Another bad testimonial for remote online learning

As teaching, learning and testing went fully online in March and April 2020, it became clear that we were launching an unplanned, universal road test of virtual education. Like it or not, millions of students, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders were on the verge of immersing themselves in online learning.

I said at the time that this test would be important for the future of online education. If it worked, if people liked it, the pandemic would accelerate the adoption and acceptance of digital learning as a comparable alternative to traditional face-to-face formats. But if it didn’t work, if the reviews were bad, it would likely reinforce online learning’s existing negative, substandard reputation.

In the last two years we have seen many reviews, polls, research and tabular results and almost all of them are beyond bad. There is this one. Or this one. Or this one.

Now there’s a new one to add to the list – a poll by Soffos.ai. The Austin-based company bills itself as “building the next generation of education technology solutions” by “putting the knowledge locked in all your files and resources right in the palm of your hand.” In February, Soffos surveyed more than 1,000 adults in the UK who “have completed an academic or professional qualification during the pandemic”.

According to the results, a large majority of 62% said online courses and programs were “much more convenient” than doing things the old-fashioned way. That checks out. Convenience is a playing field where technology dominates, and online teaching should be more flexible and accessible than sitting on campus and sitting in class.

The breath-holding stat comes later — that 39% of adults who complete their programs “believe their longer-term career prospects will be worse because they received some or all of their education digitally.” whoops

A further 47% of respondents said that “the quality of the education they received has decreased following the onset of the pandemic as a direct result of the switch to online learning”. Oops again.

Soffos called these “serious concerns” and added:

“When asked about the specific challenges associated with online learning, 54% said skills like critical thinking and problem-solving are harder to develop in remote environments. Similar numbers (53%) said online discussions and debates are less effective than in-person ones, with 51% saying they feel less creative with online learning as the format tends to be more structured.”

Nikolas Kairinos, the CEO and Founder of Soffos.ai said: “Learning from the safety of our own homes at a time of global crisis has provided students with flexibility and vital continuity in education – not to mention some much-needed peace of mind. However, the benefits of peer-to-peer learning and in-person instruction should not be underestimated, nor should educators overlook the challenges students face when learning remotely.”

Some people insist that what we have been doing and seeing during the pandemic was not online education at all, but something closer to emergency distance learning. That’s fine and a fair point. But that doesn’t change the fact that whatever you call it, people didn’t like it. And not just any people – the people who bought it hated it.

That’s why it’s important to insert this recent poll into the conversation. The people in this study were the test drivers, those in online courses who paid for the programs. If anyone had a good handle on remote learning during the pandemic era, it’s these folks.

Additionally, we can expect those who earned their degrees online to be among those most likely to praise and defend them — perhaps second only to those who sell online courses and degrees. For example, no one says the degree they received was crap. You paid for it. You are very keen that it means something that you believe in, respect.

Here, however, nearly four in ten of them worry that having their degrees or certificates online will actually hurt their career prospects. Almost half said the quality was inferior.

Students aren’t customers, and schools don’t really compete in a marketplace, at least not the one you’re probably imagining. Higher education sells reputation as much or more than learning. It peddles prestige and envy and easy career and job sorting. In this market – where what people think of your product matters – reviews like the ones we’ve seen just aren’t viable.

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