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Online Learning – The Good and the Ugly

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

Words by Peter Wairagu-Metis Cohort 4 fellow

Peter Wairagu is the Principal of Africa Digital Media Institute (ADMI) Kenya.

In the year 2011, I was tasked by the management of the institution where I worked then to look into the possibility of introducing online learning. We had been receiving training enquiries from people far from any of our campuses and online classes looked like the way to go. After consulting widely and studying the market trends in different countries, it was obvious this approach to learning could not make a cut in the market and the whole idea was abandoned. Fast forward to 2020 and Covid-19 came calling. Institutions of learning at all levels hastily adopted online learning to keep their students on track, some albeit to avoid losing business, others to try and cover the syllabus among many other reasons. While some institutions had the requisite infrastructure in place and seamlessly migrated their teachers and students to online learning others had to try all means to put in place a semblance of the same through SMS, WhatsApp, email, etc. That which a few years back had looked like a pipe dream has become the saviour in the hour of need. Schools have been able to keep in touch with their students through online classes.

A student in an online class session.

However, there has been both comical and the annoying side to online learning. There have been those students who will be the first to log in, are engaged and actively participate throughout the session. On the other hand, there are those who will show the teacher they are outrightly bored and fed-up with whatever the teacher is teaching. Some students will log in, mute the microphone and the video and go back to bed. The teacher may not know this, especially when one has large classes until the teacher asks the specific student a question. The shock on the teacher and the other students if the student heard the question being directed to him/her and decides to unmute, but unfortunately puts on the video. As a parent of three children at different levels of schooling, I was very keen to see how different institutions adapted to online learning.

The primary school child was the first to be called back to school in May. For seven months now, their school has been conducting classes online with minimum hitches. When the high school child joined the online class, one could quickly tell things were not the same. Some students unmute their mics in the middle of a session and there is all manner of noise; from TV in the background, noisy siblings, falling kitchenware, etc. Quite often, the classes have been stopped midway as the teacher gets disconnected due to data or power failure. The university student managed to connect a few times to their online/virtual classes before they were called back to school. Most of the time, PDF notes would be shared through email or WhatsApp. When some of the teachers would hold online classes, one would see a group of three or more students crowding in front of one laptop screen. The problem is not only with the students and institutions but the teachers have their part too. Some of the older teachers and those who are less tech-savvy do all manner of things as they try to navigate around the various online platforms. Sharing documents, writing on the whiteboard and muting students’ microphones and videos have been a great source of amusement to students.

A teacher preparing for an online class.

As a teacher, it is not easy for teaching students who you cannot see. We are used to seeing our students faces and therefore, one can tell when a student is in class or not through their body language. Unfortunately, this is not possible with online learning. One teacher shared the shock of the first day of class – upon logging in, she saw these many peering eyes of the students and she did not know what to say at first. When she regained her composure and made attempt to talk, there was this chorus of ‘unmute’ ‘unmute’ from several students, meaning she was talking with her mic muted. Despite the challenges, online learning is booming in current times.

Even without Covid-19 forcing people to adopt online learning, it is expected to grow in leaps and bounds in the near future. This is supported by the fast-evolving high-speed internet, availability of computers and smartphones, 4G technology and in the near future 5G technology. Statistics indicate that e-learning market is projected to be worth $325 Billion by 2025. While students’ retention rate in schools is declining in face-to-face learning, online learning is estimated to increase the retention rate by 25% to 60%. While college-level student enrollment has been declining by an estimated 1% - 2% yearly, online learning uptake continuously grown by 5% annually before the pandemic. In one of the interaction sessions with my students, I had asked them what they think of online learning.

The majority indicated they enjoyed the experience especially not commuting and spending time in the jam. Many thought it is great just waking up and getting to class without much preparation. The working students thought this is the best thing to happen to them. The fact that they can join a class from their offices after work, or as they had coffee in a hotel, made learning so much fun. When the same question was directed to teachers, the answers were not so different. Teachers expressed the flexibility that comes with online learning as they can do many things without wasting time travelling. Increasingly, we will see many working people, college and university students opting to take their studies in the comfort of their homes or offices rather than being confined between the four walls due to convenience. That’s what everyone is looking for - convenience. The other benefit that comes with online learning is that it is more affordable compared to face to face. There is an old saying that says, “If you cannot beat them, join them”. Online learning is not only here to stay but it is thriving!

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