Strategise now to teach students online for the long term

David LeFevre outlines a three-stage planning process needed to enhance online learning for all students – the new normal after Covid-19

March 25, 2020
Man looking through binoculars illustrating op-ed by Stephen Toope about University of Cambridge principles around international engagement
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In a month unlike any of us has ever experienced, universities across the world have had to quickly mobilise and move their entire teaching operations online. Projects that previously would have taken months or years to complete have been compressed into days, and the traditional objections to online teaching have been cast aside. We have witnessed innovation at an unprecedented scale and the world of teaching has experienced a paradigm shift. There will be a new normal once we all emerge from the shadow of Covid-19.

No wonder the academy is reeling. However, there may be no time to pause and reflect. It is likely that our efforts over the past week will serve as a temporary fix and then, once again, we will need to regroup and look forward.

In many cases, the move to online classes has upset existing timetables. Thus, the general smoothness in which this transition has been achieved is extraordinary. However, within a few weeks, students will become restless with the one-dimensional nature of online learning and some will begin to disengage.

Calls for tuition fee reimbursements, while from a small minority, will start to attract attention. Incoming students, particularly at the postgraduate level, may decide to defer enrolling over concerns that their anticipated learning experience will be compromised.

Despite the leadership that my colleagues at Imperial College London have taken in modelling the current pandemic, none of us can know for sure how long the present disruption to teaching will last. 

It would therefore seem prudent to plan for a scenario beyond a few weeks. In other words, we need to ensure that our online provision quickly evolves beyond the current temporary fix into a more engaging and pedagogically-minded format. A number of institutions are now conceptualising the transition problem in terms of a three-stage process, which I think is helpful.

Stage 1: stabilise

This is where we are now. The focus is on putting content online in the most expedient manner possible to enable students to continue studying while campuses are closed. Generally speaking, the format of the online classes is synchronous in nature, with out-of-class activities remaining unchanged from the face-to-face courses.

Stage 2: enhance

Recognising that the methods adopted at stage 1 will not prove sustainable beyond a few weeks, thoughts turn to how to enhance the learning experience. Unfortunately, traditional approaches to online learning fail us here, too. Until now, the time taken to develop high-quality online courses has ranged from three months to two years, with a six-month lead time being most common. In the UK, universities will probably want to move to an enhanced format to start the summer term that begins after the Easter break. This gives institutions just a few weeks to mobilise and implement an enhanced online pedagogy at scale.

Once again faculty and professional staff will need to take action to determine a format for stage 2, one that can be rapidly designed, developed and implemented across the institution. In many cases this format will require a greater focus on asynchronous activities, provide more frequent opportunities for feedback, bolster existing support structures and have a focus on fostering community. Conceptualising these approaches in simple frameworks that can be readily communicated to staff and students is likely to prove most effective.

Stage 3: innovate

This is the phase for which institutions may be able to plan and implement in a more traditional manner, as long as quick decisions to do so are made now. Current restrictions on mobility may no longer be in place at the start of the new academic year in September 2020, however effects will certainly linger. Online learning will have proved not just viable but preferable for an increased number of both students and faculty. The lack of clarity during the present period, during which students are considering their offers, will cause some to cancel or defer their studies.

Should an economic recession occur, we may witness an increase in postgraduate studies. International students, in particular, may be susceptible to changing their plans given the additional commitment to move overseas. In response, universities may want to immediately start scenario planning for potential adjustments to their teaching portfolios for the 2020/2021 academic year.

It is at stage 3 that traditional approaches to online learning become viable once more.  However, these will likely prove obsolete. The considerable innovation being witnessed in stage 1 will continue or accelerate during stage 2. Online learning will evolve to embrace new pedagogies. Face-to-face teaching will embrace technology. Blended learning programmes will proliferate.

It is fortunate that educational technology, and technology in general, has evolved so rapidly over the past decade that our universities have been able to respond to the emergency by continuing classes online rather than simply closing their doors.

Planning now for a three-stage transition process will help institutions navigate the current crisis and emerge well prepared to address the new normal of the post-coronavirus international higher education landscape.

Higher education will of course continue, but in a different way. There will be new methods to discover, to understand and to build a better world through education.

David LeFevre is director of the edtech lab at Imperial College London and founder of Insendi, a higher education online learning experience platform and development company that is part of Study Group.

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