Online education in times of Covid-19 – A challenging transition for European countries
22 July 2021 /
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted society deeply with a majority of European students facing the closing down of school and university. Students were left home for weeks, sometimes months, in uncertainty and confusion. Classes had to be followed behind a screen on a daily basis, sometimes for several hours in a day. Education institutions were left with no choice but to adapt and provide an immediate response to the situation. The rapid move to distance learning, the reorganization of evaluation processes, as well as the remote support of their students were among the unexpected challenges that these establishments had to deal with in a very short time.
Unprepared education systems
The covid pandemic and the weeks spent out of schools and universities lead to a major change in education systems all around the world. Teaching is given remotely on digital platforms. According to the European University Association, 95% of universities switched to distance learning at some point during the pandemic. Teachers and students, taken by surprise, had to change and adapt to their learning environment. Many believed the situation would only last a few weeks before everything eventually went back to normal. Consequently, solutions provided to teachers and students were more of an “emergency remote solution” rather than actual online learning facilities.
According to UNESCO, only 20% of countries globally were equipped with online teaching devices and programs before the pandemic hit. Evidently, schooling systems were not digitally prepared, revealing the overall weakness of European digital learning. In fact, a survey published by HundrEd indicated only 6 % of respondents evaluated their education system as being prepared for the pandemic.
EU countries different responses
In the European Union, education policies remain an exclusive and strong domain of national countries. Therefore, the response to such challenges differed from one country to the other. In Romania, for instance, schools were closed for an average of 32 weeks between 2020 and 2021, but only 6 out of 10 students were provided with online education. Thus, deepening already existing inequalities among Romanian children. In the UK, one in five students was unable to access online learning. Altough universities and secondary schools managed to adapt more rapidly, it remained insufficient.
Some countries, such as Sweden, seemed to be more equipped to tackle the challenge. The government had already developed remote and hybrid forms of education prior to the pandemic. Therefore, a lot of students were already familiar with online learning platforms, but less with remote education.
Adapting educational tools
Video Conference platforms, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, have been experiencing unprecedented exponential growth: between March and June 2020, Teams grew by 894%. A survey made by “Statista”, demonstrated that the most used platforms by students were the digital platform “Classroom” and “Zoom”.
In the UK, a study conducted by “YouGov” in February 2021 demonstrated that live video lessons remain by 74% the main tool used for teaching, followed by website links that were used 69% of the time.
In Sweden, a study released in 2020, looked into which digital platforms were most used by teachers. It revealed that video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet and Teams were teacher’s primary tools for online teaching. Teachers also make frequent use of pre-recorded seminars posted on Youtube. For communicating with students, the group works and notes sharing, Teams and Google Classroom were most popular.
Teachers on the front line
Teachers also needed support from their institutions. However, in Romania, only 63,4 % of teachers were provided with support from their institution. In the UK, the Irish National Digital Experience Survey demonstrated that 70% of academics were completely inexperienced in online teaching before the crisis. Although, according to YouGov, 87% of teachers said they received support from their institutions.
Despite relative unprepared educational systems, some European countries were more experienced with online learning. These countries, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden and Norway have decided to gather up their digital education tools and share best practices with other countries.
After a year and a half of remote education, conclusions can be drawn about the advantages and drawbacks of online learning.
Focus on studies
A study conducted by the Aix En Provence University for students between 18 and 25 years, showed that 41,1% of the respondents have declared not being able to keep their concentration for more than 1 hour straight, while 28,1% found it difficult to remain focused for more than 2 hours. In fact, the remaining focus appeared to be more challenging during online classes, especially due to a lack of human interactions between the teacher and students and between students. Indeed, 74,5% of the respondents affirmed to be interacting way less with other students than during in-person sessions.
Students also have the feeling that getting involved in group works is challenging when online. An astounding 57% of them affirmed not wanting to get involved in group works because of the impossibility to meet and discuss in real life. Consequently, lack of social contact creates a real feeling of loneliness: 62% of students agreed online learning have drastically reduced social interactions. Finally, in spite of teachers’ devotion to adapt rapidly, 68,7% of students have noticed a decrease in interactions with their tutors. Teachers have also been deeply impacted by the sudden change of their teaching habits. Although, on a positive note, some teachers claimed the situation has encouraged them to become more creative and innovative in their ways of teaching.
First, a minority of students in Europe lack access to decent internet connections, making online learning unattainable for individuals living in poverty. In Romania, 19% of students living in rural areas do not have access to any internet connection and 10% in urban areas.
In the UK, around 9% of students are not equipped with a good connection, furthering social inequalities. Indeed, the lack of internet connection impacts both student’s ability to follow classes normally as well as their grades.
However, efforts were made in light of the situation to reduce the impact of these inequalities. In France, for instance, electronic devices are borrowed from students in need. In some cases, schools would make sure to provide pupils with printed copies, if they did not have a good internet connection or no connection at all. In Portugal, teachers also committed to sending their students in a similar situation written copies by the post.
Online examinations constitute another major challenge brought by remote learning. Teachers had to find new ways of making their students pass exams, taking into account students would use their notes, while ensuring fairness and avoid cheating. As a result, remote exams have been focusing more on reasoning, analysis and argumentation, rather than on memorization of factual information. However, online exams are not of every student’s liking. Some find it more difficult to have to type their answers rather than using a pencil and paper. This could also be due to a weak internet connection or lack of a good computer. Indeed, according to a College of Europe study, in March 2020, the University of Strasbourg identified 160 students whose lack of materials (computer, internet connection) jeopardised their ability to pursue their study as well as taking exams. Furthermore, not all students have a quiet room to study and take exams. According to a survey orchestrated by the European Parliament: “15,5% of people live in overcrowded homes”.
The EU ‘s response
The European Commission launched the new Digital Education Action Plan for the year 2021 to 2027. Through this plan, the Commission’s objective is to “learn from the COVID-19 crisis and make education and training systems fit for the digital age”. Ursula Von der Leyen expressed the plan’s objective to “raise the quality and inclusiveness of education and training systems and the provision of digital skills for all during the digital and green transition”. The COVID-19 crisis has triggered a challenging transformation of educational systems and has highlighted the great importance of education. Indeed, recognising it is more than just grades and a diploma.
[This article was first published in the issue 34 of the magazine]