The Surge of e-learning during The 2020 Covid-19 Crisis: Threat or Promise? An Exploration and Conversation with a Professional in Education

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The Surge of e-learning during The 2020 Covid-19 Crisis: Threat or Promise? An Exploration and Conversation with a Professional in Education
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Ljupka Naumovska


The obligation for students to stay at home and take distance education due to the quarantine has turned virtual learning or e-learning into the most promising tool for safe teaching. Distance education appears to be the answer for the democratization of higher education in Latin America to eradicate poverty and inequality in work and living opportunities, still has to be accomplished. The Covid-19 crisis has forced the world education system to embrace e-learning without be prepared but does this mean a threat or as promise? In this article we explore the question at a point when the pandemic is still raging and definite answers are not yet available, firstly be presenting a framework based on previous research on e-learning in Latin-America, followed by a conversation with an e-learning professional engaged in Africa.

Keywords: Corporative ICT, Distance Education, e-Learning, Tutoring.


The paradigm of Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) or virtual learning to empower people with knowledge has not reached emerging countries of Latin America (LA) or Africa. The idealistic claim that distance digital education appears to be the answer for the democratization of higher education in Latin America to eradicate poverty and inequality in work and living opportunities, still has to be accomplished. The obligation for students to stay at home and take distance education due to the quarantine has turned virtual learning or e-learning into the most promising tool for safe teaching. However, the need for every country to develop their own distance learning model can become a sovereignty threat, because of corporative information and communication technology (ICT) education being represented by modern ongoing super-colonialism enterprises (Google, Microsoft, Amazon and 5G mobile tech) which are more intrusive than the colonialism experienced in the last two centuries and which control ICT, frameworks, infrastructure, and knowledge networks that can erase ancestral culture modalities. Key questions are who will regulate and supervise the e-ethics of learning services and ICT corporations that surveillance every word and action typed online. Due to the fact that events are occurring very fast in respect to distance education globally, the scientific information is scarce. In this work we elaborated further an approach of our previous published paper “The Tutoring Influences in Distance Education at El Oro Province Ecuador ” published in the European Journal of Educational Research in 2019. This article focused on the situation of distance education offered to college students (adult e-learning) by the local university and the social, pedagogic and economic causes of the drop-out problem.

1.1 Exploration of the framework

This is an extension of the framework used in the previous article ‘Tutoring Influences in Distance Education at El Oro Province Ecuador’.

1.1.1 Democracy and digital learning: the digital

This term ‘digital divide’ is used to point out existing digital (ICTs) inequalities among nations, social groups, and individuals. These inequalities occur more in poor world regions with an evidently lower personal computer penetration, and scarcity of Internet access rates (Rallet & Rochelan, 2007). In rich countries having a computer and ICT access is viewed and assumed as a condition of wealth. The social justice implications of the digital divide typically focus on the idea that a lack of technology access or lack of digital skills and knowledge consequently differentiates access to education and economic advantages (Mossberger et al., 2007). Hargittai (2002) distinguishes the digital divide in terms of competences of connected individuals having digital culture and skills and know-how to accomplish online tasks. But the complexity or simplicity of the accomplished tasks depend essentially on the nature of the computer terminal (CPU) used, either if the terminal is a computer, mobile phone, or TV, and the services result from public or commercial supply, or a combination can be distinguished as many access/uses/services possible paths.

1.1.2 The digital transformation in education – a framework in a nutshell

According to Patton and Santos (2018) few steps are required to build a basic CAI system: (1) to create a digital culture. Meaning the regular and persistent use of technology by educators, learners, and parents to propagate a digital culture, and thus help build a new digital learning environment. Many teachers are intimidated by new approaches and unconvinced of their value, however, with the integration of digital literacy into pedagogical practices, this will stimulate the teacher’s creativity. But it will be required to find out a natural way of teaching the teachers beyond a single ICT training course.

(2) A digital learning methodology. The process of transforming traditional learning environments in virtual classrooms should focus on creating efficient ICT skills for educators that may put the learner at the right place of the new digital learning process. These include collaborative knowledge and modern learning methodologies such as flipped learning, adaptive learning, project-based learning, and personalized learning, just to mention a few. New technology makes it possible to create environments where students get what they need when they need it; for students, to take classes anywhere, anytime, on any device; for faculty, staff, and students to connect seamlessly to the network; ensuring safe, secure, and reliable networking. (3) A good ICT component. The digital education platform relies on the core network infrastructure: wired and wireless connectivity and the underlying cybersecurity solutions that enable what is essential for a future digital campus within physical universities. Everything that follows is dependent on a strong, reliable core network that ensures the network, ubiquitous campus connectivity, virtualization of the digital campus, collaboration, and personalization for distance and blended learning. Today’s students always demand access to the network, resources, and information needed to realize success. Finally cybersecurity. Learners want access to information when they need it and where they can most easily find it. They want to attend classes anytime, anywhere. They don’t necessarily want to physically attend every class. They want a persistent social environment that is easy to find and that creates a continuous learning environment, before, during, and after class.

