithms set up in learning solutions. As the need for geographic travel is reduced due to technology connectivity, there is opportunity for greater experiential learning, where learners have access to real-world situations regardless of where they are based. Overall, the online learning experience prepares students for lifelong learning, which has been globally emphasised,” he says.
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