Our forced migration to online classes is a time to rethink how we teach

As we integrate online learning more into on-campus classes, let’s break away from synchronous classroom models, says Dilip Soman

June 7, 2020
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During the Covid-19 pandemic, schools and universities around the world have been forced to convert in-person classes into online and digital courses. There is much to celebrate about how we, as educators, have pivoted quickly and effectively in this situation. Still, we need to consider how we can make educational experiences more resilient to future pandemics.

Many instructors have sought to recreate the classroom experience as best as they can online. While the digitisation of the classroom model was a necessity in the Covid-19 world, this approach could be erroneous in the long run.

The classroom is an inherently imperfect setting for a number of reasons. We know from research that all of us vary in our chronotype. Our capacity to absorb and act on new information depends a lot on whether we’re morning, afternoon, evening or even late-night people.

Classrooms force a group of 50 or 60 learners with different chronotypes to absorb knowledge at the same time of day, thereby favouring some more than others.

Classrooms also favour learners with long attention spans. Knowing that a significant percentage of the population, including me, does not have this enduring ability to focus, the classroom disadvantages learners with shorter attention spans.

The classroom also favours those who process information verbally and orally, while learners who respond better to other forms of communication can be left behind.

Meanwhile, in some specialised settings, such as management schools, the classroom favours quick thinkers who are comfortable expressing opinions over those who are more reflective and want to formulate an opinion before expressing it.

So where does this leave us as we consider how to reopen campuses? How can the present Covid-19 crisis offer us a new opportunity?

We need to harness better the benefits that the online world offers. Over the years, educators have developed a mental model of a course that is comprised of a series of classes, each with distinct start and end times. We have lived in a teaching world of synchronicity, largely because we had no alternative.

Now is the time to go beyond that. Asynchronous teaching methods are capable of improving our ability to offer alternative learning times and communication forms that are more inclusive of our students’ learning styles.

Offering asynchronous content allows learners to consume material at their own pace and convenience. They can also express their opinions online in whatever form they choose.

I have long taught a mixture of in-class, fully digital and hybrid classes. I have found that some learners are comfortable commenting on a text platform, while others prefer different forms of expression – they record a short audio or video segment, sketch out an idea, or simply provide a link to a GIF, an image or an animation that expresses their opinion.

Asynchronous teaching does have its challenges, especially for many of us who have a traditional mental model of teaching. You may be asking, how do I facilitate group discussions? Will the quality of my interaction with students be shallower? How can I give an online exam? How do I deal with the fact that every learner in my course might be at a different stage of the course?

Admittedly, the answers are not easy. But with advances in technology and a rethink of the basic model of teaching, these challenges can not only be addressed but could even result in better outcomes.

Designing an effective course is not trivial, but as long as we clear our mental models from the restrictive legacy of classroom teaching, it is not overwhelming.

There are many aspects of a university education that simply cannot be done online. We want students back on our campuses. We want them to be engaged in co-curricular activities. We want to harness the benefits of social interactions in both academic and non-academic settings.

To be clear, I am not calling for replacing our universities with digital institutions. I hope that never happens. And I am not suggesting that all of our courses be entirely asynchronous.

Rather, to develop resilience by teaching online, we should harness the benefits of the online world where we can. Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to rethink teaching and learning. We must embrace this opportunity and re-engineer our mental models of teaching and learning.

Dilip Soman is the director of Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

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