Never in the past decade, since I’ve been professionally engaged with it, have I seen so much written about online learning on a daily basis. It has certainly become a fashionable topic. Many different opinions being debated, thankfully also a lot of useful tips on how to move courses online in an effective manner. But while the corona crisis brought online learning to the front page, we should by no means take it for granted. This forced sudden boost in popularity will not have (only) positive consequences for teaching and learning in the virtual environment.
In the past weeks higher education all over the world have been forced to switch from face-to-face to online teaching in a matter of days. Such a disruption is challenging for all those involved (students, teachers, administration) because it is unexpected and requires a swift response. But for higher education in particular this is an even greater challenge. In general, higher education institutions are known to be rather conservative environments, fond of preserving their own identity and not always keen on experimenting. Thus, even though digital technologies have become ubiquitous, higher education have so far been engaging with them mainly at a superficial level. Especially in the educational process, teaching online has often been perceived as less serious than face-to-face teaching. Before the corona crisis this was resulting in a small number of adopters among teachers.
Moreover, the levels of support offered by higher education for teaching with technology differ widely.
And than…….corona crisis hits. One by one higher education announce they are moving all their teaching online with immediate effect. In an instant, online learning, the ‘black sheep’, becomes the only way to safeguard instructional continuity. Even with a high level of emergency, it is clear that this situation leaves both teachers and students largely unprepared, with many of them having never taught or attended an online course before. Now most of them prepare online lessons with very few resources at their disposal to learn on the go. This also puts a lot of extra pressure on the existing support structures. While the situation is far from being ideal, we are now in ‘emergency online teaching’ mode.
All of a sudden technology is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but pretty much the only thing we have to maintain contact with students and with colleagues. Realistically speaking, in most cases this will not result in an optimal online learning experience. Nor is this really expected at the moment. But I think it is very important to make this very clear.
In these extraordinary circumstances, technology can help higher education to continue delivering their courses. The situation is extremely volatile and there is a lot of uncertainty as to how long all this will last. With that in mind and in order to make the best use of what technology can offer, higher education should consider these issues:
• communication and expectation management: with many students and teachers facing a totally new situation (the total absence- and impossibility- of face-to-face contact makes this different to blended learning scenarios), it is crucial to explain each measure clearly and open communication channels accessible to everyone;• choice of technology tools: this is not a moment to introduce people to new tools and platforms. If possible, higher education needs to make the most of the existing tools; sometimes this requires a little bit of extra thinking to combine them if necessary;
• online teaching ≠ video lectures: although recording lectures may seem the obvious thing to do right now, this will not translate into the best educational experience. Students are less likely to listen to long video-lectures, especially now when they are stuck at home with a whole new daily routine. So it is a good moment to encourage and support teachers to think of new ways of engaging students. There is no time for formal training, but compiling practical resources on online learning practices and providing teachers with a forum to exchange ideas can be a useful first step and something to build on in the next months;
• assessment: this is a tricky one. Most assessments are going to be rather complicated and many higher education institutions might need to adapt their exam regulations. Technology enables various types of assignments, depending on the discipline, but online assessment is not yet a mainstream procedure in many institutions. Students and teachers need clarity on this issue in order to perform well, so new assessment modes should be a high priority for higher education management right now.
Even though at this point we would need a crystal ball to read into the future, it is important to try to think beyond the crisis and prepare accordingly. If we learned anything from this experience it is that sustainable measures need to be put into place in order to be better equipped next time a crisis occurs, and no doubt it will. This involves serious investment into infrastructure and support structures. The idea here is to have interdisciplinary teams including teaching staff, administration, instructional/ learning designers and IT staff working together on a regular basis. In the long run, this work flows will lead to a seamless integration of technology into the teaching and learning process. In ‘normal times’, this translates into a hybrid learning environment that is engaging and supportive for the students. In ‘crisis times’, it means ensuring continuity by maintaining high quality standards and without putting extra pressure on any of the groups involved. In order to effectively integrate technology in their courses, teachers also need specialised training on learning design.
This crisis has shown the role technology can play in keeping us connected and at least to some extent, allowing teaching and learning to go on remotely. Hopefully many students and teachers will make the most of this experiment and have positive experiences. Maybe some of them will see the value of incorporating some technology tools in future face-to-face courses too. And maybe for some teachers this is an occasion to reassess their teaching and perhaps dare to approach it differently.
up to higher education
A lot of this will depend on how higher education will react during and after this crisis. Will we see higher education institutions finally engaging with the digital age in a strategic, responsible manner, making sure technology is not just an ‘emergency tool kit’ but an essential ingredient connecting the community?