“Has e-Learning Passed the Test of the Coronavirus Pandemic?” – SYZYGY paper

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the people around the world have had to change the way they work. Until now, employees spent most of their time on site, but the pandemic has forced an abrupt reorganization. Today, we can say that tools such as MS Teams, Zoom, and Slack have made this transition quite smooth.

Public schools, which for the most part hadn’t used online solutions before, were also forced to adapt to the new circumstances. Did they manage to do so successfully? It’s hard to answer that definitively, but one thing is certain: in this new reality, the online model of teaching will become increasingly popular.

That is why we have decided to ask parents about their experiences with e-learning and check whether the currently available tools meet their expectations.

THE GREAT E-LEARNING IMPROVISATION

Our research has shown that over 70% of parents help their children with schooling or accompany them during class, and as many as 75% of children use videoconference tools to contact their teachers. The software they named included:

  • Zoom,
  • Microsoft Teams,
  • Skype,
  • Webex,
  • Google Meet.

Additionally, we have learned that:

  • time spent in front of the computer varies from 2 to over 6 hours a day (increasing with the child’s age)
  • the most popular form of class is a mixed format – teachers use videoconferencing to conduct classes and consultations, they prepare presentations, send out links to instructional videos and online assignments; other tasks are performed offline.

“Some work is done live, through online classes, some is done by way of presentations, links to instructional videos, sometimes files containing online assignments.”

“The classes take place live, but much more homework is being assigned.”

“Some of the classes are conducted live, some aren’t – in those cases the teacher only informs you about your assignments via email or some other platform.”

Parents pointed out problems with the quality of the classes and platform stability. There’s also clearly no universal and mandatory educational tool that would provide a standard for the teachers’ work and at the same time cold be adjusted to students’ age and knowledge level. Often within a single school various teachers would use different solutions which were collectively still unable to comprehensively meet the demands of both teachers and students.

“My child is 7 years old, they’re in first grade. Until now, they’ve only used electronic devices and the Internet sparingly. Besides, they can’t use these tools without parental supervision. In practice, remote schooling is actually saddling parents with an additional full-time job: that of an early schoolteacher.”

“There’s a big emphasis on unassisted work, more homework. Children shouldn’t be faced with so many challenges at such a young age.”

“Often the teacher only enters the assigned reading into Librus, and that’s it…”

“There are no tools with appropriate content tailored to the children’s knowledge level and age (I have to search for Math, English, and Polish modules individually).”

“My child doesn’t have any online classes, pretty much all the assignments delivered via chat are homework.”

“Different logins and passwords are being sent through different platforms at different times by different teachers. Even a tech-savvy person has a hard time keeping it all straight. The material isn’t being processed by the teachers in any way – children merely transcribe the lesson into their notebooks, and then immediately move on to homework.”

HOUSTON, WHY DO WE HAVE A PROBLEM?

Based on the parents’ observations, Polish e-learning actually sends us back to the abacus era. It’s worth noting that most schools don’t use actual e-learning platforms, but simple communication tools. When asked to name some online learning tools, most parents who participated in our study responded, “I don’t know” or “none”.

We can therefore assume that, given their limited functionality, adapting simple communication tools is just a stopgap measure, and can’t replace a full-fledged online teaching platform.

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Individual respondents pointed out solutions such as Librus, YouTube, TVP Szkoła, Eduelo, or MyEnglishLab. Interestingly, they did not name a single tool made available to all Europeans free of charge by Estonia, which is aiming to become one of the world’s leaders in software. For many years now, Estonia’s education system has been considered one of the best in Europe, and in 2015, in the OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study, it was found to be second only to Singapore and Japan. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, Estonia has provided many platforms for learning mathematics and languages (including the Estonian Speakly, available also in Polish – a language learning platform that uses the method of teaching 4000 popular words and expressions, and then building on that knowledge), software, tools such as e-class registers, virtual teachers’ lounges, as well as apps geared towards early school and pre-school education. The Estonian government adopted a very interesting promotion strategy, perfectly tailored to the current situation: providing financing for its best start-ups so that they could offer their products to students free of charge.

Meanwhile in Poland, most textbook publishers decided to make their catalogue available free of charge as e-books. Aside from that, publishers seem to be unprepared for the challenges of remote teaching. Faced with the inevitable changes brought on by e-learning, they are still stuck in the previous paradigm: educational games for the youngest children, which are often their most advanced solutions, are compatible with only one platform – Windows. Meanwhile, many students don’t have personal computers, and instead use tablets, or even just their phones. Unfortunately, the world of browser apps seems to have been overlooked by an overwhelming majority of Polish publishing houses.

The sole exception is Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne with its wspinet.pl portal. It allows students to not only familiarize themselves with materials from the textbook, broken up into lessons, but also contains sets of exercises geared at helping students commit the new knowledge to memory. The tool allows teachers to communicate with students grouped by classes: to assign homework, quizzes, and keep track of the students’ progress. The quizzes are graded automatically. The portal’s interface is very simple and universal – neither students nor teachers should have any problems navigating it. It does, however, seem too serious for the youngest students.

