A growing number of colleges and universities are announcing the cancellation of face-to-face teaching for what remains of the academic year, and continuing instead through online teaching. Given the technology available, this need not be especially problematic. But in practice, it is, and in many cases means the 2020 academic year is lost.
Things didn’t have to end like this: Learning online is not impossible, but will be difficult unless we start looking at things differently. Why is it a problem for teaching to continue through the internet? The reasons are many, and there are no immediate solutions — which does not mean we shouldn’t try. The main reasons are as follows:
- Digital literacy of teachers: While easier than ever, teaching online requires much more than just a passing understanding of the technology involved. Sadly, many teachers are still living in the age of the dinosaurs. Problems that arise in class that under normal circumstances can be solved easily, suddenly become very complicated when there are 20 or 30 students on the other side of the screen, and can lead to the failure of the whole session. Is it possible to train your teachers? The good news is yes, it can be done relatively quickly, and besides, it can be done using the same tools they will later on use with their students.
- Teacher commitment: knowledge isn’t the only factor, dedication is vital. An online class requires much more work, more attention, and more commitment than a face-to-face class. If you include tools such as asynchronous forums or instant messaging groups, which are highly recommended, it also requires much more time, both in preparation and delivery. Either you’ve earned the commitment of your teachers and return it, or the transition will be complicated: good intentions are not enough.
- Digital literacy of students: digital natives? There’s no such thing. Believe it or not, the same students who fully master Instagram and TikTok are often unable to perform such simple tasks as attaching a file to an email or locating an option on a virtual campus, or saving a file with a different name.
- The digital divide:We tend to assume that everyone these days has a computer and a smartphone, but we should remember that there are homes with no computer or where it is antediluvian, where internet connection is very slow or inexistent and every works off mobile connectivity, or where data plans run out on the tenth day of each month. Maintaining sensitivity to this topic is critical if we don’t want to marginalize entire sections of society or the world.
- Software tools: For an ideal online class, you should have access to tools that allow you not only to generate a video and share your screen: ideally, you should also be able to see your students’ faces, they should be able to “raise their hand” virtually to participate, and they should also be able to share their screen or even, for some subjects, temporarily give you control of their computers. In addition, you should provide them with forum tools that make it possible to organize a series of questions in threads, so that students can comment on them and discuss them or provide additional information. Depending on your subject, you should start by considering the ideal methodology to teach it online, and then look for the tools that can make that possible. Never think of online education as a simple substitute for the face-to-face in the moment of crisis, but instead as something that should improve the experience and learning.
- Hardware: teachers delivering online classes should ideally have a good computer with a powerful graphics card that allow them to display multiple simultaneous video windows, as well as a connection with good bandwidth and an external monitor (or a television) in which to place certain windows of the class they’re teaching. If you try to put a presentation on a single screen, along with the slides that come next, with your students’ windows, with a chat or forum window, and a text script to organize the teaching flow, you’ll understand what I mean. A large additional monitor is critical.
- Delivery methodology: this aspect is extremely important. In many cases, a face-to-face class still consists of a teacher simply talking for an hour while her students take notes. If that is still your delivery method — which in this day and age it shouldn’t be — don’t try replicating it online: not only will it not work, but it will clearly highlight how absurd it was. An online class cannot consist of somebody just reading something out, because students will disconnect within a few minutes: if you want them to read something, pass them the document first, and then dedicate class time to discussing it, solving students’ questions, or getting them to make a presentation on it. But above all, consider other, more interactive methodologies. Even if your methodology in face-to-face classes is not particularly interactive, consider that online, if you want your students to learn, you will have to work harder.
- The student experience: Students must also take advantage of the current situation to increase their knowledge not only in the subject being taught, but also in the management of online interaction (just as a face-to-face class should serve to develop other skills, such as presentation, interaction, etc.) As a teacher, you don’t have to be more knowledgeable in using the tools than your students, but you do have to be able to provide them with a reasonable user experience and, above all, meet their expectations. That doesn’t mean you can’t seek their collaboration or carry out experiments — but not everything can be a constant experiment. In a new environment, students need clear frameworks and references.
- Evaluation: if your main method of assessing your students is through an exam, this will require specialized tools to monitor students. I wrote about this experience a few days ago, and now The Washington Post has. If you can — it’s not simple — you should consider different or additional evaluation methodologies: individual or group projects, peer evaluation, participation assessment, online presentations, etc.
Online teaching is here to stay: even when the lockdown is lifted, we will see incidences of students with a common cold or flu having to self-confine, because after a pandemic, no one will be comfortable sitting next to someone coughing or sneezing. Even if we flatten the curve, there will surely still be cases of infection for quite some time. Efforts will have to be made to offer students alternative ways to follow classes from home with no significant disruption in their learning process.
If you think that teaching online is simply putting the camera on and doing what you do in class, or uploading a presentation and a document and then giving students homework to get on with, you and your students will have a problem, because that is no way to learn, and lockdown is no excuse for allowing our educational standards to fall. Let’s not remember 2020 as “the year we lost a course”, but instead, “the year we learned to teach online.” We can do much more and much better. And as educational institutions and teachers, we have an obligation to do so.