1.1.3 A desirable ICT network for CAI in the public education context

Public schools and universities must provide their students access to ICT facilities in response to the direction taken by the emerging education technology (Edtech), including to build innovative resources and services for teachers and students. Essential tools for providing this ICT innovations are intranet, internet, and network services. Parents and students must follow basic correct use and acceptable online behavior: e.g. download the assigned classwork and assignments set by teachers; conduct proper digital research for learning activities; network or collaborate with other students, teachers, parents or experts in relation to schoolwork; access online e-books and educative resources, etc. On the other hand, it is unacceptable for students and parents to use the IT resources in an unlawful manner such as to publish or promote offensive messages or pictures; to promote racism; violate copyright laws; to use unsupervised internet chat; to send junk mail; hacking activities or introducing viruses to breach the network’s security.

1.1.4 Computer-Assisted Instruction system and constructivism learning theory

The CAI’s theoretical basis has undergone three evolution processes, i.e. behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism (Mcnulty et. al., 2000) among which the development of constructivism learning and instructional theory has moved CAI toward maturity. Piaget’s constructivism theory of learning discusses how people construct meaning and knowledge by their own (Sjøberg, 2010). This may be a good approach for individual self-learning, however, when constructivism is not properly applied, it often leads to the acquirement of biased principles (when the learning is extremely accelerated by ICTs, or due to a forced distance education), particularly in science because this knowledge can be based on beliefs. In the study by Cetin-Dindar (2016), it was found that students were negatively motivated to learn science in a virtualized constructivist environment. But when they have more opportunities to connect with science at school to real life, they are more motivated to learn science.

Thus, finding how to accelerate the construction of a self-learning environment based on constructivist learning theory will be a great challenge in the future development of CAI.

There are 3 aspects around the application of CAI system: (1) problems of computer-assisted instruction at home and abroad; (2) the constructivist theory and the integrableware idea (explained below) together within a CAI system platform, and its implementation; (3) the overall architecture of the CAI platform based on constructivism theory and the detailed design and implementation of each module and its verification. Constructivist-based learning theory puts emphasis on the student-centered idea, assuming that learners do not acquire knowledge directly from teachers, but do it by means of construction in relation to relevant learning resources and social environment background. Context, collaboration, conversation, and meaning construction are the four major attributes of the learning environment (Matta & Kern, 1989). Constructivism theory argues that to advance the innovation of the instruction models, teachers need to design and create a good learning environment for students to stimulate their enthusiasm for learning and knowledge. The traditional instruction models have fallen short of what’s needed for constructivism.

1.1.5 A constructivist learning environment model

The integrableware idea. Integrableware, as a basic teaching unit that forms the courseware, is composed of innumerable primitives (knowledge points) and can accommodate the needs of different teachers and students. It is generally believed that the integrableware comprises the integrableware platform and library, of which, the platform provides a soft environment for teachers and students to assemble the library (Meliopoulos, 1981). The library provides a huge mass of resources for teachers and students to use in classroom instruction. Another opinion thinks that the integrableware is made up by multimedia database management and compilation systems (Dalgarno, 2001). Other essential integrableware ideas lie in the accomplishment with constancy. Teachers can arrange, combine and choose the first-hand resources involved in the instructional and online repositories according to the needs of different students to generate a teaching program with certain functions by which to carry out the targeted instruction and achieve the purpose of teaching students in accordance with their aptitude by applying digital and virtual resources (Zurita & Nussbaum, 2004), thus breaking the traditional instruction model solely designed for class hours, instead of the whole subject curriculum.

1.1.6 The youth perception of digital education

ICT has brought improvements in our lives. However, a percentage of the youth seem to realize that these ICT advances might never change the lives of certain populations even if they had routine access to them. Contrary to a general consensus that ICT made our lives more convenient or comfortable, some young users do not see their smartphones as fundamentally transformative to how they live their lives. Today’s young must face intractable issues, such as homelessness, crime, and corruption that requires political interventions rather than technological responses. Youth acknowledged the need to keep up with emerging ICTs to stay up-dated in multiple professions. But not the whole youth is acting like a herd of lambs following ICTs innovations. According to Masucci et al. (2019), a percentage of the youth wanting jobs in health have realized the ways in which technology would change the workforce (e.g., automation, robots assisting with surgeries). Some youth expressed a desire to seek careers that would not be threatened by robotics, and the uncertainty of what sort of profession that would be.

1.1.7 Learners’ motivation – the tutor role and new requirements

Motivation is a sort of stimulus that triggers mental processes to focus and keeps goal-oriented behaviors (Liu et al., 2016). According to the Self Determination Theory (SDT), each individual person could regulate his motivational behavior, in a continuous perspective, from external to internal factors (Deci & Ryan, 2014).

