With a lockdown enforced in most of the country since March of last year, schools and universities were forced to close and halt face-to-face classes. In turn, the entire education system was pushed to shift further to digital as well as utilize various modes so that students can still learn at their homes.

As much as it has transformed several aspects of life at an accelerated pace, digital technology is expected to shape education. While there are issues in online learning that remain to be addressed, and while offline modes will still be a part of learning, digital tools are expected to stick further in the ‘now normal’.

Online tools have started to emerge even before the pandemic altered education, benefitting both individual learners as well as large institutions. The past months, nonetheless, further showed the potentials of online learning, as Jess Obana, senior managing consultant at P&A Grant Thornton, observed.

“Online learning is not new. What is new is that schools are embracing it as vital to how the next generation[s] of learners are taught,” Mr. Obana wrote in an article that can be viewed on the firm’s website.

Since the lockdown, classes have been held through video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meets. This is coupled with the use of social networking applications such as Messenger and even Discord for announcements and submissions.

There are also learning management systems (LMS) such as Google Classroom, Moodle, Blackboard Learn, and Canvas. These are seen by Mr. Obana to be further employed by schools and universities as these “enable students to complete assignments, deliver presentations, take assessments and receive immediate feedback from their teachers online.”

Open educational resources (OER) have also emerged, and they are likewise expected to be further adopted in the future. With their wide range of content and tools, OERs such as MIT Open Courseware, OER Commons, Lumen Learning, Merlot II, and OpenStax CNX allow netizens to learn various courses without having to get enrolled in a university.

The Department of Education (DepEd) has launched its own OER, DepEd Commons, which supports both public and private school students and teachers in learning online with its wide range of resources that can be accessed free of charge.

More than enabling learning beyond the bounds of physical classrooms, online tools are also making learning accessible for students with special needs.

Virtual class platform TinyLabs, for instance, has made it easier for a hard-of-hearing student to understand the lesson being taught online, as the platform’s co-founder and executive director, Shaina Tantuico, shared in a BusinessWorld report last year.

Global education technology company D2L, meanwhile, is collaborating with schools in designing digital courses and educational tools that support specific learning needs. Such technology has been applied at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s (DLS-CSB) School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies, where students can use sign language to deliver their essays as well as receive feedback (also in sign language) on D2L’s LMS.

“Students are provided with options regarding the time, place, and pace at which they want to learn,” DLS-CSB’s Educational Technology Office Head Rogelio Dela Cruz, Jr. was quoted as saying in a statement, adding that differentiated learning is now possible with this technology.

Given the various benefits of these digital tools, online learning is expected to be at the core of every school’s strategic plan. “Online education will be a priority not only as a potential source of revenue, but also acknowledged as core to every school’s strategic plan for institutional resilience and academic continuity,” Mr. Obana said.

Addressing digital divide

Digital’s influence in learning, however, is challenged by the digital divide that has emerged amid the increased use of online tools.

Initial data from DepEd’s enrollment survey last year showed the primary concerns of parents in relation to adopting distance learning. A total of 6.9 million cited unstable mobile and internet connections as a primary concern, while 6.8 million noted lack of available gadgets and equipment for distance learning, and 6.2 million cited insufficient load or data allowance.

Also spotting digital gaps in learning, Gloria Tam and Diana El-Azar of educational innovator Minerva Project observed that as the quality of learning is starting to become more dependent on the level and quality of digital access, many are getting left behind.

“The less affluent and digitally savvy individual families are, the further their students are left behind. When classes transition online, these children lose out because of the cost of digital devices and data plans,” Misses Tam and El-Azar wrote in a piece on World Economic Forum’s website.

They warned that the gap could widen further if educational access is dictated by access to the latest technologies and if access costs and quality of access remain compromised.

For Mr. Obana, addressing this divide should involve the development of developing long-distance and offline multimedia teaching modes and learning systems that can allow users to study courses using their personal computers while allowing faculty to track and record their learning.

As online learning gradually shapes education, blended learning is thus expected to come along. “We will also see a mix of live broadcasts, prerecorded (on-demand) content and educational programs on broadcast media,” Mr. Obana added.

It is undeniable that technology has been further used since the pandemic broke out. Now, in the ‘now normal’, rapidly emerging innovations are set to blend with traditional modes of learning and enhance education in general. — Adrian Paul B. Conoza