We must stop letting online teaching be cast as the ‘poor relation’

Many students have not had their expectations met, but it’s unhelpful to assume this is a systemic online teaching and learning issue, says Linda Kaye

二月 26, 2021
Online learning should not be seen as the poor relation
Source: iStock

Online teaching has become ubiquitous across higher education, but we would be wise to remember that this term can refer to many practices − and be equally careful not to assume that it is unidimensional.

Indeed, just a small selection of items that fall under this umbrella term might include: pre-recording instructional content to be made available for students “on demand”; recording live sessions to be made available for students retrospectively; making online learning resources available; facilitating online collaborative studying; and delivering live online sessions.

These are very diverse experiences and vary in the extent to which they may be instructional- versus student-centred.

It’s also important to note that one group (of many) that is often omitted from discussions about online teaching are postgraduate students, on both taught and research routes. In the case of research students, it doesn’t seem like there is any real consensus on whether delivered sessions for these students (such as on research methods, for example) are considered “teaching” or “training”.

This is because they are often considered both student and staff concurrently, and this has posed some confusion for these groups when government restrictions about travelling for “educational purposes” have been mandated. 

This current academic year, and of course the previous one, have raised many challenges for students who registered for a degree that was not advertised as distance learning. Many have felt badly done by, to the extent that they’ve sought compensation for their perceived subpar experience.

THE Campus resource: The active lecture and student-centred learning

While most students have not got what they expected, what is most unhelpful in such discussions is the assumption that this is a systemic online teaching and learning issue.

It has not been uncommon to see claims along the lines of: “I’m paying nine grand a year to watch YouTube”. And this is a very easy assumption to fall into given that we tend towards simple comparisons of “what we know” versus “what is new”.

Of course, the obvious distinction here is the means via which teaching and learning is taking place, and so the “fault” is attributed to this. However, this attribution is most likely misplaced. It’s not always possible to replicate all forms of classroom teaching in online teaching without some significant adaptations from tutors and students. So, the modality is not necessarily the issue − it is more likely that effective classroom-based strategies simply don’t always replicate effectively online (and vice versa).

To compare online teaching with classroom teaching is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. We need to remove the focus on the modality of teaching and learning, and instead go back to asking the question: what is effective pedagogy? Plus, more crucially: how does this vary by learning and teaching method?

It’s likely that these variations are the source of many of the less favourable experiences of students (and tutors), and they may include:

  • The heavy focus on providing pre-recorded content considering that the shift online has put more explicit onus on students in managing their self-directed learning. Expectations about such learning have always been present but perhaps more implicitly so in pre-pandemic times.
  • Being “engaging” as a tutor can operate differently for different types of online teaching. Tutors have been working out best practices to adapt in this regard. At the same time, being engaged as a student can also operate differently in different types of online learning. Bear in mind that students have had to largely relearn how to learn. Plus, assessing engagement with online teaching and learning is also vastly different from classroom teaching. Tutors have had to adapt their methodologies accordingly. 
  • Tutors and students are still establishing the social norms and dynamics around online teaching and learning. A simple example is that facilitating social interactions is different in live online sessions compared with in the classroom (longer response times, absence of some non-verbal cues). It’s to be expected that adapting to this may have made some forms of online delivery rather awkward or clumsy.

THE Campus resource: Improving online learning through ‘presence’

Of course, these issues have emerged in the context of an extremely sudden and extensive reliance on online teaching, but they should not be a reason to look disparagingly at online. These are all issues of adaptive pedagogy, not technology.

On a more positive note, there’s also been a wealth of real success stories in terms of adapting to online. Scores of tutors have found new and creative ways of working, many students are finding the greater availability of pre-recorded content useful for revisiting key concepts and many means have sprung up for cross-institutional resource-sharing.

Higher education will only continue to develop its capacity for online teaching and learning in the coming years, and I firmly believe this will further illuminate the fact that online teaching is by no means the “poor relation” in HE provision. 

Linda K. Kaye is reader in psychology in the department of psychology at Edge Hill University. She specialises in cyberpsychology, which is the psychology of how we experience and are impacted by new and emerging technologies and the Internet.



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