As individuals remain in continuous interaction with their environment (real and virtual), the SDT works on how ideas, values, and goals are internalized according to the influence of several variables in the social and biological context. E-learning is a Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) used as a pedagogical tool that focuses on individualized, active, and cooperative learning, where the knowledge is no longer transferred from an authority but constructed within a free, dynamic, and dialogic context, enabling the development of the collective intelligence (Levy, 2000). One of the best-known e-learning models is the Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) for English teaching, which uses several ICTs, organizes the flow of activities closely related to real-life situations, facilitating students’ meaningful learning (Hani, 2014). CAI and e-learning require online tutoring to boost distance oriented courses and rely on a communicational phenomenon to build community knowledge, using ICTs for giving effective feedback. Online tutoring influences student’s progress or drop-out (Espinoza-Freire & Rojas-Garcia, 2019). Therefore, the virtual tutor’s role has changed from static to a more complex actor and has shifted to be a facilitator for students’ learning. A virtual tutor fulfills several functions, from a personal motivator, to an active social player, and an experienced teacher (Krasnova & Demeshko, 2015). One key factor is the institutional context where the tutor participates in the development of effective distance education models (Manzuoli & Roig, 2015), but the administrative work overload seriously affects the tutor’s performance on its virtual performance. Empathic teachers establish positive relations with their students fostering more secure and motivating environments and causing positive effects on learners’ performance. Thus a tutor’s instruction practices require ICTs, pedagogical and social skills (Garbin et al., 2015). Nevertheless, some studies state that although the tutor’s expertise is important, there is a lack of knowledge about how social presence forms an important part of the tutor’s role, and can influence student’s motivation to learn, mainly English as a foreign language. It is not clear which aspects of the tutor’s role could have an important influence on students’ motivation in e-learning English.

1.1.8 Online learning – education commercialization

The forced response to Covid-19 has not resolved issues and challenges associated with the broad-scale adoption of online learning. But it may represent a threat surrounding data collection and surveillance. Every commercial platform and online services have its own capacity to track, store, and analyze student usage, outcomes and to make profiles for profiting. The mining and use of student digital data raise questions about privacy, consent, ownership, bias, as well as openness. Commercial operators have accelerated its shift towards the reduced need for schools and teachers in order to grow the market for data-driven personalized learning that can be provided directly to consumers (Sellar & Hogan, 2019).

1.1.9 Corporative enrollment in schools’ digital education

The involvement of corporate ICT companies in education systems around the world has a long history, though it has intensified dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic. Three major transnational technology companies are: Microsoft, Google, and Amazon: (1) Microsoft. This company is intended to “reimagine education for the future” (meaning another lie to make huge profits). During the pandemic, Microsoft products including Minecraft Education Edition and Skype for video conferencing calls were used while schools remained closed. Microsoft also promoted its Microsoft Educator Center, a suite of professional development resources and tools designed to support teachers with distance learning. (2) Google. During the pandemic, Google launched a service called Teach from Home in partnership with UNESCO’s Institute for Information Technologies in Education.

Consisting of the standard Google G Suite of apps for education, including Classroom, Drive, Docs, Hangouts, Groups, as well as the additional integration of the videoconferencing application. But Google acts without commercial ethics and makes unauthorized info extractions from the customer usage data across this emerging and expanding ecosystem of plug-and-play products and companies. (3) Amazon. During Covid-19, Amazon promoted the digital learning platform EVERFI with ICT products called the Educator Mobilization initiative and Alexa for Education API, which enables its voice technology to be integrated into other Edtech products. (4) The spontaneous ones. Other ITC companies are enrolling spontaneously on digital education at a huge scale into their infrastructures and enlisting educators increased use of their products and services. Such as TikTok by partnering with hundreds of universities and experts to create educational video contents after June 2020 when the company record millions of views of content on the #LearnOnTikTok hashtag during the pandemic (Williamson & Hogan, 2020)

1.1.10 Is a real new generation of ICTs emerging for CAI? Or is it just a make-up of junk technologies for corporate profiting?

Gardner’s hype cycle model explains the path of new technologies (Fenn & Raskino, 2008). It is formed by merging two distinct curve functions; the first equation describes human expectations in the form of a hype level curve. The second equation is a classical S-curve aiming to depict technology maturity. The hype cycle can be divided into phases: innovation trigger, the peak of inflated expectations, a trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment, and plateau of productivity. The time between the peak of inflated expectations and the plateau of productivity has been termed the ‘time-to-value gap’ (Fenn & Raskino, 2008). According to the hype cycle for emerging ICTs such as Android, 5G, IoT, right now we are in point of the inflated expectations (Garners, 2020). So, the claimed triumph of corporate ICT offering matured educational contents and services based in emerging ICTs is another bold lie as is internet neutrality. The potential disillusionment as result of overenthusiasm and hyped investments result in commercial adoptions that fail to meet performance and/or revenue expectations.

