Defense of Online Learning

Back in the day Online Learning in Higher Education was a rather niche topic, reserved mostly for IT staff, education innovation experts and instructional designers. It was part of the strategically applied R&D of some of the most forward looking universities (including my own!) with an eye to the long term future. Since March 2020, and the forced use of digital tools, however, the majority of the academic world, including students, has suddenly developed a dominant opinion on Online Learning. The general concensus seems to be that it is bad and therefor it should be ditched as soon as possible.

There are valid reasons why this misconception took root. Many students experienced loneliness and detachement despite doing well in their grades. There are serious concerns about their current mental well being. Teachers have rediscovered that social interaction, in addition to sending out information, is the core of an academic learning community and realise they need F2F education for this reason. Human contact facilitates discussions and deeper learning, especially around creative or sensitive topics, preferably in smaller active groups. Practical education (in labs for instance) took a severe blow, as they could not always be recreated online with the existing tools, creating delays in study programs.

Sadly though, despite the fact we are dealing with a targetgroup that knows the value of research, the “online learning is bad” theory is not evidence based, but rather emotional outbursts of disgust aimed at the entire experience of the pandemic, and the way digital tools have been put to use in that crisis. Yes, the experienced drawbacks are severe, and some things will always be F2F, nor will any expert in Online Learning deny that. However in defense of Online Learning I would like to point out why some of the hastily drawn conclusions are based on Emergency Remote Teaching, and not Online Learning. Words and definitions matter a great deal in this conversation.

Emergency Remote Teaching is not Online Learning

Emergency Remote Teaching is the sudden (in one week or less) adaptation of digital tools to teach material previously designed for F2F education. Some material is not suited, or the learning objectives and associated activities are not adjusted (enough) to being online. Platforms and tools might not be used to full effect by either teacher or student because they are new to them. Some universities have managed to provide some training, or provide didactical information, but never enough, for time is at a premium in the pressurized environment that are modern universities. The lack of infrastructure and accessbility creates a bigger divide for vulnerable students. In March 2020 Higher Education was thrown into the deep sea without preperation and had to learn to tread water on the go.

In contrast Online Learning requires:

  • an instructional design of learning objectives & activities that carefully manages the 5 stages of learning, including overcoming the first technical hurdles and socializing to create trust in a safe learning environment where students engage each other in learning communities (not providing footnotes here, but check the work of Gilly Salmon, as well as the Community of Inquiry and you might also want to check my course on communities which is fully sourced).
  • understanding of platforms and other tools to maximize its use, and then making sure staff and students also familiarize themselves with these platforms and tools.
  • a media production that takes more time and planning than creating a powerpoint or checking last years notes the day before. Even experienced online teachers take more time creating a video, but also consider media like podcasting, infographics, games etc. Material that will need maintenance, including updating the content.
  • digital skills of students in dealing with for instance asynchronous discussions and annotations in forums and other text based tools, reviewing their peers, writing blog posts or creating their own media.
  • Regular formative testing to see if concepts have stuck, not just one big summative exam
  • The use of data analytics, for instance to see which part of the course students review more often (are they struggling?), who might benefit from a personal email offering help to prevent drop out and more.
  • Investment in both hardware (laptops, webcams) and software (video tools, collaboration & social tools), and above all a good IT infrastructure both in university buildings and at places were staff and students live such as WiFi as well as providing standard captions to video and podcasting.

Do you see the difference? Pandemics are emergencies that create less than ideal circumstances. A lot of the experienced drawbacks could have been prevented if we, the world wide academic community, had more time beforehand, or during the crisis. We did the best we could with limited resources, but it was not enough. I am deeply saddened that this seems to have given such a mistaken impression of what Online Learning could offer an university in the form of Blended Learning: a best of both worlds that universities should consider as part of their digital transformation. And speaking of which , I can see a new confusion coming up ….

Hybrid Learning is not Blended Learning

Hybrid Learning is the synchronous teaching of lectures or seminars to more than one group of students at the same time. That could be fully F2F with students in two classrooms, or partially F2F with one group of students at home, while the other group sits in a large lecture hall. Tools might aid the teacher, as well as having a teaching assistant or moderator present for those joinining online to encourage their participation. The main challenge for the teacher is dividing attention between the groups, making sure each gets an equal learning experience. Tools like videowalls, chats etc must be learned by all participants. The main drive behind hybrid learning is providing a classroom social experience to as many students as possible, while dealing with a scale problem.

The essence of Blended Learning is that it is a mix of asynchronous and synchronous teaching, including F2F teaching. That is to say, you flip the normal big lecture hall model and all the knowledge sending by the teacher is done beforehand (just like a handbook, but using a variety of media, and potentially some formative testing, most of it digital in the Learning Management System), and the classtime is instead done in small groups where students actively engage with each other and the material, for instance by discussions, creating something together or reviewing each others work. In this model potentially you keep standard lectures, if you still need them, fully online, but practical education and seminars are on campus. The active learning creates better learning outcomes, but students might resist active participation as it requires a bigger time investment from them and it is something that is not usually taught in secondary education so the concept is unfamiliar. The main drive behind Blended Learning is quality of education.

In other words, Hybrid Learning is a pale imitation of Blended Learning due to its focus on synchronous teaching in large groups, and needs an investment in extra tooling. From a didactical viewpoint Blended Learning is to be preferred, but in practice we are still in a crisis and Hybrid Learning may be what we end up with for now. Universities like to avoid the H-word because they know it is a raw deal.

Digital Transformation: the way to the future

To conclude: in the coming 5 to 10 years, universities will have to ask themselves: what does a digital university look like? What do we want to keep, and what do we want to avoid, for the sake of a quality education? How can we both keep the added value of universities and scale all activities that we are involved with right now? What kind of infrastructure is needed for that? Some suggestions summarized:

  • strong IT infrastructure both on hardware and software, which should be as flexible as possible to meet workfloor demand (which will continue to demand restructuring of university procedures).
  • dedicated support with a wide variety of expertise for the workfloor organized in a flexible, non-bureaucratic manner, putting teachers and students front of mind (rather than, say, budget)
  • an open, transparant, collaborative academic community supported by IT
  • a focus on accessibility and equity of the digital learning environment.
  • a conversation on digital privacy and digital ethics, to allow for data analytics to be responsibly employed at universities.
  • focusing on the training of digital skills that both teachers and students need (which is not the same as labour market skills or the dreaded 21st century skills)

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