The coronavirus pandemic has certainly influenced lifestyles on a global scale. With public places being less frequented, ways to adjust to the new status quo have emerged. Travel plans have been put to a halt, work-from-home has become the new normal and online shopping is more popular now than ever before. One particular consequence of the pandemic has been the switch from on-campus learning to online education.
For the longest time, on-campus education had been touted as the best, most effective way towards quality education and for all the right reasons. The game really changed towards the middle of March, this year, when the world suddenly switched off momentarily to deal with the calamity of COVID-19. The result? Meteoric rise of online education.
Online education in Pakistan, for all its convenience value, has met with mixed feedback from all facets. Although, it has certainly not been thought of as the perfect substitute for traditional, on-campus education system, it does provide some perks of its own. For starters, online education offers the flexibility to students to balance their education with their work or personal schedule. Programs that are offered online can blend into the student’s daily routine, allowing them to take care of their other responsibilities without being burdened to attend classes at specific time and venue. This can help them in continuing their job or personal life without creating a gap in their academic learning.
Having said that, it is also important to address the hesitations encircling the online education system. The most common concern of students is the technical issue of poor connectivity, especially in developing nations such as Pakistan. Oftentimes, having a poor internet connection can cause students to miss out on certain parts of the lecture or in some cases the entire lecture. If the connectivity issue is at the instructor’s end, he or she resorts for rescheduling the class. This is not a common occurrence in an onsite environment, where classes almost always take place, as scheduled. Another challenge facing online education is the lack of technical know-how for the tools, leading to precious time being wasted. This includes inexperience with connecting to or disconnecting from meetings on tools such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, and / or Google Classroom. This know-how is mandatory for both teachers and students in order to have a well-functioning and time-efficient digital classroom. Furthermore, these tools deliver a range of functions to assist in teaching such as video sharing, slide sharing, screen sharing, and breakout rooms. Sometimes, instructors have not explored all the options beforehand, furthering the ineffectiveness of the online learning environment. This results in the disengagement of students who end up losing interest, eventually adding to the collective woes of the society at-large.
The purpose, henceforth, of this article is to weigh in the criticism against online education and try to present a cogent argument in favor of online education, especially when taking part-time upskill courses such as data science.
A key feature of online education is easy and widespread accessibility of content. For example, top-ranked universities are now offering their recorded lectures online along with notes and online quizzes and assessments. Where on-campus teaching can only be availed by students residing at a commutable distance; online education offers a prime advantage. Students, from all around the world, can enroll in online classes without the geographical limitations of being physically present to attend an onsite class.
A student from Frontier Technology Institute’s (FTI) first-ever online cohort, Mustafa Moiz, shares his experience:
“I thoroughly enjoyed my online classes at FTI. I would have been devoid of the opportunity had it been solely an onsite certification since I am not currently residing in Pakistan. I was initially concerned about feeling disengaged as I believe I am more comfortable in-person but FTI’s interactive sessions left me quite satisfied. Online classes allowed me to advance my skills in data science from the comfort of my abode, overseas.”
Mustafa is currently residing in Canada but attends his online Data Science certification in Karachi.
Not only does online education eliminates geographical barriers, it is overall cost effective as compared to onsite courses. This is because the institutes are not passing on the campus amenities cost on to their students, hence making these courses quite affordable. These online courses also have a shorter duration as compared to pursuing the degree on-campus. A graduate degree usually takes two years for completion, whereas some of the available online masters in data science programs span as short as 16 months.
Moving on, online education allows content and educational experience to be customized according to the pace and preference of the students. Some courses are provided as a package of lecture recordings which students may view later, while others offer a live classroom experience along with video recordings of the same for future student review. This provision is often absent for onsite classes. Students also have easy access to professors during office hours. Onsite appointments usually have to be set beforehand through emails and students must visit the office in-person with their queries and concerns.
Online platforms provide the feature of real-time virtual meetings and chat rooms, creating flexibility and easy access. Students and professors often fear that online classes will not be sufficiently interactive and may also lead to shortage of networking opportunities. This fear can easily be eliminated once online classes are adopted with adequate tool usability. Most tools have virtual break-out rooms where colleagues can interact with each other and expand their network. That said, the experience of in-person networking sessions is no match to a virtual networking session, however it does provide a useful alternative.
Most stay-at-home parents and industry professionals also prefer taking online courses due to their respective personal and work-related commitments. Online education allows greater flexibility in timings and pace so they can be completed with more ease alongside a full-time or part-time career. For instance, a typical data science course deliverable requires a student to develop functional knowledge of Python and SQL programming, data wrangling, various machine learning concepts and algorithms along with forecasting methodologies. Hence, having the option to effectively learn data science without withstanding a career gap is a tremendous advantage of online education.
In keeping with the current situation and recognizing the scope of online classes, FTI started to offer online Data Science learning cohort. So far there has been one online cohort and the second online cohort is expected to start on August 8th, 2020. Since it was FTI’s first experience with an online cohort, there were minor connectivity issues and some rescheduling of classes. However, the instructors at FTI teach with great organization and zeal regardless of whether the course is being taught online or onsite. “Most online courses on data science are provided as asynchronous self-paced collection of lectures hence I opted for FTI which offers live sessions,” says Sarah Ameen, a student from their first online data science certification cohort, “The teachers were always available for queries and taught excellently. The classes were recorded which was a huge advantage in case I wanted to review my concepts. Having online classes provided a much-needed solution for those like me who wanted to learn data science during the pandemic when all onsite options were unavailable.”
Many industry professionals also enrolled in the online cohort, and found the online classes to be much more suited to their schedules. Commute time was completely eliminated and having the lectures online gave flexibility in timings. “I have a full-time career thus I was delighted to find the online FTI certification course. I did not have to travel to the site, saving a lot of time. I actually prefer the online cohort to the onsite one because having a job and simultaneously attending a course onsite would be very cumbersome. Apart from a few connectivity issues, the classes were quite smooth-running and the instructors gave us well-prepared and informative classes. The overall knowledge gain was equal to that of onsite classes; however, this gave me the chance to develop data science skills while sitting at home,” says Fasih Munir, who also enrolled in FTI’s first-ever online data science certification cohort.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly impacted the educational system, but in hindsight this change has been an inevitable one. Sudden transition from onsite to online education has revealed to many the benefits that online education has to offer. Utilizing this time to obtain and hone valuable skills will prove to be rewarding in the long run. Data science is one such skill which boasts a promising future. Data scientists are in high demand and have an abundance of job opportunities because their skillset is required in almost every sector. According to the American Statistical Association, 70% of business leaders in the United States will prefer job applicants with data skills by 2021. So, although the virus has led to inimical conditions, it has also provided us with an opportunity to prepare for future prospects and online education offers an excellent platform to do so.
This begs the question: Should you still be concerned about whether online education is right for you?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
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