The Future of Education: A Blended Approach to Virtual Learning

Julia Froese, Grade 12

Introduction
In the past decade, technology has experienced a pattern of exponential growth within industry, business, and now, education. With the advent of the digital age, communication has become much more fluid and accessible, leading to a rise in investments regarding social media and computer science. However, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions had only touched the surface of the possibilities grounded within the field of technology. There had yet to be the introduction of webinars and recording services within the classroom and it was still unclear as to how these advancements could be incorporated into an existing curriculum. Interestingly enough though, despite all of the tragedy and loss associated with the pandemic, the situation helped to open educators’ eyes to the opportunity vested within the use of digital advancements. Instead of rejecting technology, as it was previously seen as enhancing cheating and creating unavoidable distractions in class, they started to rely on it as students were unable to safely return for in-person instruction (1). In fact, according to UNESCO, an agency aimed at promoting world peace, 1,500,000,000 students across the globe were unable to attend school at the start of the pandemic (2). During such distressing times, virtual systems helped schools stay open, ultimately making educators realize the value in incorporating technology within the classroom. However, there were still a few caveats to online learning, starting with the fact that not all students had equal access to technology. Furthermore, these digital devices could cause permanent psychological issues, damaging academic performance. Therefore, while introducing virtual learning processes into the classroom ultimately benefited students in a time of crisis, there were still some striking flaws ridden within existing systems, resulting in the need for a blended model where there is a balanced approach between education and technology.

Psychological Impacts of Virtual Learning
While technology can make many tasks such as homework and testing much easier, it can also lead to disastrous psychological repercussions. According to Jonathan Haidt, a professor and psychologist at New York University, time spent using technology may be associated with increased anxiety, depression and other mental health ailments (3). Additionally, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a dramatic rise in the need for mental health services within the United States (4). These two phenomena are no coincidence, as the increase in social distancing made individuals more reliant on technological services, therefore worsening the severity of the mental health epidemic. When translating this to education, it is evident that too much technology in the classroom may create more problems than solutions. There are already a number of distractions within a normal school setting, let alone one where teachers cannot continually monitor the activity of their students. Educators even found that virtual learning made it harder for students to focus and understand lessons during the pandemic than before (5). Similarly, in a study conducted about online education, more than half of the student participants indicated a lack of engagement in class, difficulty in maintaining their focus, and Zoom fatigue after attending multiple online sessions (6). While it is important that educators take into account the advantages of incorporating virtual lessons within an existing curriculum, it is also important that they recognize the downsides as well.

Income Impact
One of the most striking flaws with a virtual education is that not all students have equal access to digital resources. According to Cathy Li, the Head of Media at the World Economic Forum, while virtually all 15-year-olds from privileged backgrounds said they had a computer to work on, nearly 25% of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not in the United States (7). If virtual learning were to be permanently woven into existing educational systems, it could impact the amount of schooling one student gets over another based on their economic status. Furthermore, poor internet connection or an unreliable service can cause educational inequities as well. According to Carlo Patilan Cortez, a researcher at the Southeast Technical College, without stable and efficient connection, students face many frustrations instead of developing their education (8). Due to the unreliability associated with online learning, it should not be instated as a permanent educational system. Instead, technology should be used within the classroom for in-person instruction. Local, state, and national governments could set aside funds to provide students with digital devices to equalize learning opportunities. Large corporations such as Microsoft and Apple should also provide programs which give all students a fair technological experience in school, ultimately bridging the gap in education between the wealthy and the poor.

A Blended Approach
After weighing the pros and cons of a virtual education, it is clear that a blended approach is necessary. Technology should be present within the classroom, such as using SMART Boards and giving students school-owned devices, however full-time virtual education systems should be avoided. Students are taught best when they are physically in the classroom and it is critical that teachers are able to monitor the activity of their students on a daily basis. If they cannot do this, students will be unable to focus and will ultimately learn less. However, that does not mean that virtual learning should be totally abandoned. According to a study on the effectiveness of e-learning in hospitalized children, virtual learning improved their test scores, made it easier for them to receive an education, and improved their social and psychological well-being (9). Due to the clear benefits of a virtual education for students with chronic illnesses, digitized systems should stay in place for individuals who cannot attend school regularly. Furthermore, virtual learning can also improve access to education overall, as students from across the globe could learn the same material from universal educational platforms, such as Khan Academy. All students should have equal access to technology within the classroom. However, virtual learning should remain an accessory to in-person education, rather than a replacement.

Citations:

(1) Teräs, M., Suoranta, J., Teräs, H. et al. “Post-Covid-19 Education and Education Technology
‘Solutionism’: a Seller’s Market.” Postdigital Science and Education 2, 863–878 (2020).
(2) “COVID-19 educational disruption and response.” UNESCO (2020).
(3) Haidt, J. , & Allen, N. “Digital technology under scrutiny.” Nature 578, 226–227 (2020).
(4) Kluger J. “The coronavirus pandemic may be causing an anxiety pandemic.” Time Magazine,
2020.
(5) Hebebci, Mustafa Tevfik, Yasemin Bertiz, and Selahattin Alan. “Investigation of views of
students and teachers on distance education practices during the coronavirus (COVID-19)
pandemic.” International Journal of Technology in Education and Science 4.4, 267-282
(2020).
(6) Asgari, Shadnaz, et al. “An observational study of engineering online education during the
COVID-19 pandemic.” Plos one 16.4 (2021).
(7) Cathy Li, et al. “The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Changed Education Forever. Here’s How.”
World Economic Forum (2020).
(8) Cortez, Carlo Patilan. “Blended, distance, electronic and virtual-learning for the new normal
of mathematics education: A senior high school student’s perception.” European Journal
of Interactive Multimedia and Education 1.1 (2020).
(9) Aghakasiri, Zohreh, et al. “Effectiveness of E-Learning among Hospitalized Elementary
Students with Chronic Diseases.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Virtual Learning in Medical
Sciences 11.3 (2020).

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