Technology & Innovation

Schools may be on-and-off, but learning continues online

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18 May 2021


The pandemic has accelerated digitalization, including education, and it’s here to stay despite the wide global digital divide between rich and poor countries. But the challenges in providing digital learning around the world are enormous with some students not having computers or reliable internet access.

It’s been more than a year now since the Coronavirus pandemic disrupted the way we live, yet its impact is still being felt in many ways and forms—and they are likely to stay that way. As millions of adults felt the financial pain of losing jobs and facing an uncertain future due to the pandemic, more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries were also affected by school closures. Their education disrupted never before seen in history.

With the virus mutating to new variants that are more aggressive and transmittable, schools are likely to face closures on a rolling basis making online learning the best option to serve the students. But the sudden shift away from the classroom in many parts of the world, creates a huge setback for many parents, governments and their education system, as well as students themselves who are accustomed to a classroom setting.


While cases vary depending on each country’s COVID situation, online learning is likely to stay for good for students and even professionals seeking new skills or postgraduate studies. There’s www.coursera.org, www.futurelearn.com, www.openuniversity.edu, www.edx.org, among many other educational platforms, powered by hundreds of top learning institutions and educators worldwide.

The sudden shift away from the classroom to online learning has greatly impacted the global tech and education sectors, opening up both opportunities and losses, that could only be mitigated by how well they adopt. Amid all this, the wide global digital gap poses a huge problem for many developing countries on a quest to provide digital education. While poorer countries may have some technology, it’s not as developed as those in wealthier nations, especially in terms of bandwidth. For instance, 95% of students in Scandinavian countries have access to computers versus only roughly 23 percent of Indians living in cities and only 15% in rural areas. 

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The stark digital divide in India’s vast population of more than 1.38 billion puts at a disadvantage many students who cannot afford to buy computers, pay internet services or even electricity. With traditional classrooms gone, their hopes of getting educated also faded until their circumstances change. In contrast, the equally highly populated China saw a boom on online education following the pandemic with an estimated 330 million students resorting to digital learning. The trend created new opportunities for software and app developers, internet and telecom providers and even educational institutions that have transformed from providing traditional learning methods to hybrid.

China’s 5G technology is also seen to further boost its online education system along with other industries. Online giant Alibaba Group’s software arm, Alibaba Cloud, had seen its business soar by 62% to CNY40 billion (USD6.128 billion) year-on-year during this pandemic with so many companies switching to digitalization and the rise on video content and wide adoption of remote working and learning across China.

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DingTalk, Alibaba’s digital collaboration platform for enterprises, also made significant penetration in China’s education system as schools adopted the platform for teachers and students recently. Alibaba Cloud had to deploy more than 100,000 new cloud servers in just two hours during this crisis to reach out to more students online. Experts agree education must rethink and rewire how it conducts its business to serve its goals and objectives despite the seemingly endless mutation of the virus. Innovation is the key and there are a variety of digital tools on hand to help them.

The paradigm-shift on how we learn reminds us of how important education is and so does the power of the physical world. Humans are social and thrive on real face-to-face connection. There’s no substitute to feeling the real deal. Children moving, playing, interacting and actively learning with others. Students exchanging ideas and expressing thoughts in their own words, eliciting reactions from fellow students. Forging lifetime friendships in the campus. Discovering things together and creating innovations, and so on.

These are some of the things the digital world can’t fulfil but it does deliver a tool to learn we could all use to survive an uncertain future.

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