1.1.11 Finding the trigger to speed up the hype cycle

Covid-19 has forced countries into an accelerated path to reach the plateau of mature ICTs productivity for distance, virtual, and e-learning education tools. It popped-up as an alien and unexpected trigger in emerging countries with marked inequities and governmental corruption. There is no room for orthodox models to overcome the ICT hype cycle for the benefit of distance education. Thus, what remains is the human factor as a triggering factor to achieve an efficient CAI in public education. For instance, learning how people can overcome the digital divide due to war conflicts as is happening in Palestine (Middle East region) a war zone where the students suffer from mobility restrictions, with the country divided by security checkpoints that adversely affect the educational system (Shraim & Khlaif, 2010). Around 200 schools are located behind the separation wall and checkpoints. This represents a physical mobility restriction to teachers and students but also students have a limited time to use tablets and laptops. Therefore, the limited time of access to telecom infrastructure must be used in a high-efficiency way. So the strength virtual learning may be independent of the way of learning (tools), enabling the learner to get e-books and educative resources in portable memory.

1.1.12 Android, 5G, IoT, Big Data, Blockchain and Machine Learning

Computer-based teaching has had an impact on the development of educational technology in the 21st century and this has resulted in the production of software for CAI. Due to the forced incorporation of online education tools into the learning process, teachers and students have been inspired by new teaching approaches and effective methods of learning.

However, for children, the over-exposure to online resources must be considered carefully. One alternative is to outline CAI activities before the online CAI using the platform of your preference. This hybrid online – outline CAI approach might overcome the threat of data-stealing by Microsoft, Google, or other ICT corporative unauthorized surveillance. The key to maintaining the sovereign of the CAI distance education system for every country is to have a safe operative system and efficient learning platforms. Today, Android is a software platform and operating system based on the Linux kernel. But currently, Android is developed by Google and Open Handset Alliance with Android Open Source Project (AOSP) (Gilski & Stefanski, 2015, Narmatha & Venkata 2016), which represents a monstrous monopoly because over 300 million devices use this OS, and 850 thousand new devices are activated every day (Bhardwaj et al., 2013). Using CAI media in learning can facilitate the delivery of material because it was packaged in the form of computer and Android-based applications. CAI media can assist students to understand the material because CAI media is flexible and can be used according to the needs of each student based on student’s abilities. The CAI media can accommodate students who lack to receive lessons and stimulate students to do the exercises. This is because of the availability of animated graphics, colors, and music that can make the concept more realistic (Hendikawati et. al., 2019). The romantic promise of the WWW being open, neutral, independent, and free to everybody rapidly becomes a lie, when Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other corporative ICTs started to collect data from users and surveillance their WWW activities, to create consuming tendencies profiles and profit with this data. This has to change. So, the promise of accelerated CAI at an early age gives hope to encounter innovative shields, firewalls, encryption and even totally new operative systems.

1.1.13 Futuristic methods for education

Various teaching methods have incorporated ICTs such as project-based learning (science and math) requiring database searching; the flipped classroom (languages and science), learning by doing (science, English) digital video DIY, and drama in education (Literature English) digital video, digital resources-based learning (English, science), game-based learning (math), learning by exploration (science, math, technology). These may be basic learning paths for public school digital education platforms and programs. Still, other ICTs out of the scope of a standard public school that most likely drops in the field of private schools and corporate education such as Machine Learning, Learning Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, the use of Wearables (sensors, electrodes, chip implants, etc.), the big data and block chain educative resources for virtual simulation or environmental and spatial research. Right now, this high-tech is a fantasy far away to be accomplished yet for any public university.

1.1.14 Summing up

There is no recipe to overcome the hype cycle of emerging ICTs and edtech platforms. Certainly not AI is the response right now for future education, but probably a human factor is a key to achieve an effective digital education rapidly. To overcome the hype cycle and the digital divide in emerging countries one important thing is not to increase the computers, equipment stocks, and Internet connections but to make efficient use of them (Rallet & Rochelan, 2007). Neither is a matter of making a big investment in high technology resources, on the contrary, the simple response is the efficient use of the current ICT infrastructures and existing academic resources by teachers, students, parents, and governments. Unfortunately, the corruption and political digital ignorance prevails in emerging countries where the private involvement of corporate ICTs (Microsoft, Google and Amazon) is a threat easily to overcome being cautious about our educative and not educational activities on the internet. To those companies attempting more aggressive practices simply must be banned.

In order to broaden the approach of our study on the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on education, we have ventured in an honest interview and conversation with a professional in e-learning, Dr. Griet Samyn, to discuss several key topics of the framework.

Griet Samyn is a Belgian educationalist and anthropologist who started a Centre of e-learning in a private university in Uganda in 2007 and is currently a director of a private company that offers e-learning services to NGOs working in Low and Middle Income Countries.


Carlos Rojas: Before we proceed with our talk, has the Covid-19 crisis affected you personally so far?

Griet Samyn: I was lucky, I had just arrived back in my native country when the pandemic struck and was forced to undergo the period of quarantine and social distancing in a region with a good social health system. Many people and friends are not so lucky and I sympathize with their hardships. On a professional level, I could also continue my daily activities, although of course I had to temporarily halt my life as a digital nomad.

As to e-learning, the amount of assignments and activities did not increase right away but the prospect of more to come was there from the start. A friend wrote pointedly: “You are engaged in a strategic sector”. Several of my acquaintances are teachers at different levels of the educational system, and they were forced, for the first time in their life, to apply e-learning tools. They came to acknowledge the kind of work we are actually doing. We decided to not actually scout for more opportunities but continue delivering good quality education for our current clients and partners.

