Pros and cons of online learning

Updated: 2014-05-19 07:40

By Serena Chen (HK Edition)

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This year, I finished the 10th grade in five months without stepping foot into a classroom. I wasn't alone. In 2012, there were over 6.7 million students taking at least one online course. Here in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has recently become the first Hong Kong school to offer students the opportunity to earn credits through a massive open online course called MOOC. Already, the course has had 100,000 enrollments.

It's easy to see why alternative education may be attractive here. Currently, in our local education system, there is too much emphasis on exams, not enough emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and not enough time for emotional development. When I was in school, I sometimes had teachers who would only start teaching right before the test, giving us all the answers we would need but not educating us. We were taught solely how to do the test, so this way, when the Day of Judgment came, we would all get good scores. It certainly smacks of cram school, and was equally limited in its long-term educational value. So it's not surprising that currently there are 5,732 Hong Kong students attending United Kingdom boarding schools and in 2012, there were 11,335 Hong Kong students attending UK universities. People are looking abroad for better ways of learning, and I thought online schooling is worth exploring.

I was captivated by some obvious advantages online schooling offers. With an online school, my living room was my classroom. Some days when I wasn't feeling well, I got up later and did less work. Other days I hit the ground running, finishing a week's workload in a few hours. Gone were the days where I would struggle to keep up with an instructor going too fast, or fall asleep in class because I understood the lesson half an hour ago. If I didn't do well the first time, I could always redo a lesson without worrying about holding others back.

Slowly as I progressed, I started to notice some downsides. There were times when I would rush through lessons without reading the teacher's introductions or sections of the textbook as I was supposed to. That first quarter, my grades were shaky. However, learning through failing made me a better student. I started following instructions more carefully and became an independent, self-motivated, disciplined student, all without helicopter teachers and parents. This was very different from my experiences in traditional schools. Teachers tended to hover over students during class, making sure their entire brood was on the same page instead of letting us find our way. Students might take a wrong turn once or twice, but if people constantly hold their hands at every step, how will they ever learn to get back on track on their own?

Although online schooling made me an independent learner, it came at a high price. That price was socialization. I missed having other students to bounce ideas off - or to learn from. Group work was completely non-existent. Without classmates relying on me to do my part, it was very easy for me to slack off or quit altogether. I lost the opportunity to improve my communication skills, people and leadership skills; I lost the advantage of diversity. Science was the hardest, as there were many laboratory experiments my friends in school were doing that I couldn't do at home because of safety and equipment reasons. I had to explore different hardware stores, hunting for the right wires and the right batteries. It was tedious and time-consuming, and really made me appreciate the teachers and assistants who would prepare everything for the lab exercises beforehand.

In the end, my experience with online schools showed me that they are no adequate replacements for traditional schools. The problem in Hong Kong is we are in a difficult situation. Online schools do not provide a suitable substitute for group work and teacher-student interaction, but our physical schools are not utilizing their assets to their fullest. Instead of using more class time for labs, hands-on activities, and engaging discussions, we're using our schools as testing centers.

Investor extraordinaire and philanthropist George Soros once said: "To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future." Good advice, indeed, not just for the corporate world, but the world at large.

The author is currently a 10th grader taking a sabbatical from Hong Kong International School by doing her 10th grade online at Indiana University High School. She enjoys reading, writing, composing music with her band, and photography.

(HK Edition 05/19/2014 page9)