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Is Online Education already set to fizzle out?

A lot of importance and expectations have been projected on the ‘future’ of education, where computers are expected to make the role of a teacher obsolete. It is not difficult to envision a world of online education, as it provides more schedule flexibility, is patient enough, and most importantly is objective, and available all the time. With the great digital wave that many countries, including India, are riding, online education, is expected to take over the world, and revolution-ise the way education is transferred.

In such a sentiment, when a study that undermines the role of online education comes to the fore, eye-brows are bound to raise. A BBC report recently stated that online schools are worse off than traditional teachers, when it comes to knowledge transfer. Taking the case of USA, the report talks about the rapid mushrooming of charter schools all across the country, and how a transition from the real to the virtual was the next logical step.  From 65,000 in 2012-13 to over 2,00,000 presently, the number of people who have registered for online charter schools has seen an encouraging growth. But the data in terms of learning is beyond disappointing.

America is leading the digital wave in terms of education.

The report, from researchers at the University of Washington, Stanford University and the Mathematics policy research group, found online pupils falling far behind their counterparts in the classroom. In maths, it was the equivalent of pupils having missed an entire year in school. The study found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there was much less teacher contact time in virtual schools. On average, pupils in bricks-and-mortar classrooms received the same amount of teacher time each day as the virtual pupils received on-screen each week. But the biggest problem identified by the researchers was the difficulty in keeping online pupils focused on their work. Researchers found that only 2% of online schools outperformed their bricks-and-mortar equivalents in reading. In maths, no online schools were better, and 88% were “significantly weaker”.

The centre’s director, Robin Lake, said: “We need policies that address legitimate concerns without needlessly restricting growth.” The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said it was “disheartened” at the “large-scale underperformance”. Nina Rees, the group’s president, said failing charter schools should be closed – and that included online charter schools. The study also highlights certain groups who benefit from online schools – such as rural students with limited options, students at home with health problems, those with families moving around the country and those who for whatever reason did not fit in with a conventional school. Because, as it also points out, this is a form of education being chosen increasingly by Americans, a trend that can be easily forecast to be followed by the rest of the world very soon.

Hence, there is an urgent need to undertake similar studies on a larger scale to ensure that the idea of online and virtual education is assessed in its entirety before it assumes enough importance to fundamentally change the paradigm of how education is transferred on a global level. This is probably the biggest boost to the already growing discourse doubting the overarching and unquestionable success of online education in the future.

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