Griet Samyn: What about you?

Carlos Rojas: Same as you, when the pandemic struck I was forced to undergo the period of quarantine in my country. My work as a marine biologist has a strong ‘presential’ or face-to-face component because I deliver training directly to fishermen and farmers. Due to Covid-19, I have started to explore online courses. For the moment only basic introductory online courses are a possibility. The transference of real farming knowledge can only be done outdoors, face to face, and with our bare hands. The forced application of e-learning tools by traditional teachers involved in distance education was a concern detected in our study on ‘The Tutoring Influences in Distance Education at El Oro Province Ecuador’. We noticed that pedagogical expertise was not a guarantee for a good distance tutor. The learners made subjective judgments with preferences of social skills over teaching expertise, so, boring tutors were disqualified.

Griet Samyn: When you talk in your article about ‘distance learning’, do you mean education through the internet, or do you also refer to previous methods of distance education (paper-based, television…)?

Carlos Rojas: In Ecuador and Mexico, distance learning is poorly structured, without transparent plans, just as a copy-paste of international tendencies. Therefore, the global ICT corporations pose a threat to the delivery of quality e-learning solutions in these countries, more than in others. At the same time, they challenge a country to retain enough sovereignty over their educational resources. To confront this threat and avoid inferences and corporate vigilance, distance education models must isolate themselves from the global influence and operate only locally, through a totally independent portable OS that could offer alternative educational software and work in any computer from a portable memory without the need to be online.

Distance education by open television broadcasting has been used in Mexico for decades, and it seems that the Mexican education plan will be based on television. This is just a pragmatic solution due to the lack of ICT infrastructure and software platforms, but most importantly, the highly expensive internet with poor performance. Right now, television could be good enough to deliver basic education but higher education is another story.

2.1. Society and government

Carlos Rojas: Does e-learning lead to democratization of education?

Griet Samyn: I agree that e-learning is no automatic path towards democratization of education and the need for equipment poses many challenges. This goes from basic infrastructure such as electricity to internet or data connections, and electronic devices. Democratization is a political decision, it does not depend on the tools being used.

Carlos Rojas: Good example. The distance education model most likely has not been properly implanted in some countries, while in other countries generic models were applied correctly. (I am thinking now of the National Institute of education in Singapore).

Key aspects for ICT integration for a distance education model in an emerging country might be the desire to consider socio-economic aspects and pedagogical ones. However, right now the wiser approach is to shield the naive e-learning models against the corporate ICT. That means a focus to avoid to any cost the delivery of educative contents into the WWW, but instead create local intranets for official distance education, and the most urgent task, to create their own e-learning platforms. If the dependence of millions of users on Google, Microsoft, and 5G does not change, the distance education fate is condemned.

Carlos Rojas: What is your experience with the digital divide in Africa?

Griet samyn: Well, the digital divide is there, of course, no denying that. There are fewer households who own electronic devices, and if there is internet, it is expensive and bandwidth is poor. On the other hand, the digital divide is not this one big ravine that is impossible to cross on an individual level, as was the case with other material divides in the past (such as industrial output). It exists of many different disparities that are always in movement. That is why, in general, there is also a solution to be found. We have been setting up e-learning courses for African adult learners since 2007, and until now, really very few of the learners dropped out due to material challenges. There is always a place, a moment, or a device that can be shared, and with the help of a family member or a colleague, course content can be accessed and progress can be made. Of course, we are talking here about motivated adult learners who are actively interested in obtaining a certificate in their professional field. It is a different situation compared to the Covid-19 forced homeschooling by e-learning on primary or secondary level in many countries. Or to the education by television chosen by the Mexican government. I have my doubts here. I think that this solution promises little for the future of education in the country, and testifies of little creativity. But even where the choice for e-learning is made, it is often done hurriedly and without a broader plan.

Another thought on the digital divide: too often one talks about places and things as if they are monolithic blocs (“Latin America”, “Africa”, “digital divide”, “electronic solutions”) while the differences are often more interesting and telling. For example, in many countries in East-Africa, mobile money is a lot more developed than in Europe; people switch easily to smart phones and use their features more creatively and extensively.

In short, the digital divide is not this one path with a canyon that can only be bridged by one contraption.

Carlos Rojas: What will be your advice for building an efficient democratic digital education?

Griet Samyn: I would split up this question, and ask what is needed to build a democratic education first, and then digital education can be set up to assist this and make it efficient. For democratic education, there is a need for a long-term political project sustained by enough sectors of society, and enough financial means to implement. In my feeling as a political outsider, very few countries think any longer about their educational systems as one of the fundamental pillars of their own society, something that they own and can strengthen; there is little vision as to what they want. If there are international comparisons and they score badly or worse than before, they short-time panic and look for quick flashy solutions – which nowadays come in the guise of digital learning. They spend a lot, and later conclude ‘we tried, but it didn’t work’.

