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opinion

George Veletsianos is a professor of education and Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology at Royal Roads University.

Classrooms this month feel more like the days before the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools and universities across Canada ditch mass testing, universal masking, screening forms and vaccination campaigns, they’re also ditching online learning. They’re abandoning it even though there are circumstances in which it can be even better than in-person learning.

The prevailing idea that online learning was a temporary and inadequate facade of the real thing to help us get through the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardizes this powerful approach to education. As a researcher who has been studying online learning for nearly two decades, and as an educator with more than 10 years of online teaching experience, I also find it alarming and short-sighted, but ultimately unsurprising.

It is alarming because our schools and universities are going to face new crises for which they will need online learning. Chief among them is the climate emergency.

When my home province of British Columbia was battered by atmospheric rivers last winter, schools closed owing to floods, mudslides and highway damage. Switching to online forms of education ensured continuity. Scientists warn that extreme weather events like this one are becoming more frequent and more violent. Natural disasters are the same way. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand also required, and benefited from, emergency responses to education continuity.

It is short-sighted because many of our fellow citizens are unable to access in-person education.

Who are they? People with disabilities. People who live in remote and rural communities. Military personnel. Professionals who work full-time. Students who work while completing their studies. People who care for their children or families full-time. In-person learning limits their access to education, raises barriers to their aspirations, and excludes them. Online learning can be designed in flexible ways to cater to their diverse needs and responsibilities.

Over the years, my colleagues and I interviewed hundreds of online learners. One that stands out for me is a mid-thirties mother who was taking online coursework while caring for an infant. She was studying to improve her child’s life and was exceptional in her tenacity. But online learning was a good fit for her regular life, not an emergency measure.

The rejection of online education is unsurprising because ever since its development, it has been considered the poor cousin of in-person education.

The body of evidence that is available generally shows that under the right circumstances online learning works, and can be as good as, if not better than, in-person education. Still, the belief that it is inferior persists. To be certain, the evidence isn’t absolute: online learning doesn’t work for everyone all the time. It is not as appropriate for young children as it is for adults and a recent study showed that when some students enroll in some in-person courses they are more likely to earn a degree than those who enroll exclusively in online courses. More importantly, whether online learning is successful or not primarily depends on its design.

Designers and researchers working with the Academic Learning Transformation Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University know a great deal about online learning design. When the 2015 UCI Road World Championship bicycle race descended in Richmond, Va., rather than deal with the disruptions caused by crowds, congestion and road closures, the university cancelled classes for its Monroe Park campus. Under the leadership of the lab, faculty took advantage of the opportunity to create 26 online courses that inspired students to explore a slew of topics related to cycling. The race became a setting for the students to collect and analyze data that related to physics, entrepreneurship, health, event planning and so on.

Design makes or breaks online learning, which is the exact reason why much of the online learning that happened during the pandemic – what researchers have dubbed emergency remote learning – was indeed awful. It was designed and delivered by professionals who were never trained for it, who never signed up for it and who were doing it while dealing with grief, loss, anxiety and the broader repercussions of the pandemic. What students need more than access to education is access to well-planned and purposefully designed education.

If one thing is certain right now it is that our world is filled with crises and uncertainty. In times like this, foresight and proactiveness are key. Ditching online learning is myopic. We will need it. It’s not a question of if – it’s a matter of when.