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Re-evaluating how we teach online

Over 60% of the world’s student population were impacted by country-wide school closures, as schools and universities shut their doors to control the rampant spread of COVID-19. In order to ensure the continuity of education, educational institutions worldwide employed remote learning strategies to support students holistically through the emerging health crisis.

Within Singapore, as the almost two-month-long Circuit Breaker measures in April kept students out of their classrooms, schools and colleges rolled virtual instruction and online learning to allow students to continue their studies without interruption. Naturally, a surge in the demand for high-quality and effective learning solutions accompanied this mass transition into home-based learning.

A number of institutes of higher learning, such as the Singapore Management University and Singapore Institute of Technology were able to readily adapt to the changes and integrate online learning into their curriculum. However, for other institutions, the changes were sudden, and they had minimal prior experience with online learning solutions that were considered a “nice-to-have” option before the pandemic, but abruptly became a necessity.

The lack of adoption of education technology solutions by schools in Singapore was highlighted by the crisis, as well as the shortfalls of the tools currently employed. Edtech is far from reaching its full potential: COVID-19 has shown that we need to rethink how we conduct online education in order to support the future of technology-enabled education.

Privacy and security cannot be overlooked
Educational schools and institutions in Singapore were forced to adopt the quickest and most easily-available online learning solutions on hand. There is no doubt that video conferencing apps were invaluable in helping the world survive then. From home-based learning to parent-teacher meets — those platforms made essential school activities easily and quickly possible.

Unfortunately, hackers took advantage of the pandemic to prey on unsuspecting online learners. In April, the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Singapore reported hacking incidents wherein some classes held on the video-conferencing platform Zoom were hijacked mid-stream to show pornography. As a result, for a brief period, the MOE banned the use of Zoom apps in Singapore schools, progressively allowing schools to resume the use of Zoom after introducing three additional layers of defence. These security features include an all-encompassing “security button” which consolidates the conferencing platform’s security features.

The thing is: Parents will be more receptive to Edtech only if they are sure that it is a safe space, and one of the biggest challenges with online learning solutions is ensuring privacy and security. If an incident of this magnitude can happen on a global video-conferencing app, one can only imagine the limitations of unverified small organisations.

Security is one of the most important concerns when it comes to online learning solutions, however, it is not the only concern when it comes to online education.

Using LMS technology to support holistic online learning
Now that students have had a taste of online learning, their expectations around technology-enabled learning will rise. They will seek more flexible alternatives to traditional on-campus learning models, even after the pandemic. This means that educational institutions must move beyond video-conferencing classes and embrace online learning holistically.

One way to do that is through the use of a Learning Management System (LMS) — an online platform which allows educators to develop, administer and track educational programmes and courses.

Built specifically to facilitate learning, LMSs are used to create and deliver curriculums that students can follow both online and offline. You can provide all types of content from videos, courses to downloadable documents, while managing and tracking student performance online. LMSs include features such as rubrics, discussion boards, a syllabus and teacher-led learning, allowing for greater peer-to-peer and student-teacher interaction.

In addition, an LMS is far more secure than live streaming online platforms that are free to the public, ensuring student safety while using the platform. For starters, all users are authenticated before they are granted access. A reliable LMS uses cryptographic protocols and encryption to ensure the confidentiality and security of user data. Plus, asynchronous encrypted data transfer to off-site storage ensures that client services can be restored in the event of a disaster. With standard compliance regulations for data integrity and confidentiality in place, institutions can opt for certified LMS service providers for maximum security.

Some LMSs integrate live streaming capability in a seamless manner, like the one deployed by SIM Global Education, which can deliver a virtual classroom experience while allowing users to access related learning content, all done within a secured environment.

The LMS market is growing rapidly, with the market in the Asia-Pacific region expected to experience the fastest growth in the coming years, with the highest compound annual growth rate of over 19.75 per cent during the years 2019 to 2027, according to a report by Market Research. Several countries in the region, including Singapore, China, Japan and South Korea have adopted LMS solutions in their educational institutes owing to the growing Edtech industry and ever-increasing mobile usage and internet penetration.

Furthermore, key industry stakeholders have realised the significance of effective integration between connected devices in the eLearning process. Students are increasingly accessing online learning on mobile devices. With the increasing computing power and rich features on these devices, it is more than possible to build a dynamic and holistic learning experience on them. Institutions offering post-secondary education need to embrace mobile learning to engage students and provide them with better accessibility.

To take education further, we must move past the one-size-fits-all approach that has dominated education thus far. Using an LMS allows teachers to identify areas of weakness with greater ease, enabling them to assign work to help each individual student improve. Flexible and customized study plans, enabled by technology, are the future of education.

Taking learning beyond virtual classrooms
The emerging technologies of today, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, provide us with the tools needed to take education to a different level. However, while the education sector has been embracing digital transformation as a necessity amidst the pandemic, it is barely scratching the surface of what digital tools can do. The current tools being used, such as video-conferencing software, facilitate largely one-way delivery, education on these platforms is mostly content dissemination. We need to go beyond this: Education is not just about imparting the syllabus in whatever means possible — it entails tracking progress, sharing feedback, interacting with students and helping them learn in a holistic manner.

Eventually, the priority needs to shift from finding the quickest and most convenient options of broadcasting information to finding solutions that capitalise on the relationship between students and teachers to augment teaching and create learning personalisation and independence.

Improving student engagement via immersive learning
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies have made great strides, especially within the experiential gaming industries — and more educational institutions are starting to pay attention. Immersive learning or blended learning through the use of these technologies is yet another way to make education more holistic, interactive and insightful.

With immersive learning, students can be engaged through an artificial environment that simulates real-life situations in which the information they have learnt could be applied. Traditional immersive learning approaches involve field trips or adaptive learning in the classroom. Examples of immersive learning that employ digital tools are flight simulator training for pilots, or virtual dissections during biology classes.

With digital simulations, students can practice repeatedly with no time limitations or peer pressure, giving them the time and practice they need to internalise their new skills.

These tools aren’t standalones: Simulations like these support face-to-face instruction by giving learners a safe space to practice what they have learnt in their courses. Immersive learning is a great way to create competency-based programmes and is also an authentic assessment tool. And, with the ever-increasing growth of VR, AR, mixed reality and extended reality, immersive learning experiences can be richer and more effective than they have ever been.

Virtual whiteboards to enable active learning
By unleashing the full potential of digital tools for interactivity and engagement, educators overcome the passivity beleaguering virtual classrooms — wherein research has shown that one-third of instructors who try online teaching end up with passive classes.

An example of a digital tool that can be used to create an active learning environment and boost student motivation is virtual whiteboards. While these whiteboards include traditional whiteboarding functions, like writing, drawing and annotating, virtual whiteboards can be used for much more. They are versatile teaching tools that allow for screen recording, screen sharing, virtually-infinite board space, multimedia options and multi-device integrations.

With virtual whiteboards, whiteboard space evolves beyond a means of delivering and displaying content, by giving teachers and students a breadth of options with which to learn in collaboration.

Into the future of online learning
As schools rushed to roll out online learning with stop-gap solutions, the concept of home-based learning may have been soured for some. However, the crisis has made clear what works, and what still needs work within the education and education technology spheres. To be ready for the future, we need to create more holistic online education systems — and move beyond current models of content dissemination.

This article was first published in ChannelNewsAsia.

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