Online education – to be or not to be?

I am writing this article with the aim of preventing the formal and non-formal educational sectors from the temptation to substitute face-to-face education for online education, due to its limitations, and, meanwhile, to recognize the unique value of non-formal methodology for comprehensive, useful and inclusive learning in any post-pandemic educational system.

In the current global crisis situation (health, economic, humanitarian, political, etc.) if there is a unanimous agreement in society, it is the great advantages that digital technologies offer us for the improvement of humanity. Hence, it is not superfluous to recall the risks derived from the enormous dependence on digital technologies by ALL sectors, including one sector (education), in which this was not so obvious just a few months ago.

Digital tools can be, and in fact are, of great help in learning processes, but they have tremendous limitations for the comprehensive education of people, whose existence in 2020 and thereafter is expected to take place in the physical and real world and. not in the virtual or digital world.

As a trainer and coordinator of learning activities, I have to convert face-to-face training programs into an online training programs, but I have doubts about whether digital technologies and tools are the most appropriate channel, because of:

1) the digital divide, whether due to lack of connection, data, adequate spaces or digital skills, preventing many people from connecting and, therefore, learning on equal terms;

2) physical absence, which limits communications and interactions and hinders the creation of a high level of trust, damaging the quality of personal relationships, perhaps due to allowing (when not favoring) which version of oneself you want to show yourself to others, while in the real world people control how they want to be perceived as part of a pattern of social behavior;

3) the absence of movement, which prevents the improvement of all skills that require physical activity, motor and manual skills, positioning in relation to others or physical contact, which cannot be performed online (these actions being privileged sources of learning);.

4) the very limited number of interpersonal and group interactions (despite technological advances) and the need for a person to mediate or moderate, whose intervention is key (and whose role is yet to be defined);

5) the limited number of actions that can be performed. If non-formal training is defined as “learning by doing” it is obvious that there are many things that cannot be done in front of a computer or mobile screen;

6) the lack of connection with the physical environment (social, natural);

7) the real health risks (sedentary lifestyle, addiction, tired eyesight);

8) the risks to freedom, as technology is in the hands of private for-profit corporations, which provide the means and services not for free, but in exchange for valuable information on tastes, habits, ideology, personality, etc.

Digital technologies reinforce understanding and learning to the extent that they are complemented by the various face-to-face pedagogical techniques, but they suppose an automatic renunciation of one of the three dimensions and more than half of our senses.

Being people capable of using all their senses (the 5 ‘classic’ senses plus the 7 ‘new’) and moving in a 3-dimensional world, aware of the essential value of education, it does not seem that, if we want to empower people and develop their enormous potential, the best news is to settle for an online learning that limits us to half of them and that locks us in the digital cave.

I am struck by the extreme confidence that online education seems to enjoy at a time when technology is still far from being able to offer the same type of experience that the senses offer, which will undoubtedly change in a few years, due to technological and scientific advances (virtual reality, nanotechnology, etc.).

If the technological innovations applied to all kinds of services and products seek to offer an individualized experience, rich and intense from the sensory, emotional point of view, so that its maximum milestone is to be able to ‘create an experience’; allow its use on the move, offer greater autonomy, freedom and responsibility to the user, etc. perhaps the time has come to apply exactly the same goals that technological innovation pursues to pedagogical innovation.

The good news in this regard is that, although technological innovation has yet to come and is too expensive, pedagogical innovation has existed for years and its implementation and use is not at all expensive.

Regardless of whether the spaces for face-to-face education are increasingly limited or not (hopefully not), the technological challenges applied to education serve as a reminder that non-formal educational methodology offers a type of learning based on experience, which is nurtured by interaction, group and project work, the development of attitudes, skills and interests, peer learning, reflection and critical awareness, etc.

In a context of uncertainty where our time, our resources and capabilities seem to be less than we thought, should we wait 5 or 10 years for technologies to offer a virtual experience, purportedly similar to non-formal training (although, in reality, very different) to understand the benefits of non-formal (and informal) methodology?

Are we going to accept introducing that methodology only when it comes hand in hand with technological or scientific innovation, since we can incorporate it from now on, thanks to the efforts and dedication of many entities and people over time?

In this sense, the introduction of service learning methodology in the educational system was undoubtedly an important step in the right direction. Perhaps the current situation forces us to take new steps in the same direction.


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