Khan Academy – partially available in Polish – seems to be a revolutionary tool in this regard. The idea behind it is the so-called reversed class: teachers record and upload their theoretical lectures, which the students can then repeatedly replay at home, absorbing knowledge at their own pace, and then using it in class. The idea was a product of chance: Sal Khan wanted to teach his cousin math, but she lived in a different state, so he had to do it remotely. To that end, he recorded short clips and uploaded them to YouTube. The clips became very popular and ended up being shared outside the Khan family. Currently, the Khan Academy contains over 9000 educational films created by so-called super teachers from around the world – all of them available completely free of charge. This library is supplemented with exercises, quizzes and tests on a wide range of subjects: math, science, the humanities. The size of the platform and its collaboration with big institutions such as NASA, MoMA, or Pixar, have made it very popular, and its mutable formula has encouraged many teachers to translate materials into Polish – an effort which has intensified during the current pandemic – in order to help teachers and parents organize home schooling.

A completely different model of teaching is offered by the KiwiCo platform for the youngest children. It offers subscription-based DIY packages sent by mail and meant to be assembled at home, sometimes with the aid of the parents. The packages also include educational cards, maps, magazines, and stickers, while films, instructions, and tests offered online allow the children to deepen their knowledge and unleash their creativity. At this point, the company has also made a number of its resources available free of charge in order to help children learn at home even without purchasing the DIY packages. KiwiCo offers classes for children aged 2-12+, as well as various projects for downloading and printing, and educational worksheets which help students keep their minds sharp. Several options are available, focusing on science, art, geography, and even engineering.

A sizable segment of the e-learning solutions market is occupied by tools for learning programming or specific pieces of software. These platforms are usually best suited for unassisted learning – which is dictated by the nature of the content.

These platforms are characterized by simple interfaces, high quality of provided content, and the option to perform assigned exercises at one’s own pace. Most of them also allow for the verification of acquired knowledge through tests and quizzes. These platforms often utilize gamification and award certificates in an effort to engage students and provide them with proof of their newly acquired expertise.

Finally, we should also mention the Bamboolearning platform, geared towards younger children. It uses the Alexa voice interface to introduce a vocal interaction with the child, which is a completely different approach to online teaching.

HOW DO WE MAKE THIS RAFT INTO A SHIP?

The problem with the currently available platforms is that they don’t address the needs of their target group and don’t meet the standards of typical school teaching. An ideal tool should not only allow teachers to conduct classes (including live), but also facilitate unassisted studying and knowledge verification (ex. through tests). Such a tool must also functionally overcome the toughest challenge: being able to adjust to the student’s age, including students with special needs or psychomotor issues (by meeting the highest WCAG standards). It should not bar anyone from participating in daily schoolwork.

The construction of such a platform requires a discovery phase that will chart the requirements of every target group, and the preferred work models of its users – in this case students, parents, and teachers – who should be consulted at every stage of design, from prototyping to final implementation. The keys to success here are: cyclical studies, quick development of the MVP, efficient work on a dynamically growing product backlog. 

OUR TAKE ON E-LEARNING

We followed a similar design philosophy using our proprietary SYZYGY Development Toolbox to help baby food producer Nutricia (part of the Danone group, owner of brands such as BoboVita, Bebilon, and Bebiko) transfer birth school classes onto an e-learning platform created by us. By studying the students’ needs during classes, and the content that would need to be presented, we created a solution that was tailored to the target group – i.e. future and new parents. Classes were broken up into short segments (so that pregnant women and their partners wouldn’t have to spend long stretches of time in front of the computer), and the information was provided in a condensed and simplified manner. The ability to gauge one’s progress in learning, and the gratification derived from a diploma awarded at the end of the course, increased the users’ engagement to the point where the amount of time spent by them using the tool grew almost threefold. The solutions we used fully transported the learning process into the online world.

TAKEAWAYS

E-learning tools still need a lot of work before they can meet the demands of schools and students affected by the COVID19 pandemic. Attempts at quick adaptation and combining various services introduce chaos into both the children’s schoolwork and their parents’ lives.

The study we have conducted, coupled with our experienced with similar pilot projects, leads us to believe that only tools which are supported by an in-depth analysis of their potential users’ needs and use tailored technical solutions have a chance to make an impact on the market and achieve their goals. Proper presentation of content, intuitive navigation, and the ability to build engagement are equally important, as nothing facilitates learning more than the pleasure of being able to use newly acquired skills in practice.

Bartosz Sułkowski — Head of UX in SYZYGY Warsaw & Mateusz Karasinski — Head of Design in SYZYGY Warsaw. Illustration: Aneta Pomieczyńska — Digital Designer in SYZYGY Warsaw.