Over a decade ago, we saw an uptick in people learning over the internet. The very possibility of exchanging information and connecting with others over the internet created a wave of online learning. A consequence of that possibility was the wave of MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courseware like Coursera & Udemy. Online learning became a learning strategy, a way to flirt with different topics that are too expensive to try out in the material world, and mostly supplement “actual” learning… until 2020.
When the CoVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the promise of putting students on the internet for anything other than fun became a reality. There was no option to weigh the pros and cons of e-learning; online education became the necessary default. With 2020 ending, most students and teachers have had a beta test of teaching students via Zoom, Google Classroom, Moodle, or any other content delivery system. Consider 2020 as a test-drive for new changes in e-learning starting 2021.
What would be the possible strengths and weaknesses of learning online? In this post, I’ll outline the observed and expected advantages and disadvantages of digitizing education at the global level. Let’s look at online education from a psychological & brain-based perspective.
Pros/Advantages of learning online
1. Access to variety
The biggest strength of online education is that various sources like YouTube, forums, blogs, wikis, video lectures, podcasts, etc., can create variety in how people learn. That variety helps the brain connect the dots, gain novel insights, and deepen the roots of learning in a literal web of information. Variety promotes creativity & problem-solving too. Variety promotes holistic and actionable learning. It can also add an element of fun and curiosity, which naturally promotes better learning.
2. More autonomy, flexibility, & control
Gen Z & Generation Alpha value autonomy and control over what they want to learn and how much influence they have on their routines. Online learning gives students some autonomy and some perceived autonomy/control over their options. Students can work with more flexibility and even request teachers to make accommodations. They can influence the pace of learning and even change priorities.
3. Native digital habits
New generation students typically grow up with more advanced and streamlined technologies. Dial-up internet turned to 4g & free WiFi. Being born in a certain digital environment makes many things intuitive and natural. Learning to read comics on an iPad and toggling between all the settings at 6 years of age set children up for a familiar, intuitive understanding of technology, which older generations might not comprehend. These environments create new habits and lifestyle choices that accommodate online education better.
4. Extended brain
The internet can be considered as an external brain for a network of humans. Humans tend to remember where information is located better than the information itself. This is where the external brain, especially Google, comes into play. Google helps us locate information. The pathway from curiosity to knowledge is what we remember, more than knowledge. Keywords, websites, navigation through forums, search filters, etc., give us a location for knowledge that we can repeatedly navigate. We could then devalue learning information and instead learn how to find information. Knowing what someone else might know is called Transactive memory. If you are clueless but you know your teacher knows better means you possess knowledge in your “transactive memory.” We know what Google might know. We have this “transactive memory” with Google, and it even has a name – The Google Effect. Combining memory for the location of information and confidence in this transactive memory with Google or anyone via DMs is a powerful advantage. It promotes solving problems on the fly, fact-checking, and solidifies memory of information with a “search & find” context. A huge map of this search & find approach can help in unexpected ways.
5. Easier Relatability
Current school and undergraduate students are big on relatability. With students and teachers facing similar hardships, it is easier to discuss and brainstorm solutions with compassion. It is easier to be mindful and empathetic toward one another. The emotional & social comfort that comes with relatability is often an overlooked part of educational or learning-focused relationships.
6. Easier self-expression
With the slight invisibility & psychological distance that the internet provides, it is relatively easier to express oneself. These expressions could be relevant to learning such as personal interests, satisfaction & dissatisfaction with learning, etc. It enables quality feedback.
7. Distribution of learning resources
Learning resources are costly in the real world where books cost 10x their e-book version. It is also easier to share learning materials and keep track of quality resources. A teacher doesn’t necessarily have to reproduce what’s already published to distribute it offline. Common authority sources can be fact-checked, shared, explained, and summarized by many for many more.
8. Competition for quality
One major advantage of moving classrooms online or presenting shared resources online is the competition it creates between different learning resources. For example, hundreds of teachers could try to put up their best teaching materials on the internet that could help students all over the world. Knowing that any student could access quality resources online, teachers & content creators are motivated to supply the best content they can for everyone’s benefit. That incentivizes kinship and extra effort in online learning on top of direct incentives like higher authority, visibility, audience reach, and social standing.
9. Educational business ecosystems
By recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of online education, businesses have innovated to help facilitate. Apps & products they create tend to solve particular problems. This educational innovation boom is a business opportunity because it caters to very real needs and challenges we face. Video streaming, virtual classrooms, and note-making apps are just the start.
Cons/Disadvantages of learning online
1. Gateway to procrastination
Procrastination is mainly a problem of poor emotional regulation where we can’t tolerate discomfort caused by the idea of doing a task and delay it for something more fun like Instagram. Procrastination is far easier on the phone than on a paper notepad. Discomfort or boredom caused by monotonous screen-lecture time or compulsory readings can push students to procrastinate with the phone. Simultaneously, anticipated and unexpected experiences via social media could pull students toward procrastinating studies.