Now, this does not mean that digital learning is necessarily inefficient or undemocratic. But it can only work towards set goals if these goals have been clearly framed and are part of a long-term educational policy.

Carlos Rojas: What risks does the Covid-19 pandemic pose in regard to e-learning and the privatization of learning?

Griet Samyn: Governments feel the need to do something, to add decisively, to show that they are strong and working towards solutions. This is risky, because difficult periods are not the best times to implement sustainable changes. The new measures are taken too hurriedly and are often too costly. Big companies wanting to sell their products, take advantage of this. They juggle with big words and statistics, and lure decision-makers into contracts that are not to their advantage nor to the advantage of the students.

Privatization is another risky business where politicians simply want to get rid of their responsibilities in education and collect money in the process. It is a very short-term gamble that can have very nefarious results for their countries. This does not mean that I am against all private initiatives in education. I do think that they are a guarantee of innovation and diversification. But they should exist next to a well-funded, well-governed public educational system which aspires towards equity for all. It is interesting to read that there are talks of renewed ‘nationalization’ in some sectors of society as a result of the Covid-19 responses. But I have little idea what is happening in countries where private education has gained a foothold. Are these private enterprises receiving money from the government to cover their losses? If so, what does this mean in the longer term as to ownership and policy?

Carlos Rojas: Is cybersecurity overestimated, or is it an intrinsic aspect of digital culture?

Griet Samyn: In my opinion, cybersecurity cannot be overrated, it is hugely important for the digital world as a whole, and for digital education. On the other hand, we should not address it by a reaction of retreat and entrenchment in old learning cultures. The dangers will never disappear but they can be met with a number of measures, and regulation is a forceful first step. Let us not talk here about cybercrime, but about the threat of data theft and misuse for commercial purposes. You have probably heard of the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation implemented by the European Commission in 2018. It is a European law with global implications, as it protects the data privacy of European citizens on all sites that store and use digital data even outside the continent. The fines are huge and the reasoning behind the regulation is a total overturn of the practices that governed the digital culture to that moment: from 2018 all digital data belong to the users, not to the companies or organizations that offer the software.

The educational open-source software Moodle that we use in our organization, addressed the consequences of this regulation straight on, adding code, changing the software, and making it easy for the data protection officer (a GDPR imposed newly created position) to act as a protector of the data privacy of the learners and teachers. Since 2018, the state of California has come up with an even stringier data protection regulation, and Brazil is following suit with a data protection act that will be enforced in 2021, later than originally scheduled due to the pandemic.

Carlos Rojas: So you think that regulation and supervision of digital learning is possible?

Griet Samyn: Yes, there is still much to do and it will not be easy. On the one hand, there is a need for political effort and will to collaborate on an international level as digitalization is by its nature hard to contain inside physical borders. On the other hand, each country or region has to set its own long-term educational policy and objectives and put the well-being, development and safety of its own children and citizens first.

Carlos Rojas: As long as the digital culture and literacy among parents and students this issue will disappear. Self-regulation and self-supervision meaning civic and ethical conducts will prevail.

2.2. Pupils, students, learners

Carlos Rojas: Do you consider e-learning suited for all levels, all students?

Griet Samyn: If I am correct, Carlos, you have been mostly engaged in the education of students of the primary and college level. For the last ten years, our participants have basically been working professionals in the public health sector in Africa. In-service training is an urgent need in many countries and professional domains. It forms part of the continuous professional education that is talked about a lot, and is seen as an essential component of learning for the future. Here, it is its flexibility in place and time that makes e-learning a good tool to use.

As for these courses on the health supply chain, our completion statistics are excellent, with more than 90% of participants meeting the requirements for certification. Of course, we work for an NGO and not an accredited educational institution. Our main objective and role is to guarantee that everybody learns something that is, or will be, useful in their lives, be it professional or personal. All participants of our online courses also become alumni and do continue to have continuous access to the content and to the means of communication on the course. This way we are trying to build a community of practice and learning where professionals can vent their worries and questions, and interact with colleagues and experts elsewhere.

Carlos Rojas. Another readily adopted myth of e-learning is that it will change the approach from a monolithic ‘one for all’ highway towards many individualized learning paths. Do you agree with that?

Griet Samyn: Yes, I am convinced that e-learning not only allows for individualized learning paths, it will also require them if we want to implement general, quality-assured online learning.

As I have explained, the main experience of many teachers with whom I talked during the Covid-19 crisis, was basically one of surprise: “hey, yes, it works!” They were able to give an explanation through videoconferencing to a group of pupils, they could send out a test and receive the answers online. They could even ‘control’ the process while observing them filling in the questions. But this was all done rather haphazardly and the organization of these activities placed too much burden on the parents or adults at home.

If you want to use e-learning as a systematic learning tool, you will depend on the self-discipline of the students. And this is a huge challenge. Many youths find it already boring to sit eight hours in a classroom doing what a teacher tells them to do. Exponentially how much more boring is it to sit at home, alone before a screen, doing what a teacher tells them to do?

