Online Education: A Silver Lining to the COVID-19 Crisis?

March 20, 2020
Editor(s): Henry Liu
Writer(s): Lan Yao, Oliver Soo, Vickram Mehtaanii

The past month has been laced with upheaval and uncertainty, so much so that schools and universities all across the globe have been scrambling for a solution as to what to do with their students: keep them in schools and expose them to a virus outbreak, or adopt online learning where students would learn from home.

While The University of Melbourne’s stance on the virus has been uncertain at times, in recent days some of its professors have announced that “following a directive from the University, due to COVID-19, all face-to-face tutorials and face-to-face lectures will cease at the end of the week”, clearing up some uncertainties. This follows many other universities in Melbourne such as Monash and Swinburne, as well as from the governments of 102 other countries, with the primary goal of ‘flattening the curve’.

The closure of schools, of course, doesn’t mean that education will cease to exist. Instead, education will transition from within the confines of a university campus to wherever a student pleases. University of Melbourne students, for example, will continue to receive various handouts including lecture recordings and weekly questions and students will also still need to sit midterms, work on group assignments and study for the final exam. The main difference is that traditional classes would be replaced with live streamed classes using Zoom. Is online education really beneficial though? We will now look at the positives.

First and foremost, the time flexibility allows students to plan their study time around the rest of their day, instead of the other way around. Being able to log into the course material whenever it suits their schedule makes things a lot more convenient and helps students develop a work-life balance with their education.

Secondly, having zero commute when travelling to university is one of the most appealing advantages to online education, as the extra time it takes to commute to classes could be spent studying or doing the things that they enjoy. During adverse situations such as that of the coronavirus outbreak or if they simply cannot make it, rather than miss important classes, students could always “attend” by participating in discussion boards, turning in their work on time, and watching lectures online. In addition to this, many students find savings on fuel costs or public transport as they do not need to commute for classes.

Lastly, online education presents an opportunity for struggling students where slow learners could take their time without having to keep up with the quick learners. Using the same idea, students can also build their confidence through online education as some students are not comfortable speaking up in the presence of other students in a class. While there are obviously positives to online learning, like with anything, there are also costs.

Perhaps the biggest concern surrounding online education is the impact on students with special needs. 2009 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that 7% of children aged 0-14 years had a disability and 50% of said disabilities were either ‘severe’ or ‘profound’ in their limitation to the student’s education. It is reasonable to believe this percentage is similar today in 2020, so by assuming roughly 4% of students have disabilities that heavily impact their learning, the problem becomes clear. With the number of primary school and high school students nearing 4 million, we are looking at around 160,000 students around Australia without face-to-face contact with teachers that accommodate their special needs. 

While digital learning is of great benefit for students that can overcome the myriad of distractions online and who require little interaction with their teachers, for students with disabilities they are at an extreme disadvantage working independently. 

Now an argument could be made that disabled students can attend special schools if online doesn’t work for them. However, separating all of these people into other schools could have profound negative social impacts. Having some disabled students alongside non-disabled students is important for helping young Australians to foster an acceptance for their disabled peers. Schools should strive to be a cross section of society and disabilities are completely normal whether they be physical or mental. 

Another issue involves teachers. The Australian curriculum assessment and reporting authority illustrated that there were 170,000 high school and primary school teachers in 2013. By digitalising school, is it likely that all these staff will still be needed in the same capacity? Probably not. Therefore, any shift to online learning must be progressive and promise to offer emerging employment opportunities for teachers (both practising and training) who otherwise risk being displaced.

Finally, we must also recognise that as human interactions increasingly become screen based, it is probably a good thing for schools to continue to facilitate face-to-face interactions between young people. While online education is extremely appealing in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak, it will likely be a distant rather than near future when every student in Australia spends their days on some equivalent of the LMS. 

The COVID-19 crisis presents a huge opportunity to the world of education, but also has its many problems. While there have been many advocates both for an against the idea of online education, only time that will tell us if online learning is truly beneficial.

The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Henry Liu

Henry is a third-year Bachelor of Commerce student who will be majoring in Finance and Accounting at the University of Melbourne. He is interested in topics that help to explain asset price fluctuations as well as other issues that provide insights into the future.

Lan Yao

Lan is a postgraduate accounting student at Unimelb with international experience across three countries and diverse industry exposure ranging from educational services to energy. In her spare time, you can always find her cooking or baking in the kitchen to satisfy her taste buds.

Oliver Soo
Vickram Mehtaanii