The rapid spread of COVID-19 across the world has impacted many sectors of society, none more so than higher education which has faced the challenge of rapidly adapting to new ways of working and studying.
As the state of emergency was declared many blogposts and commentary pieces started to emerge about the quality of online learning and student performance. I must confess that I was surprised to see that the majority of people outside the Ed Tech community continues to have a very bad image of online learning. More surprisingly perhaps was to realise that such views are underpinned by outdated understandings of the online world. This was unexpected, especially if we think about the amount of digital technology that shapes our practices today. This will be no different to our students who, as many people would claim, seem to live attached to their digital devices. This is because the digital world has become a key element of their logic of practice and many are not even able to picture it any other way. Why should they? So this resistance to move our practice online is telling, especially in times when the alternative is simply not to teach or as someone provocatively proposed to teach badly. This need not be the case. Actually, I will go as far as to propose that this can simply not be the case, because what such attitudes propose is to stop a core aspect of our practice as academics and to let down those who deposited their hopes, expectations and, many times, their life savings or life debts in academia. We have a duty of care towards our students, not only those starting their studies this coming academic year, but also those who are already in the system and need to finish their degrees. They are less likely to defer a year. When the job market is predicted to shrink or stall because of quarantine measures proceeding with one’s education is a strategy that cannot be overlooked nor denied, but rather supported.
Suggesting that online learning decreases the quality of one’s studies is not only attesting to our incapacity to work differently, it is also taking away the study merit of entire cohorts of students.
Think differently, act differently
The biggest challenge we face right now is to consider our practice outside our own experience of classroom teaching, especially if all we have ever valued was traditional ways of teaching and learning. The practice of moving online is best approached through a perspective of going ‘local’ by observing how the online world can be harnessed for learning opportunities. This will cast a different perspective of what is possible online. Henry Jenkins and associates frame this through a perspective of a ‘participatory culture’ where people share information, collaborate and connect with each other, recognise each others’ contributions, and in the process of doing so become engaged in the common purpose of learning, of what brings them together as Wenger, White and Smith would suggest.
Such perspective places far more emphasis on context than content, thus providing an opportunity to let the consumption of information be interchanged with possibilities of content creation. This in turn may help dispel the assumption that online education is mostly experienced as ‘teaching/learning by pdf/powerpoint’ which I fear may be at the root of such resistance in the first place. Additionally, it may impel us to think of students not as consumers of information, and of the university for that matter, but as co-producers of knowledge. This arguably re-shapes the teaching and learning relationship entirely and perhaps, just perhaps, can serve in a tiny way to discourage the neo-liberal imperatives of consumerism universities are currently said to embody. Ironically, this may be the opportunity COVID-19 has brought to education: an invitation to reconsider the role of the different stakeholders in the educational experience.
Teaching and learning online calls for a realignment – not a lowering – of everyone’s practices and expectations of what can be done and achieved.
Whereas the tendency is often to transfer what we do face-to-face to online, the point I am trying to make is to think how education can be transformed within the possibilities of the new setting of practice. Borrowing from translation studies, I would argue that instead of translating our teaching and learning practices online, it is more important to ‘localise’ them taking into consideration the receiving/target culture. This requires an appreciation and deep understanding of digital cultures.
Different practices, different responsibilities
If we change our practices, we also need to change our roles to act accordingly. Implied in this is not only our role as educators, but also students’ own perceptions of the part they play in their own education. This is arguably no different in face-to-face contexts. Yet, online engagement is reliant on visible participation. This is a critical change to the rules of the game that we have got used to play, placing equal visibility on the responsibilities of educators and students in the making sense and construction of knowledge. The spirit to be instilled here is then one of shared practice, where all contributions not only matter, but are necessary to the cohesion of the ‘study group’. Encouraging this shared responsibility will require a new cultural orientation regarding not only how we teach, but also how we learn. Thus,
Thinking outside the lecture and seminar ‘recipe’ is crucial to fostering a digital culture of teaching and learning and developing different learning contexts and opportunities.
Let’s not shy away from talking about inequalities. If there is something this pandemic has made unavoidable is a discussion of the staggering unequal world we currently live in and which is also reflected in the levels of access to digital infrastructures, digital devices and digital skills. This arguably varies across the different levels of education and different communities. It is sadly still persistent in higher education. Yet, this should not serve as an excuse to stop online learning provision; rather it is evidence that improvements are required. The UN has for long discussed the desire to make internet access a human right. This global health crisis has testified to this need. It is time our local and national governments acted on it. Moreover, in the late 2000s there were many debates about universities providing students with tablets and essential digital devices, although such discussions were soon abandoned. Perhaps it is time to resume this debate without making arguments of escalating student fees, thus responding to a societal imperative of digital inclusion. Examples such as the Magellan show that this is possible, even though improved policies are required. Lastly, there is a need to tackle the digital skill gap that has been identified prior to COVID-19. This skill gap is not only technical; it is mainly cultural and can only be overcome by engaging with it. Online teaching and learning provides a unique opportunity in this regard.
Finally I want to briefly speak to the ‘student experience’ that is imagined on-campus, where students join societies, partake in parties, socialise across schools and faculties, etc. There is no doubt that university life is meant to be a transformational experience, but such view is often over-idealised, not to mention that it speaks to the privilege position of those who can afford not only to move on-campus, but also the time to take part in such activities. it does not speak to the experiences of the entire student population. In matter of fact what it does is to leave a lot of students, especially from a widening participation background, out of it.
In the last few months we have placed a lot of emphasis on how or if we should migrate our teaching and learning provision online, but less discussion seems to be had on how the wider academic experience – especially its pastoral side – is supported. The role of student support teams, student unions, student societies and other university related social entities are crucial here not only in making students feel that they are part of the university tissue, but also in helping them to re-orientate towards an online academic experience in times when the on-campus one is not possible. In the process we may find that this can also be a form of including those who would often be excluded by their absence on-campus.
Many others aspects remain to be discussed, especially those related to well-being, workloads and time that are experienced differently online and which require careful thinking. Yet, I hope to have provided some food for thought regarding how we can develop a more constructive perspective of online education. The possibilities will extend as far as our understanding of the online world will take us.