Online Learning the Future of Higher Education

September 7, 2022


Slow and steadily, global education prepared for a staged transition into online learning. The defined time frame was a decade to maximise efficiencies and tweak technology to suit the makeup of the digital natives. This 10-year preparation was suddenly fast-tracked in a space of two to 10 weeks, as structures and curricula of higher education were flipped on their head.

While in South Africa, public higher education saw a suspension of all courses and programmes for a period of 10 weeks to train staff on online platforms and teaching models, as well as the transition of existing curricula to online, private higher education seamlessly transitioned with no time lost in the academic year. We at Liorra attempt to investigate the growing claims that the future of higher education in the country may be online study options.

What is online learning?

Online learning is a modern educational approach where students and teachers follow a structured curriculum programme using advanced information technology that is mediated via the Internet. Modes of instruction include platforms like virtual study portals, apps, and social media. Students are not required to attend on-campus classes and so are able to participate in this method of learning from a distance provided they have suitable hardware and software to facilitate the mode of instruction.

In many international higher education institutions, there have always been options of online platforms readily available, but academics preferred physical student interaction. Therefore, after the onset of COVID-19, they were able to seamlessly make use of these existing resources.

South Africa, on the other hand, has predominantly face-to-face classes. In public higher education systems, these include some first-year classes of 1500 students, packed into lecture halls, which seat a maximum of 400-700 students. COVID-19 has created new-found respect for the term online learning as meetings, training sessions, social events, empowerment activities and facilitation of lectures have become synonymous with the words Zoom, MS Teams and webinars. Formal education programmes, short courses and skills modules are all conducted online. Students can view material at their leisure, take assessments and obtain certificates of competence on completion.

What is the difference between online and distance learning?

The phrases “online learning” (e-Learning) and “distance learning” are often used interchangeably but are misunderstood and are completely separate components of learning. The difference stems from the location, interaction, and the purpose of events. The figure below illustrates the differences in the two definitions and the impact on the learner

Why the future of education has gone digital

While a blended learning approach existed globally, the preference was for face-to-face learning. In South Africa, with the historic gaps in education and language barriers, the face-to-face approach is beneficial. However, with large classes and the lack of university infrastructure to manage these, online options may be more suitable.

Why online study options are growing in popularity

Academics agree that the global reality, as indicated by McKinsey surveys in 2019 and 2020, forecast a predominantly individual classroom experience by 2030. These included collaborative platforms which would allow individuals to study from any location. The best tutors, virtual experience lessons and gamified learning experiences will be the order of the educational day. Workplaces will transition to virtual spaces and gig economies will allow the greatest minds to share their expertise with diverse organisations globally.

Historical inequality of education poses challenges

It is difficult to benchmark South Africa globally especially with regard to education. Firstly, while the world continued to embark on readying themselves for a 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) classroom in 2030, South Africa found itself trying to equalise systems in the aftermath of Apartheid. The struggle for educational equality continues as the numbers of under-resourced rural schools have not decreased almost three decades into democracy. Currently, the challenge to improve the curriculum continues.

Pre-COVID-19, the process towards 4IR trends and the 10-year online education plan in line with the rest of the world, were not high on the agenda for South Africa. With current bleak unemployment statistics at 31% and expected to increase to 36% by December 2020, and an existing reality that over 1 400 000 South Africans aged 18-24 meet the requirements of post-school education but are unable to study due to the lack of funds (Statistics SA); one begs to question: Is the future of education in South Africa, digital?

COVID-19 accelerates online education

A pandemic that has gutted world economies and impacted people physically and emotionally, has been the best possible driver for improvement in an education system rife with challenges. At some stage in the near future, we will embark on a post-COVID-19 journey and debrief. The challenge of things returning to “the way they were” remains. Public higher education confirms that a blended approach is necessary as practicals and lab work are required for STEM modules and programmes.

The reality and challenges of a fully online programme are that of the socio-economic background of the majority of the students. Students do not have access to infrastructure such as digital hardware, library resources, and the most important, data connectivity. Proper consideration needs to be given to students who live in geographic areas that do not support data connectivity infrastructure as yet, as well as the likely choice of spending R15 on 500mb of data or a loaf of bread.

Liorra Tech has experience on the creation of successful LMS software and web applications. The importance of online learning has been expounded in the past 2 years. We at Liorra Tech are able and ready to take your educational content and create an online learning environment specifically suited to your needs and the needs of your students.

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