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[Digital Simplicity] Unprecedented experiment with remote learning


South Korea is implementing an unprecedented educational experiment for remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the entire world.

The question is whether the country can get something positive out of its massive experiment, instead of losing hope in the face of loud complaints about the still fledgling virtual learning environment.

On Wednesday, some 3.12 million students across the nation started the new semester through online learning. They were the second group under the government’s three-step plan to confront a new reality of online learning. Last week, seniors at middle and high schools had returned to school through online classes. The final group of students is scheduled to start online classes Monday.

The opening of schools only on the online platform is largely designed to protect students and their family members against the spread of COVID-19, as the country is trying to prevent the emergence of fresh infection clusters.

As expected, a torrent of glitches hit students’ computers as they struggled to access the EBS Online Class, run by the state-run educational TV channel, and other remote learning platforms. Delayed access and intermittent disruptions of video transmissions occurred for a number of students.

Technical troubles appear inevitable. Now that 4 million students are going online every morning, the country’s major broadband networks, already taxed by surging traffic from the growing number of those who work from home, are finding it hard to handle the soaring traffic.

Since there are many intractable issues, should we give up on remote learning altogether once we get out of this COVID-19 crisis?

Let’s at least give online learning the benefit of the doubt. Korea is one of the world’s most wired countries, with its mobile and internet infrastructure well established and widely available. If Korea cannot embrace online learning at a deeper and more practical level, it is too much to ask other countries to pull it off successfully.

Remote learning, as with remote work, has many advantages, as long as related infrastructure, customized curriculums and long-term policy plans are in place.

I am taking two online classes at a graduate school. Previously, I had to wake up early and spend at least 2 hours on buses and subway trains to get to the school. Now, I just walk from the bedroom to my study, where I can take part in livestreaming classes run on Zoom, a popular remote learning platform that is also highly controversial because of security problems.

Online learning, as everybody knows, can eliminate the limitations of place.

I also appreciate the adjustable screen size and sound volume when I take online lessons, since they offer a lot of help for identifying the contents of presentation materials and understanding professors’ lectures. In the classroom setting, I had often trouble grasping what was written on the whiteboard.

Remote learning has some drawbacks, though. One of the biggest disadvantages is the lack of a sense of being together with others in the real environment as opposed to virtual setting. The feeling that I’m with teachers and students at a particular point in my life can be infinitely valuable, compared with a stream of emoticons and alerts from chatrooms.

Another danger in online learning involves distraction. Of course, students always get distracted wherever they are. I also get distracted easily. But home-based learning is much more vulnerable to all sorts of distractions than classrooms where teachers and other students are nearby, playing the role of helpful observers.

There is also a security issue that might have a bigger impact. Some students rely on commercial broadband and public Wi-Fi services. Loopholes in security, especially concerning anti-virus and anti-malware software, mean the data on their computers might be exposed to hacking attempts.

Nobody knows when the coronavirus pandemic will end and we can get back to our normal course of life. Until then, policymakers, teachers and students should think about what they can get out of the country’s massive experiment with remote learning and how they will use it even after we are allowed to take offline classes without worrying about infection risks.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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