The Future of Online Learning

by | May 6, 2022

Written By: Cathy Huang

Online learning came to us during “unprecedented times.” Two years later, we’re getting the hang of it—but what’s next? 

In 2020, young adults talked on social media about how all college students were now attending “Zoom University.” Whether it was a community college or an Ivy League, it seemed that Zoom made all those educational differences go away. That’s a pretty weighted argument, but the fact of the matter was that people disliked online learning. It makes sense: screen time is exhausting, social interaction becomes difficult, and it’s almost impossible to complete hands-on work. Of course, going online keeps people safe during a pandemic. But from a purely pedagogical standpoint, there’s debate as to whether or not the education is effective.

It’s worth noting that there are unique benefits to online learning. One particular advantage is a more globalized educational experience. When lessons are no longer limited to the school campus, the room can open up to instructors from a different state or country. While this wasn’t impossible before (video chats existed before 2020, after all), online learning makes it more commonplace. 

For some students, online learning is also more accessible. Attending a brick and mortar school involves more than just sitting in a classroom. Students need to figure out transportation to and from school. They need backpacks, notebooks—and these days, a new N95 mask (which are around $2-3 a pop). Students with health issues or disabilities may also find it difficult to be in a physical classroom. That’s not to say that online learning is readily accessible—students need computers, cameras, and microphones—but in certain cases, it has clear advantages.

That brings me to the crux of the discussion. Schools have been tugged online, then in-person, then back online again. But it’s not particularly productive to provide a catch-all on what is “better.” I like in-person classrooms and prefer them whenever it is safe. But I know people who feel like they’re pulling out teeth whenever they show up to an in-person class. 

What the online learning discussion really highlights is how education quality can vary from student to student. We see some students thrive in an online learning environment, but others struggle to even log on. Looking towards a possible future where COVID-19 is no longer as intense, we have to wonder if online learning should be part of our “new normal.” Many schools have used hybrid approaches to varying degrees of success. The definition of “hybrid” varies: it can be 50/50 split or favor one over the other. But when done well, it provides many of the unique benefits of online learning, such as accessibility for students and diversity in teaching. It seems that hybrid learning may be one facet of the pandemic that sticks around in a “post-COVID” world. 

But there are larger questions at play. Should a student be able to complete their entire education online? Should online tuition be reduced? Can you attend Harvard without moving to Massachusetts? 

There’s a lot to learn from a pandemic, and one of the major takeaways should be about how our education system works and what we can do to improve it.