May 2020 Newsletter

One step back, two steps forward: Learning how to learn online

A student reflection on the spring pivot ahead of the new academic year

Written by Vish Gain

Online teaching isn’t about replicating the classroom

Since the Covid-19 outbreak and the shutdown of Irish university campuses, online learning as the future of third level education is the talk of the town. Even if classes don’t go completely online and follow a ‘blended’ approach, a mix of online and physical classes, we know that things are never going to be the same again. The last few weeks of the spring semester, the emergency ‘pivot’ phase, has most stakeholders of this system divided: some welcome it, and some dread it. But most importantly, needs must. 

In April, I attended my last few online classes for the semester. Disruption in the teaching and learning environment was a steep, and bumpy, learning-curve for students as well as staff who teach. Even though universities had access to resources, there was no ‘one plan fits all’ model in anticipation of a sudden need to move completely online. All ongoing development in digital T&L was intended for the long term, and yet here we were with an urgent need for a standardised set of tools and practices to meet the demands of academic integrity in the seemingly uncharted territory of online-first learning. 

Having successfully completed all classes, to the relief of both students and lecturers, I decided to reflect on the pivot phase and list some observations made by my peers and myself. The internet is full of do’s and don’t’s at this time, so I’ll avoid that format and advise viewing this as a list of simple realisations from a student perspective that staff who teach may find useful going forward. 

Online teaching isn’t about replicating the classroom 

Physical classrooms have a charm of their own. Since ancient times, the thrill of young and curious minds gathering around the more learned members of society to participate in the sacred practice of discussion, debate, and the dissemination of knowledge has been seminal to the university experience. Conventional wisdom has it that physical presence aids in effective communication and creates an atmosphere that fosters learning. But how do we replicate this in an online environment? 

A video call with the same lecture that was prepared for the classroom isn’t adequate. I use the term ‘adequate’ because even though the video lecture might have the same outcome as it would in the classroom (assuming the video was seamless and student interaction was prioritised), the format doesn’t capitalise on the fundamentally different nature and potential of the online platform. The power of videos and interactive graphics, online quizzes, and assessments for learning (rather than of learning) are some ways in which we can take advantage of teaching through the Internet. 

Video-call classrooms can be fun, if used properly

After the initial awkward-yet-funny moments of mic testing and the symphony of “Can you see me?” chants, video-call classes tended to get monotonous. With all mics turned off and a lilting voice guiding through presentation slides on a shared screen, spontaneous student responses are limited.  

From personal experience, the breakout feature on Zoom was a great way (for smaller classes) to bring organisation to student interaction. Opening the meeting 15 mins early for students and lecturers to have a quick chat as the participants start filling in made classes feel more personal and the students more comfortable. On the other hand, video playback through a shared screen was an experience I hope was one-time only. 

Virtual Learning Environments are at the core of online T&L 

Perhaps the most important tools at our disposal during this online transition are the university-specific VLEs. Intended to be the structures that play host to the online components of academic experience, the VLEs are designed to be the single points of communication between students and lecturers. But for years they have been seen as optional tools, meant merely to supplement the more ‘serious’ classroom lectures. Not all lecturers have used them, and those who have, haven’t all used them effectively.

The problems arising out of lack of organisation (and will) when it came to using VLEs surfaced most prominently during the pivot phase when classroom-only lecturers had to take to the platforms to continue teaching. Now more than ever, a program-level standardised approach to VLEs is required in order to prepare both staff who teach and students for blended learning. From personal experience, it helps to have everything in one place and in the same format across all modules instead of keeping track of the VLE habits, if any, of different lecturers. 

Coursework needn’t increase to compensate 

One of the most common issues facing students during the pivot phase was the seemingly increased workload that came with the online shift. Video calls and audio-aided presentations were accompanied by quizzes, surveys, reflections, worksheets, and a whole cohort of activities intended to make sure students were learning ‘as much’ as before. All of these methods are time-tested and effective tools for enhancing learning, but they risked overwhelming students who were in the midst of a crisis. If anything, a reduced workload that gradually builds up to pre-shutdown levels is the way ahead.  

Like staff who teach, not all students are comfortable with the sudden shift. More tasks, even if each is designated ‘easy’, can make students anxious and lose motivation. After all, learning should be challenging – not difficult. The difference lies in the pace. 

Communication can be streamlined for greater good 

Until now, a majority of communication between staff who teach and students has been through regular emails with some use of the VLE announcement section for variety. Sometimes information is repeated through both media. In other instances, the VLE announcement and public discussion sections are left undisturbed.  

Moving forward, an attempt to streamline all communication, both public and private, through the VLE should be made. Public discussion forums make it easier for staff to amplify the reach of answers to individual queries for the greater benefit of the class, as well as serve as a repository of all student-lecturer communication. Students who are less comfortable in being vocal in classrooms may find it easier to communicate here, eliminating the need for multiple individual meetings after class. For direct communication, VLEs have much-overlooked private messaging systems in place. In universities of the future, the VLE is to emails what the email was to letters. 

It’s a brave new world and students aren’t prepared 

The pivot phase was a hard time for both students and staff who teach. Many students experienced significant changes in their lives – moving home, getting/losing a job, varying access to the Internet, and the list goes on. Many simultaneous changes during a national lockdown led to an increase in anxiety levels and, potentially, a decrease in performance. The seriousness of the disruption caused in the lives of students over the spring period must inform the teaching & learning methods in the fall semester.  

Chances are staff who teach will be better informed and prepared than students with the new models and methodologies being curated for online and blended learning – and students aren’t default experts in technology.  

A standardised VLE, easy to navigate resources, considerate workloads, flexible timings, continuous student feedback, and varied teaching methods – coupled with excitement for the future of education and compassion for the student – will all go a long way in transforming this disruption from a sudden jerk to just another gear-shift in Irish higher ed that helps it cruise while it accelerates.

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