2. Online disinhibition & psychological distance
Social profiles & the internet create a barrier that dilutes reality because there is more anonymity, lesser continuous feedback between facial expressions, less-amplified consequences, detachment from consequences, shrugging off responsibility, blame-shifting, etc. It weakens the perceived intensity of negative actions, which encourages impulsive, reckless, & irresponsible behavior. Online disinhibition is one reason why people can be meaner on the internet. It’s also why students can trivialize online learning and its necessity. Students may dismiss important aspects of learning because those learning activities could “feel” weaker than their material world counterparts. For example, open debates or classroom reviews may seem psychologically distant, and that distance can dilute the intensity of discussions. That could make them more distracted, detached, and even impulsive enough to rebel against online learning.
3. Merging of formal & informal environments
For most students, places to have fun and places to follow academics are separated either by time or space. That separation has become blurry because students now have a monotonous routine of using a screen to have fun & learn. This may promote contrasting behaviors like binging Netflix which is passive watching right after active concentrated reading. While the importance of off-screen time can’t be undervalued, given limited options due to the pandemic, online learning has merged with having fun by taking the same space (screen) and time (multitasking).
4. Opportunities for technological & human errors
Even though newer students are likely to be more tech-savvy than the average student from 1990, the number of small technologies and dependencies like the internet, apps, batteries, cables, logins, earphones, etc. create an opportunity for something to go wrong. Students may pay lesser attention to these potential points of errors due to domestic demands, distractions, a lack of boundaries between fun time & learning time, etc. Not getting up & preparing exclusively for school or college could lead to neglecting parts of that preparation which could potentially bring one’s attention to human errors.
5. High cost of transition
Not all educational institutions, teachers, students, or parents are in a position to pay for a digital transformation as and when needed. Many students & teachers can’t afford the time nor the money needed to make digital changes. Workflows may seem simple in theory but practical implementations come with hidden costs. For example, donating mobile phones to poor students is a great start to enable online learning for all but the hidden cost is to on-board teachers and students with the changes.
Students from rural areas lack adequate network/internet facilities placing them at a backfoot since lectures take place online.Pournima Gaikwad, Assistant Professor (History)
6. Weak boundaries & monotony
The same physical space gets used for dining, conversing, reading, and online learning. Weaker differentiation between types of activities and environments could create monotony, boredom, and numbness. It could even take a toll on mental health.
Social connections and collaborative work is a powerful context for learning. Online learning has reduced or changed many aspects of it. There are fewer interactions to exchange information in a shared space that allow free mental reflection or feedback between people. Offloading those to planned digital exchanges could benefit people but could also modify first impressions or neglect useful unstructured instantaneous feedback.
8. Lack of buffer activities and time gaps
It no longer takes more than a few minutes to attend an online learning session. There is no travel to reach a destination for lectures. The travel, which acts as a buffer between 2 or more routines in a day, is weaker. That creates fuzzy boundaries between events that take place in a day. It also reduces gaps between work sessions that potentially allowed people to refresh and counter fatigue.
9. Cyberbullying & threats
Digital interactions open the doorway to many potential malicious or disruptive attacks from trained hackers or bullies. Some cyberattacks are targeted to harass learners; some are meant to disrupt events; some are unintended consequences of poor preventive measures. Knowing such possibilities can make students and teachers feel unsafe. And that could potentially lower learning/teaching efficacy even if there aren’t any recognizable vulnerabilities.
Pros and Cons of online education (Summary)
|Access to a variety of informational content||Gateway to procrastination|
|The internet becomes an external brain||Online disinhibition & increased psychological distance|
|More control, flexibility, and autonomy||Merging of formal & informal environments|
|High competition for quality content||High cost of transition|
|Use native digital lifestyle habits||Technological & human errors|
|Educational business opportunities||Weaker lifestyle boundaries & monotony|
|Wider distribution of content||Fewer social connections & material collaboration|
|High self-expression||Lack of time gaps & buffer activities|
|High relatability between students & teachers||Cyberbullying & cyberthreats|
Some of these cons affect mental health too. For example, cyberbullying, boredom, monotony, merging of environments, etc. can create frustrations and negative emotions. Those can strain a person’s ability to adapt & adjust in an already difficult environment.
These advantages & disadvantages of learning online have only typically manifested after the lockdowns began. They don’t necessarily apply to any specific type of education. Special education or inclusive education needs to consider many finer nuances that are beyond the scope of this article. It is best to consult a special educator to understand or improve online learning for people with special needs on a case-by-case basis.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced in Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, a few books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.