Distance Education: Will the Promise Come True?

Distance or remote education is not a new concept. First recorded attempts to establish distance learning date back to early 17th century. Educational materials were to be delivered by mail at those times. Later, new and better technologies were supposed to ease the access to learning. I remember myself in the late 1980s reading a sci-fi short-story about a girl who studied at school via a lamp-TV, talked to her classmates by radio, and sent homework to her robot teacher through pneumatic tube mail (those were the times to dream big!).

In the modern understanding even better technologies are being used. We have online courses, professors keep in touch with students everyday, real-time tests and exams are a normality, and much more. Introduction of all this tech already happened quite some years ago. Subsequently, a plethora of online educational courses appeared in mid-2000s. Nevertheless, the area covered by remote classes almost exclusively was targeting higher education or teaching some specific skills to adults. What is more, many distance education programs at universities were considered sub-par. Their quality was widely mocked by the professionals and the general public alike. Maybe you can even recall those comedy TV sketches about using the online university certificates as wallpaper from 10 years ago?

So the pre-COVID-19 landscape in remote learning was a bit lackluster and uninspiring — not many people wanted to enroll and paying for distance learning was considered a waste of money. It is widely believed that the 3 main factors were to blame:

  • low quality — at least as perceived by the customers — for the majority of the online-only courses even with the leading colleges and universities;
  • lack of trust by both potential students and future employers;
  • relative inexperience with online tech and methods among both students and professors.

There were high chances that the current pandemic would change all of this. Fervently enforced lockdowns combined with the need to continue studies magically made the remote solution not only viable but seemingly the best-and-only way to go. Everybody was forced into using remote apps for communication. Lack of trust was overcome in directive mode by university administrations just telling students and professors to go online. And quality seemed of lesser concern. Troubling times require drastic measures — so who cares about quality so much?

All the changes described above (there were even more, I understand that) bode so well for the acceptance of distance leaning. But here we are in September 2020 discussing and rooting for going ‘back to normal’ with awkward relief. So many open questions still remain: is it even possible for humans to study without peer pressure and social interaction? maybe we are just at the early stage of the technology adoption curve and more change is still to come? why the cost-efficiency of distance education not the major factor here? what other triggers do we need to launch a real revolution in learning?