That is why there is a need for personalized learning paths. We all have activities that we like to do and we feel rewarded when we are doing them. If asked by a teacher “What do you want to learn this week?” most of us will come up with an answer. Some will be overambitious, others under-ambitious, but that is not the point. A first main challenge is to turn this aim into a systematic learning process with a method of evaluation. The other main challenge is to find convergences between the individual learning goals and the objective criteria that are required to pass certain exams.

Another essential requirement for successful online learning is giving the learner confidence in his or her own abilities. Not so long ago, I perused an article on e-learning that had as a subtitle ‘Do not make me think!”. This made me think as this is indeed a recognizable reaction in many people when set before a difficult task. In my opinion, the ‘Do not make me think!” expresses not so much laziness, as fear of failure. What if I put in effort, and I still do not understand and come up with the wrong answer? That is why online content should always start with an activity that is easy and attainable, and only engage the learner to ‘think’ when this no longer seems like a big effort. Also, a wrong result should not be felt as a personal failure, but more of a surprise. Hey, what am I still not understanding? Who can explain me better?

Good teachers have been doing this before, of course. Online learning gives the opportunity to build this into the structure.

2.3. Teachers, parents, tutors

Carlos Rojas: Is there a future for our teachers?

Griet Samyn: There is no doubt in my mind that the job of a teacher is not at risk. On the contrary, there will be more learning going on as ever, and teachers’ jobs will be more focused and more flexible at the same time.

First of all, classroom teaching or face-to-face teaching will not disappear. I told you earlier that I received many comments with a note of surprise from teachers during the Covid-19 crisis. I was in my home country at the time, but even in Belgium where most households do have enough infrastructure and financial resources to set up online homeschooling, there was a considerable margin of pupils who dropped out (mostly in the bigger cities). Or better, they just didn’t appear online and teachers were not able to locate them, nor their parents. These were, not so surprisingly, mostly students from the lower percentile of the academic success curve. The Belgian state took the step to set up special summer classes for these pupils. This seemed to me an excellent idea. The classes were set up less rigorously, for smaller groups, with pupils receiving more personalized attention from the teachers and their volunteer assistants. I am sure that at least for some of them, this was an eye-opener, an experience that will make them reconsider their attitudes towards school and learning.

In addition, once an e-learning system is set up and operational, it can free up time for teachers which, ideally, can be spent with those students who need them most. An easy example here is the time saved up when it is not the teacher but the system that grades mathematical tests. Compare the time saved when doing this manually for 40 pupils, with online software performing this same task instantly. It is also this immediate and objective score that offers scope for positive feedback. The grade is no longer personal, it is no longer an element of power between a student and a teacher.

Furthermore, the role of the teachers will become less monolithic. This is something else as saying that there is no future for them. On the contrary, e-learning will require more teachers doing more different things; preferably, doing what they are best at.

Compared with the past learning environments, e-learning is the first environment that offers a systematic tool for social collaboration between educators. Quality education online requires this social collaboration. Here is a quick break-up of the roles of teachers: 1) Those who continue implementing face-to-face teaching, probably to smaller and more targeted groups (underperformers, over performers …). 2) The content creators, who use their educational and ICT skills to create new online activities and content. With e-learning this becomes a continuous process compared to text-book methods. 3) The tutors or facilitators who accompany the learners during the implementation of online teaching sessions. 4) The educators who do learning analytics, analyzing the activity and responses of the students to improve the activities and ensure feedback is given that helps them forward.

This does not mean that all is rosy in the future for teachers. A lot is expected of them and they will have to manage a lot of change. Compared with previous learning environments, their performance will be a lot more scrutinized by colleagues, students, and authorities. The power they had as educators with their pupils will also diminish, there will definitely be a tendency towards democratization. And lastly, the physical requirements of the job will be different. With e-learning, teaching becomes more of an office job, with many hours behind the computer screen and thus more vulnerable to the typical ailments of office staff (pain of the back and the wrist join, deteriorating eyesight).

Carlos Rojas: The forced implementation of distance education during the quarantine will end someday, most likely in a couple of years when everybody gets vaccinated to speed up the acquisition of the global community immunity against Covid-19. Certainly, e-learning will gain terrain into the education model of each country. However, there are still a lot of skills and practical knowledge that can only be taught to face-face. It will be very interesting to see how the “academia” will be adapted or replaced.

Carlos Rojas: The utmost life principle of life is to adapt or to die. What do you recommend to face-to-face teachers?

Griet Samyn: Well, I must admit this sounds a bit dramatic, it would be a good title for a Mexican telenovela. Luckily, daily life of most humans does translate this credo into more digestible choices and activities. As I told before, I do not fear for the jobs of face-to-face teachers, but yes, there will be many changes. The worst for them that can happen is that these changes go accompanied with a threat to their job and pension security. When people are worried about their income, they are not in a mindset for change. I do not know a lot about the Mexican situation at the current moment, but from the little I read, I got the feeling that this is unfortunately the case. So in my opinion, it is a bad idea to privatize and even worse to let this privatization go hand in hand with new requirements and expectations towards teaching.

