Higher Education’s COVID-19 Online Pivot: Institutions

The outbreak of COVID-19 has seen many universities closing campuses and shifting learning online. It’s unprecedented and suddenly puts ed tech front and center in a way it hasn’t been before. For those of us who have been doing online learning or distance ed for a while it can seem a bit irritating to have been seen as second class for so long and then suddenly deemed worthy of interest. So I tweeted over the weekend:

It was kinda snarky, but I’ll come to it later. I saw later that Lee Skallerup Bessette tweeted this, which I think is a fairer response:

So, in the interest of pulling together, I’m splitting this post into two parts, the (possibly) useful bit, and the moany bit. You can take your pick between them.

This post is drawn from Martin Weller’s blog, The Ed Techie, which covers, “open education, digital scholarship & over-stretched metaphors.” Its content is also licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which allows Social Science Space to bring it to you. The image is Bryan Mather’s Remixer of the cover of Martin Weller’s book 25 Years of Ed Tech.

The (possibly) useful bit

It will be tough for lots of academics to teach online if they have little or no experience of it. Without the necessary support or development required in such a small time frame it is likely to be frustrating and full of potential errors, which makes educators and students feel vulnerable. So we should be helpful and show solidarity in this period. Here are some useful resources:

And here are just some thoughts from my own experience, many of which are obvious, but I’ll state them anyway:

  • Activities that can be done quickly face to face take much more time online, particularly collaborative activities.
  • In discussion forums you may find that people who don’t speak up in class, have more to say.
  • Things you think are obvious, won’t be. If something can be misinterpreted, it will be. So if you can run things by critical readers, do so. If not, add in layers of explanation and be ready to clarify.
  • Related – once a mistaken belief takes hold, it is very difficult to rectify, much more so than face to face, so get on top of it quickly.
  • A distant, aloof air in classroom may be acceptable, but seems even more cold and remote online. Be friendly!
  • Structure different types of activity and engagement. “Read this for two hours and then watch this for an hour” is hard going.
  • Encourage peer to peer interaction, but you will need to monitor this if in public forums. Things can flare up quickly online.
  • If you can, get people to meet face-to-face now – it helps later online working (I pinched this one from Doug Clow)
  • Don’t try to just replicate the lecture course (if you have time), think about what the new medium affords you – asynchronous discussion, different resources you can draw upon, a range of tools, etc
  • When this immediate crisis is over, take time to reflect on how, given longer you might change your pedagogy.

Good luck!

The moany bit

One of the problems of this sudden pivot to online learning, is that as with much more serious infrastructure issues such as health, employment, and social care, it exposes the lack of investment and being taken seriously. So while we’re at this moment, let us consider what could have been done better at institutional level and then how this might be better going forward.

  • Treat ed tech/instructional design units better – I complained before that such units in institutions are often shifted around, given new priorities and not involved in the discussion or direction of ed tech. The expertise of these units needs to be taken into account more, and they need to stop being the plaything for the latest pro-vice-chancellor’s big idea, if we are to put the appropriate infrastructure in place.
  • Stop treating online as second class – there is often an attitude, both at senior management level and amongst many academics, that distance, or online learning is not ‘the real thing’. The Open University experienced this snobbery when it was founded and it is still in evidence today. When done well, the online experience, performance and quality of distance ed is the same, if not better than face-to-face. So start treating it like that.
  • Don’t go for the shiny – too often it is the glamorous, disruption side of ed tech that grabs the attention of senior management and the media. Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, MOOCs – these might all have their place, but what is needed is a focus on using the boring, mundane tech effectively.
  • Make it human – related to the above, staff development should focus on how to construct engaging, fun, meaningful learning online for students. This is rarely much about the technology and more about thinking what works effectively.
  • Read 25 Years of Ed Tech to have a better understanding of tech usage – oh come on, allow me this one!

In short, most institutions of higher education have the technology they need (maybe some extra server capacity will be required), but they lack the experience and practice. That could have been addressed long ago, but now we’re here it is time to ensure it is done properly.

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Martin Weller

Martin Weller is professor of educational technology at the Open University. His interests are in digital scholarship, open education and impact of new technologies. He is the author of The Digital Scholar and Battle for Open, which are available under an open access licence. He is also co-editor of the open access journal, JIME, director of the OER Research Hub, president of ALT, and ICDE Chair in OER.

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