Pandemic online learning here to stay? Korean students think not

Growing impatience with online learning in South Korea highlights the limitations of socially distanced teaching, says Justin Fendos

January 5, 2021
Source: istock

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many countries have undergone massive transitions to online learning. South Korea is perhaps the most notable example, having issued a national mandate for online classes last spring. True to its reputation as one of the most connected countries in the world, Korea has, at times, extended this mandate to every level of education, making distance learning a shared national experience.

Many writers have discussed and even applauded the possibility that these changes may usher in permanent online learning, perhaps even supplanting bricks-and-mortar institutions entirely. However, my team’s recent research comparing pandemic-era online student experiences with previous offline ones warns against leaping to such conclusions.

For every category of learning efficacy and outcome examined, we found an overwhelming preference for offline learning. For example, our sample of 1,088 undergraduates were about eight times more likely to say that offline courses offer more opportunities to “quickly resolve questions about what I am learning”. And students were, respectively, 10 and 20 times more likely to say that offline learning offers more opportunities for feedback from instructors and fellow students.

Those responses might be expected, but other results surprised us. When asked about differences in the long-term retention of new information, students were about 78 per cent more likely to favour offline learning. When asked about learning efficiency (the amount of time and energy required to learn the same amount of new information), students were more than twice as likely to favour offline. Perhaps the most troubling result concerned study motivation: respondents were about four times more likely to say motivation is lower in online courses.

Another issue we probed was the influence of course type. We made a systematic distinction between theoretical classes, such as history lectures, which are designed to disseminate conceptual knowledge, and applied ones, such as chemistry labs, which teach skills. Students were even more likely to favour offline learning in applied courses than theoretical ones. For example, they were about four times more likely to favour offline learning in applied courses for learning efficiency, and twice as likely to favour offline in applied courses for instructor feedback.

These data indicate that learning goals are important in modulating student perceptions, offering the interesting prediction that students from majors with more applied coursework might feel greater dissatisfaction with online learning than peers with less.

The students in our focus groups generally expressed high awareness of the fact that the pandemic thrust instructors into online instruction at short notice, likely negatively affecting instructional quality. At the same time, most were vocal about the importance of instructor preparedness and sincerity. As one student in our focus groups put it: “If we see an instructor is trying very hard to be accessible and encouraging us to ask questions, we feel like they are more invested in our learning, so we will also naturally try harder to study and pay attention…On the other hand, if we see [an instructor] not responding to our feedback or telling us to find answers [to our questions] on our own, I think we naturally become dissatisfied and less likely to exert full effort.”

Over the last few months, a series of public protests against online learning have occurred throughout South Korea. Many have demanded tuition refunds, often identifying poor instructional quality as a reason. Some of this deficiency was initially linked to server glitches and other shortcomings in online infrastructure, but our surveys reveal that students now feel these technical issues have largely been resolved. Nevertheless, some institutions, such as Konkuk University, have still gone ahead with partial refunds. As one of our respondents said: “Why should I be paying the same amount of money when I know I am learning less and learning less efficiently than if my classes were held offline?”

Such comments indicate Korean students’ impatience for a return to offline learning, making any permanent online transitions exceedingly unlikely. If the revolution doesn’t begin in an online nation like South Korea, perhaps it won’t begin anywhere.

Justin Fendos is director of undergraduate studies in the global biotechnology department at Dongseo University.


Print headline: Online is a distant second

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Reader's comments (1)

The idea of moving to fully virtual learning or distance learning has both positives and negatives. For many students, as you pointed out, this style of learning is dissatisfying, especially if the faculty leading the classes don’t know the best teaching practices for such a course. Do you think that, if the faculty and technical issues were resolved, students could have a higher satisfaction rate? Or is the idea of a fully virtual schedule unlikely to be popular at all?


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