The coronavirus pandemic is challenging the way we teach and connect with learners online.
For many, the sudden switch to online was focused on getting emergency teaching materials out there asap. As with the Covid-19 infection itself – we should aim to strengthen our response for the longer term.
Now as the initial panic subsides, we should be planning for more than just recovery.
Fit for work
Naturally, we want to return to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible, but not before examining the suitability and ‘usability’ of digital delivery going forward. Teaching online will mean adapting curriculum design and content for the digital classroom. Aside from the pedagogical differences and possible pitfalls to avoid, there are inequalities in digital access and skills that will need to be addressed. An inclusive approach to ‘Digital’ will benefit everyone.
With mental health already a concern in the sector, we should take this opportunity to rethink delivery that will support both students and staff to develop resilience. So that they can thrive – not just ‘manage’.
Connection not isolation
Most students can benefit from well-constructed group learning activities. Just maintaining contact during difficult periods might help keep some students from dropping out.
Although more than a quarter of students in the Jisc insight survey say they work alone online, we know that ‘feeling connected’ is linked with academic success and employers really want students to gain better digital collaboration skills for work.
Students also say they want to be involved and in control of their learning. An inclusive approach to digital planning supports access for everyone and promotes crucial independence for students with disabilities and differences.
Teachers will be rethinking how best to use their contact time with students. They will need to choose tools and prepare activity carefully to suit the strengths of the virtual classroom. Structured CPD to enhance digital teaching will encourage best pedagogical use of the technology available.
The implications of moving all learning online will be complex and far reaching. There will be acute technical headaches for institutions, painful adjustments to teaching and assessment techniques for staff, and possible academic and emotional fallout for students. There will be an impact on recruitment, participation, retention, attainment, quality assurance and ultimately the viability for the sector.
We should however be optimistic. Digital delivery allows for more individualised activities that play to students strengths. To build their confidence and hone their capacity to problem-solve. These will be the critical human skills when the future is uncertain. It supports a more inclusive curriculum, with targeted, personalised, effective learning which could even begin to address worrying statistical gaps in academic outcomes for under-represented and disadvantaged groups.
Coping with a fundamental change in the way we measure achievement and performance across the sector may be the biggest challenge ahead. It is also a chance to review established assessment procedures to see if they are fit for the widest purpose and audience.
It makes sense to encourage collaboration, codesigned learning and self-assessment. We have more reasons than ever to embed digital skills in curriculum and promote digital literacy.
Strengthening our skills
Staff and students are going to be engaging in new ways. This is an opportunity to innovate and make full use of the interactive tools on our VLEs.
Jisc’s Staff Insight survey on staff digital confidence summarises that ‘teaching live online is a minority activity that requires time and consideration to scale up’. The suggested ‘baseline’ of VLE skills for all teachers has never been more relevant or urgent.
As a minimum, teachers will need to set collaborative work on the VLE, create and curate their own interactive digital materials, engage students with polls and quizzes and routinely provide digital feedback. So it is more important than ever to invest in their digital skills.
Online education isn’t going away, but it will evolve. Learning is literally merging with everyday life online. Now is our chance to make sure it is in the best of health.