Distance education can be better than the traditional classroom

As South African schools get ready to reopen – or not, depending on the outcome of the latest shenanigans involving teachers’ unions and others – parents are on the horns of a dilemma.

Do they send their children back to the classroom (presuming the reopening happens reasonably soon) and risk them being infected? Or do they keep them at home and opt for distance learning or home schooling instead?

And if the decision is to keep the kids at home for at least the remainder of this year, are parents going to do justice to them academically?  

A quick digression here. Distance learning and home schooling are not the same thing. The Australians, who know a thing or two about distance learning having founded the famous Alice Springs-based School of the Air for outback children in the early 1950s, define it thus: home schooling is when you make, or buy, your own curriculum, says Rebecca English, a professor at Queensland University of Technology. Distance learning is when parents facilitate a curriculum of study that is already in place and applied uniformly across a specified area.

Many learners perform better away from class

But back to the point of whether parents can do justice to children academically by keeping them at home. According to preliminary studies coming out of the Australian state of Victoria, many learners have actually performed better in the distance education environment than in the traditional classroom.

Victoria’s education minister, Gayle Tierney, said last week that there were many instances during lockdown of students who were ‘disengaged’ during traditional schooling suddenly becoming ‘reengaged’ during distance learning.

Students who had previously been underperforming in the classroom environment had unexpectedly taken to the new approach imposed upon them by the shutdown of the school system and were now returning better-than-expected results, the minister noted during a briefing.

“Every principal I have spoken to, every teacher, talks about students who have reengaged,” she said. “Students who disengaged at school seven weeks ago (prior to the start of lockdown) are now embracing their learning.”

She will now be ordering an independent inquiry into what distance education concepts can be incorporated into the usual school programme, and a summit of education leaders will be held next month to discuss the issue.  

WEF also finds distance learning is effective

Meanwhile, information published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) indicates there is evidence that learning online can be more effective in a number of ways.

Some research shows that, on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom.

This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online. E-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.

Effectiveness varies by age group

“Nevertheless, the effectiveness of online learning varies amongst age groups. The general consensus on children, especially younger ones, is that a structured environment is required, because kids are more easily distracted,” the WEF says.

“To get the full benefit of online learning, there needs to be a concerted effort to provide this structure and go beyond replicating a physical class/lecture through video capabilities, instead, using a range of collaboration tools and engagement methods that promote inclusion, personalisation and intelligence.”

Since studies have shown that children extensively use their senses to learn, making learning fun and effective through use of technology is crucial, says Mrinal Mohit of BYJU, an Indian educational technology and online tutoring firm which is now the world’s most highly valued education tech company.

“Over a period, we have observed that clever integration of games has demonstrated higher engagement and increased motivation towards learning, especially among younger students, making them truly fall in love with learning”, he says.



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