Pandemic propels online education into ‘next phase’

Digitising classes was the first part – the next challenge is to make materials engaging and personalised, experts say

October 21, 2020
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Online learning has taken a leap forward in sophistication and complexity during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to three veterans of edtech and teaching.

In terms of creating online teaching platforms, “most of the glitches have now been worked out of the system, and now we’re moving into the next phase”, said Ian Holliday, pro vice-chancellor of teaching and learning at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), where campus closures mandated online teaching during protests in November 2019, which then continued through the coronavirus pandemic.

HKU only resumed face-to-face classes, with hybrid instruction, three weeks ago. “We’ve had very varied experiences in the past year,” said Professor Holliday, speaking at Times Higher Education’s Digital Transformation Forum.

Now that the baptism of fire is over, HKU is embarking on a year-long strategy-planning exercise to reform teaching and learning, which will involve getting staff and student feedback.

“Colleagues are now more focused on teaching and learning than before,” Professor Holliday said. However, he emphasised that the final goals of university education remained, whether teaching was in-person or online.  

“Some fixtures of the landscape are unchanged from times past – and by that, I mean a year ago,” he said. “We have the same aspirations and outcomes – knowledge of the discipline, communication and intercultural skills, and critical thinking.”

John Schulz, director of the SEds Video & Digital Media Studio at the University of Southampton, says that edtech had come a long way since he started work in the 1980s, using videos and satellite to connect rural teachers in Australia.

Now, he said, materials need to be created “from the ground up” as digital projects, as opposed to simply recording in-person classes.

Dale Johnson, director of digital innovation at the University Design Institute at Arizona State University, said that the next step for online education was to achieve “personalisation at scale”.

“In all industries, the first stage of development is to mimic old processes. The next challenge is to let technology change your processes,” he said.

Mr Johnson, who has 25 years of edtech experience, offered three tips for teaching online.

First, “forget everything you did face-to-face”. The goal was not to record 50-minute lectures, but to craft digital-specific content, for example in “six- to 10-minute blocks that are poignant and memorable”.

He also said teachers had to create a sense of community via discussion boards and social media, “which is not something they had to do before”.

Third, he told administrators to remember that “technology depends on teachers. Good teachers can save bad technology, but bad teachers can ruin good technology.”

“Empathy is critical to success in this new environment,” Mr Johnson said.

His final advice: if educators or leaders haven’t yet taken an online class themselves, they should – even if it’s an “introduction to teaching”.

Ksenia Zavyalova, a research associate at Russia’s Kazan Federal University, which co-hosted the virtual event, said that “the education sector is often criticised for being slow to adapt, but over the past few months, it’s proven to be adaptable”.

“It’s an important lesson from the Covid crisis – that teachers need to be recognised for their roles in crafting the future of education,” she said.  

Almira Garifullina, a senior lecturer at Kazan, said that “teachers need to communicate in different environments, as the world is changing rapidly”.

For teachers, “being a quick learner is important, too. One needs ‘self skills’, like a sense of self-development or self-reflection.”

Southampton’s Dr Schulz said that the most important skill was not technical, but “the willingness to try new things”.

“I have teachers asking me, ‘I look terrible on camera. What do I do?’” he joked. “And a while ago, they would have been the last to turn on their computers if they didn’t have to.”

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com  

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