Distance learning: Is it working?

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The State Emergency Commission decided to extend school, kindergarten and university closure until September 1 due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Since the start of this year, educational institutions of all levels have been shut down and online lessons are being instead of class lessons, in relation to the government’s decision. Currently, 148,446 students of 95 universities and colleges, including 21 state-owned, 71 private-owned and three foreign have been offering online courses while students are forced to stay at home.

Currently, 124 countries around the world have shut down educational institutions of all levels, and 1.2 billion students are learning from a distance. This is the very first time that online lessons are being offered instead of classes due to pandemic prevention in Mongolia. Every university and college is using their private system to keep classes going online. But the public has no experience with online lessons. Mongolian students have been complaining that e-learning is not effective and some of them asked for a refund on their tuition fees.

Students of the Mongolian National University for Science and Technology E.Khishigtuya said, “Though I am a student from provinces, I have been working in Ulaanbaatar to make money, because schools haven’t been operating. I don’t want to waste time at home. While I am working, I am learning through the student web. The courses provided by teachers are ineffective, and most of the materials are searchable on the Internet. We lack information on how to register lesson attendance, when to complete assignments and ways to ask questions from teachers about the things we don't know. Everything is not clear. Also, provincial students cannot attend classes without dropping out because there are so many reasons a class could be missed. Also, many students work and earn their tuition fee by themselves. I think ineffective online lessons are wasteful for them.”

Student of the Mongolian National University of Education G.Enkhmaa said, “I am a fourth class student and will graduate this spring. I am from Dalanzadgad soum of Umnugovi Province. I live in the Student House-II dormitories in Ulaanbaatar. During the time of the restriction, it was not possible to attend online classes from the soum because of poor network. When my phone connects with the slow internet, it takes a long time to load. The government's decisions neglect provincial students. How can provincial students make up for lost time if they miss classes? We need to be given that opportunity.”

Student of the National University of Mongolia G.Sandagdorj said, “I am herding many livestock with my parents in Govi-Altai Province. Actually, I have no time for learning here because of limited time and poor opportunity to check the internet browser. On the other hand, online lessons are not suitable for us. We have been learning in class since when we first entered primary school. The government needs to think about a better way for holding lessons. I think many people would agree with me.”

Student of the Mongolian National University of Life Science A.Baatar said, “I am writing my research paper for graduation at home. I have never thought that it would be so hard. The university and public libraries are all closed due to restrictions and I have very few resources for my study. Asking questions from teachers is hard, because we have to connect only through the internet. Even though my study has started, I am not sure that my study cannot be good after all this time.”

Student of the National University of Mongolia L.Nyamdorj said, “I am a second year student. I help my brother with his work and work in a tire repair shop. I work and pay my tuition by myself. Due to the restriction, it is very difficult for students like us, who do not use the internet regularly. For someone who uses an old Nokia, it is very difficult to use the internet.”

Many students are dissatisfied with online lessons and complain about the large amounts of data required for internet use, or poor network and their “busy” lifestyle. But is there a better solution? Universities and colleges pay their employees’ salaries and operations costs through students’ tuition fees. Many education professionals have lost their job, or face severe salary cuts during the period of heightened state of alert. If tuition fees are refunded, teachers and universities staff will not be provided salary. Demanding tuition refunds after receiving online lessons is not conducive, and all the teachers working hard to keep students actively learning will have been wasting their time since they won’t get their pay.

While most students in rural areas are frustrated with online lessons, others have found a silver lining.

Student of the Mongolian National University of Education B.Davaanyam said, “Teachers teach in different ways. The direct online connection between teachers and students are effective. I also like the fact that no money is spent on food and transportation. Though online lessons are being organized for the first time, it brought good results. I work two jobs right now while studying. I think online lessons give me a chance to make money and develop myself in many ways. We need to ask the teacher what we don't understand and do some research ourselves.”

Student of the Etugen University G.Erdenejamts said, “I do more homework than usual. At first, e-learning seemed difficult, but if you find a way, there is nothing you can't do. I don't think there is a problem that justifies tuition refunds.”

It’s important to note that Mongolian teachers are paid well below the world average. For example, at the National University of Mongolia alone, about 700 teachers prepare more than 4,800 e-lessons per week. Teachers are overwhelmed with tasks of answering each student's questions, checking assignments, and preparing curricula for the e-system, all the while being distracted by the daily tasks at home.

Teacher of the Business School of the National University of Mongolia B.Ugtakhbayar said, “With lessons being held online, we became an online content producer in just a few days. I think there was a lot of adaptation stress for students who used to study only in the classroom. Both sides weren’t ready for this situation. In a simple one-and-a-half hour class, I spend one to three days updating lecture materials for e-learning, videotaping them, posting them on a platform, developing assignments that are appropriate for the lesson, checking each student's assignments, answering them, recording attendance and evaluating them. It is easy for us to give the course materials to the students in the old way, but student expect more, and it is directly related to the quality, content, tuition fees, reputation and activities of the school. Learning activities require the participation of both teachers and students. Therefore, I would like to ask our students to understand the situation realistically and to participate fully and actively in their lessons. Teachers and schools are working to solve the problem by providing free data to the student's system through Gmobile and Skytel, and working to be flexible for students’ dormitory fees, lesson cancellations, and assignments.”

No one was ready for this situation brought about by the novel coronavirus. The economic crisis is looming all around the world. People are starving, businesses are shutting down, and many are going bankrupt. However, it is a shame that students complain that they don’t want or can't adapt to online classes.

We live during a time of technological revolution. The number of students choosing to study online internationally is growing rapidly every year, and educational institutions are rapidly developing platforms to accommodate this rising demand since e-learning can be an easy and effective way to learn. For instance, between 2011 and 2018, more than 800 universities around the world posted more than 10,000 free e-learning courses on the internet. The international online learning platform has 15,957 distance learning programs from 69 countries. In the United States alone, in 2017, 6,651,536 students attended at least one online course.

Online class bring a range of advantages, such as:

  • Connection from anywhere, regardless of distance.
  • Most lessons can be viewed at any time of the day or night.
  • Compared to a single lecture, it can be repeated many times.
  • There are more materials and resources for students to view and study than lecture notes and visual files.
  • There are many online information resources for foreign language students to study in depth in e-learning.
  • Students learn to use many applications, programs and platforms in the process.
  • The learner manages what they learn. This will increase student’s chances of learning in a way that suits them best.
  • Economical advantage: There are many savings, such as transportation costs for classroom training, value-added cafeteria meals, and clothing.

E-learning is growing ever more popular around the world. But some Mongolian students demanding too much, such as government stipends, free public transportation, and free access to the internet. Students need to understand that they are adults and therefore responsible for their own welfare. Understanding that the current crisis has impacted all of us, not just them, and working with others to find the best way to resume their learning will be a much more effective attitude for achieving their goal. Though there are issues to be resolved, distance learning itself is not the problem, but an opportunity that has benefited millions of learners around the globe.

Enkhnaranjav Tumurbaatar