Also, with e-learning there is a loss of power for the teacher position and an intrinsic democratization of the environment. But loss of power, should not mean loss of respect. On the contrary, the less objective power there is, the more each other needs and deserves respect.

Thus, my recommendation for face-to-face teachers? Make a distinction between your economic situation and the evolution towards digital teaching. Both are not necessarily linked. You can fight for job security and still try to be flexible and slowly adapt to some of the changes that are part of this new e-learning approach. Respect yourself, focus on what you are good at in teaching, and then look for what you could learn or use with the new approach.

Carlos Rojas: Do you consider we are witnessing the end of the old pedagogy due to edtech?

Griet Samyn: No, very few things in society totally end, or totally start from zero. There is evolution, no doubt, and sometimes the curve is steep. But many elements of the old pedagogy have proven their worth during centuries, and will still be around in the future where perhaps even e-learning will become obsolete.

Carlos Rojas: You have talked about the tutor. Is it an essential role in e-learning?

Griet Samyn: Tutoring or ‘facilitating’ is indeed essential. You cannot build on intrinsic motivation alone. Every learner needs to know that somebody follows his or her progress. Good feedback, at the right time, targeted towards a good aim, is key. Cognitive independence helps, but should not be a requirement. So yes, the problem of the high withdrawal percentages can be solved by good e-tutoring.

Carlos Rojas: And what about the parents? What sort of basic learning path for parents are required?

Griet Samyn:  You talk correctly about a ‘learning path’ for parents too. During this sudden and premature surge of e-learning due to the Covid-19 crisis, the challenges have been huge for parents. Not only were the parents forced to switch from the work floor or office to the home without notice, they were expected to spend the time at home uninterruptedly with their children plus assist them with their school work and academic assignments. It is not hard to imagine how impossibly demanding this was and is. Luckily, some governments and employers made special arrangements for parents of young children. Now, as to e-learning and homeschooling, my recommendation for parents would be to each week set a learning objective for themselves, and share this with them children. Learning about learning. This could be a way to offer examples and collaborate with the children.

Carlos Rojas: An idiosyncrasy rooted deep in Mexican society is the tendency to laugh and cheat about everything, but the Covid-19 crisis has shocked people to respect online education. The Mexican government has decided to adopt a massive TV education model using sports stars as educator actors. How that could happen is bizarre, and most likely a result of a lazy Ministry of Education. I believe this is totally wrong, because the inspiring role of big scientists and intellectuals is infamously neglected in education by TV. However, the youth is not stupid; sooner or later they will identify the historical geniuses that will inspire their careers. Everybody must keep deep in mind that there is not an easy way to obtain success in life. Remember that personal computers and internet service dependencies were created by a bunch of college deserters that found an easy way to make money. The truth is that our planet needs true scientists, humanistics, and engineers to overcome future problems and preserve human existence on earth.

Carlos Rojas: Tutor empathy is important, but what do you think about using sports stars as educator actors? Is this correct?

Griet Samyn: It is hard to tell. Are these famous people the only ‘educators’ who appear on television? Or are they considered as extras to enliven the materials? In my view, there are no truly correct or incorrect teaching methods as long as one method is not overpowering and monolithic. I agree with you that children are clever enough to see the difference between knowledgeable teachers and those who just play the role. And yes, children and young people need role models, teachers who motivate them and broaden their world. And these do not have to be geniuses, just good educators.


Griet Samyn: What do you think, did we engage in e-learning during the making of this article?

Carlos Rojas: I am not a fan of e-learning yet but I am open-minded to education innovations. I am a bit skeptical about android apps or IoT solving every aspect of our lives, during the lockdown millions of children are forced to feed big amounts of data into the hyper-learning of corporate IT supercomputers and AI machines. Fiction is getting closer to reality but food production and its biosecurity still prevail. In this concern, I was invited to write a book chapter on the new generation of shrimp farming for future green cities. Right now, I cannot see room for any ICT, in order to make urban shrimp farming a reality within future green cities. However, Mexican coastal cities have high growth rates at national and global scope, the quality of life must be enhanced that cannot be achieved just digitally. Thus, it is necessary to increase the green areas with public access, throughout education strategies not only focused on the allocation, but also on their physical and digital interconnection to create a green city network (Ruiz-Luna et al., 2019). It has been corroborated an increased interest of young people in natural sciences by digital teaching methods (Keller et al., 2014). In Sweden, the virtual education on artificial reefs significantly increased grades 7–9 and high school students’ interest in natural science and marine biology (Seidelin et. al., 2019). A similar output could be obtained from virtual teaching about outer spaces planet and stars, building gigantic structures, energy alternatives, or the future of life on earth. No doubt, there are very good video resources to do so, however, the sooner or later will be necessary to attend a lecture for learning basic principles or to run into the wild forest or open sea to make things with your bare hands.

Griet Samyn: I found this distant conversation interesting and it made me refine some thoughts I had during the past months. I am sorry that I could not convince you of the value and promises of e-learning, even for urban shrimp farming. I am sure that one day in the near future you will run into an e-learning course that will win you over. And hopefully, this course will not be accessible only for the privileged few.


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