Distance learning is not the best model for pandemic teaching

Online courses should be easily adaptable to post-Covid circumstances – whatever they may be, says An Jacobs

October 21, 2020
A bus at a Ferrari factory
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"However fast and sparkly your Ferrari, if your priority for the journey is that you share it with friends, you are better off on the bus."

As the gathering second wave of Covid-19 threatens to sweep away European and North American universities’ efforts to maintain in-person teaching, course leaders are frantically looking for ways to enhance the digital learning experience.

It is frequently pointed out by learning experts that lecturing into laptops does not amount to best practice in digital learning. State-of-the-art digital courses, they point out, typically operate asynchronously, and take years of planning to get right.

As a result of such injunctions, many lecturers have sought inspiration for their own teaching by looking at existing distance learning (DL) courses. As the course leader of a DL MA programme in international relations, I can confirm that DL does indeed offer great insights into how to improve “distant” learning and student-lecturer interaction. However, as an academic who, like most, had to move her face-to-face teaching online earlier this year as a result of Covid-19, I am also very conscious of the folly of seeking to replicate DL techniques in interim online teaching.

One reason is a recognition that it isn’t possible. Setting up a high-quality DL course takes years of planning and preparation: time we simply do not have at the moment. But, more to the point, fully fledged DL teaching is not what either lecturers or students signed up for and it is not what they want.

Although we acknowledge that the pandemic will no doubt have long-lasting effects on higher education, most of us are keen to reconnect with students in physical classrooms at some point. And most of the students feel the same way. The experience they pay for involves attending classes with their peers – before, perhaps, heading off to the nearest café together. Even “digital natives” don’t typically want to study online.

It is therefore important that when moving standard teaching online, we remain flexible. While keeping a close eye on the course objectives and educational quality, we must also bear in mind the possibility of reverting to face-to-face teaching. For that reason, continuity of online and offline approaches is very important.

This flexibility is not usually present in DL courses, which are designed to exist (and remain) exclusively online. Their weekly structures are built around an online platform, often consisting of elements such as an introduction to the week ahead, a list of activities (such as discussion forums, research journals and lectures), an overview of the key resources, and the opportunity to reflect on the learning material of that week.

Such an approach generally attracts more mature students, who often have work commitments, as well as family responsibilities. They may even be in different time zones from the university. These competing demands on their time are such that their need for flexibility centres not so much on the medium of instruction as on the hours and the places they study. The asynchronous and typically part-time schedule of DL courses make them ideal.

Moreover, students on a DL course do not expect things to “go back to normal” in the hopefully not too distant future. They enrol on a course in the knowledge it will remain fully online, and they subscribe entirely to that format of learning. They are typically confident in their ability to study independently: they just need the time and space to do so.

However, school-leavers are generally keener to have timetabled, synchronous lectures and seminars that allow for direct interaction with their peers and lecturers. Sending them off for independent study based on a list of asynchronous activities would therefore be a mistake. This was borne out during the earlier lockdown, when engagement with asynchronous learning materials was low among standard undergraduates.

However fast and sparkly your Ferrari, if your priority for the journey is that you share it with friends, you are better off on the bus. Likewise, however inherently high the quality of DL courses may be, they are not what most undergraduates want. If we don’t recognise that and plan accordingly, all our hard work will still result in a disappointing learning experience and higher dropout rates as students gradually nod off behind the online wheel.

An Jacobs is a senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University and a visiting fellow at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University London. She has taught distance learning and standard undergraduate and postgraduate students at various European universities.

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Reader's comments (1)

Finally, someone with some insight rather than those in the higher reaches or in the staff development units who only have a theoretical knowledge and who think they "know". I have expressed these thoughts too, having been a t the coal face for many years - I get met with "that look" which translates as "being obstructive and awkward again". But the students i am interacting with are Ok with what they have, of course they want something different - just like the rest of us, they want everytihng "back to normal", on campus, seeing their friends etc. but they are realistic enough to realise that it isn't possible to be like that and that staff are doing trheir best to support them in strained circumstances