Even at the worst of times, we have to protect the notion that education is integral and necessary for all people. It is a human right and it is the only thing that can provide answers and protection in a dangerous and uncertain world. Unfortunately during a pandemic or other times of disaster and unrest, basic survival takes focus, and intellectual and academic growth is suppressed. The result can be a lost generation of learners, set back because of isolation and limited access to proper education.
The time is now to transform what education looks like.
Covid-19 confinement created an unprecedented shift in education, seeing schools and institutions finding immediate need for distance learning options. Solutions to the need have been largely rushed, ineffective attempts to salvage and recreate the classroom environment online. Some families and students have scrambled to cobble together makeshift, amateur homeschooling environments, and others have done away with recognizable education entirely. Graduations and advancements have already been put on hold in many places, and we are at risk for a potentially catastrophic setback in universal education. Efforts are being made to transition into the online space out of necessity, but without adequate content and design, schools are essentially running place-holder programs with rudimentary or irrelevant activities and presentations being used to substitute for lesson plans and curriculum that were rendered unusable when the classrooms closed.
The Online Education and Distance Learning Industry has answers. Even before COVID-19, distance learning was an important, and often overlooked, element in the push for opportunity, equality, and representation in education. Geographic limitations and privileges were being erased and replaced with open-access being granted to all learners, regardless of where they may be in the world or what their physical limitations were. The integration of emerging technologies provided unprecedented accessibility and support for all students, even those with disabilities or that were differently-abled. Furthermore, online learning provided flexibility in scheduling and access to working individuals, single-parents, caretakers for elderly family-members, and anybody else that previously thought their life-circumstances would keep them from getting a basic education or would make them unable to continue their pursuit of the knowledge they would need to ultimately make a change in their world and for those around them.
Prior to the pandemic, analysts showed that the global online education market was projected to reach a total market size of $286.62 billion by 2023. I personally witnessed my own company, Genius Produced, record substantial, accelerating growth consistently for years leading up to the pandemic. These figures depict an industry that was already quickly growing, and they illustrate a developing need that previously existed for distance learning. At the same time we were seeing exponential, pre-COVID growth in the industry, those of us that considered ourselves forward-thinkers, recognized that there would inevitably be a time when distance learning became the primary and necessary option for all students everywhere. Innovators within the industry focused their efforts on creating legitimate, applicable online learning experiences that would satisfy the requirements and objectives of educators and institutions. A good example is The Virtual Field Practice program at the University of Southern California, which was one of the pioneering projects in this field. I personally developed and executed that program alongside Dr. Gary Wood in 2007, and since then, it has proven to be an innovative and useful learning tool for students pursuing a Master’s Degree in Social Work. The detailed and reality-based online simulations that the program presents have been deemed an effective alternative to a live Field Practicum course for students that are unable to physically attend one.
Online education was already a rapidly growing industry prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic. With the stay-at-home orders and closing of schools around the world, any existing timeline for expansion in this area has to be considered greatly accelerated at this point. Even in a theoretical “post-COVID” world, it is reasonable to assume that the trajectory will have improved dramatically over previous projections. The “cat will be out of the bag”, so to speak, as students and educators in all corners are currently taking unscheduled test-drives of the distance learning vehicle and many of them will never return to traditional education.
For over 13 years, distance learning organizations like mine have been preparing for this moment in history. Before the pandemic, we were already seeing citizens, particularly those living in underprivileged areas, having little-to-no means for entrance or connection with academic opportunities. In response, we began laying the groundwork for what education had to become to serve the needs of the people. Now, at a moment in history where geographic limitations have us all confined, physically but not mentally, distance learning is even more important. The desire to learn and continue one’s personal education and growth cannot be quarantined.