Digital Education and Covid-19, a Brain Dump

I’ve been working from home for around 1.5 weeks now and, as well as performing my University job role, I’ve had some time to ponder over what is happening in these most peculiar of times and, perhaps, some of the consequences pertaining to education. Just my thoughts by the way, I won’t be referencing anything or using quotes etc.

I’m well aware many hundreds of others have been diving in and either telling the world how they (or their solutions) can save everything, offer water-tight guidelines for remote learning success etc. This piece isn’t one of those – in fact, it’s just my brain dumping a load of content onto a page so it can fit some extra stuff in!

However, I do hope my words are useful to someone…

The last week

Monitoring the activity in my own institution, as well as what’s going on in other institutions, countries etc. one thing was clear – Higher Education did not appear to be entirely prepared for the remote consumption of its learning. You can argue: “well, we were definitely ready and we…” of course but, as I’ve already pointed out, this writing is just a brain dump and no offence is intended.

What do I mean by ‘not prepared”?

Consider this: how many institutions are you aware of that use their Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to actually engage students in learning experiences? I’ve worked for a number of institutions and the use of the VLE as anything but an expensive file store / dissemination tool is the exception rather than the rule.

Of course, there are always areas of excellence where a particular group of educators across the institution ensure that their modules incorporate a number of approaches, including active learning / PBL / Flipped etc. where the VLE plays a crucial role but this sort of behaviour is rarely replicated across an entire school / faculty / department / institution. Again, this is just a brain dump based on what I’ve experienced over the years and seen during the last week or two – no offence is intended…

So, when there is almost a nationwide directive (or at least strong suggestion) to pull all face-to-face lectures and to begin engaging students using ‘remote learning’ techniques, I can’t imagine many institutions were able to easily switch to this mode of operation…

Remote Learning or Distance Learning or Online Learning?

So what exactly is meant by ‘remote learning’? Does this differ at all to distance or online learning? Distance learning, in its many guises, has been going on for a long time although ‘online’ learning has been happening, at scale for what, 25 years?

What appears to have happened in the current climate, is that everyone appears to think Video Conferencing is somehow crucial to remote/distance learning … of course, the social presence of academics and students has always been an important element of distance learning (although far too few recognise this) but are educators actually required in live video form? Also, synchronous learning appears to have become essential to this recent take remote learning. Synchronous learning surely adds an extra layer of pressure to an already fraught academic body.

Many of my academic colleagues are dipping their toes into running class sessions inside of Microsoft Teams instances but I’ve yet to have any feedback as to how successful this is. Other academics are creating fine captured content objects such as screencasts, visualiser recordings and podcasts and embedding these in the VLE – all aimed at ensuring their students have the best possible educational experience given the circumstances.

And then there’s the learning curve – to academics who usually upload a bunch of files into the VLE, all of a sudden having to deal with engaging students with Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Snaggit, Lecture Recording, Podcasting etc. is quite a big ask.

The Future….

So, let us time-travel to 3 months hence… I’m fascinated at the prospect of institutions / communities of learners demanding / expecting more online provision. How many learners and academics will decide that remote learning should be the way to go and that face-to-face education isn’t really required for their courses? Just think – how many courses do you know of which could, in theory at least, be delivered entirely remotely, even if the student base remains on campus? What would the consequences be short / medium / long-term for the sector? It’s unlikely of course but one can certainly expect to see an increase funds for video conferencing / curation platform and Virtual Learning Environments.

If more teaching was migrated to remote/distance modes, would it be such a bad thing? The ‘chalk-and-talk’ method has been the accepted delivery method for around 800 years, will the recent crisis result in more academics and institutions to consider such a paradigmatic shift?

Lessons, lessons, lessons…

Personally, I think if institutions took their online delivery more seriously in the first place, they would be far better placed to react to situations like the one we’re all experiencing now. Codes of practice, online delivery policies/guidance documents, with buy in from University executives, Senior Leadership Teams etc. will pay dividends, far beyond the current situation.

I don’t think it’s too late to discuss the use of lower-tech forms of online learning with educators – I know this might be unpopular with the current passion/obsession with real-time video but surely the meaningful imparting/sharing of information to our students should trump any unproven/contingent use of technology.

EdTech / Technology firms should be using this time to support existing customers instead of trying to flog them extra services or upgrades. Something that has surprised me is the popularity of Zoom since, according to a recent BBC report (Google it) there are issues around security… has your institution checked the use of Zoom, or any newly adopted tool, against its GDPR / Information Security policy?

Finally, some of the unsung HE/FE heroes in the present crisis is the community of Educational & Learning Technologists, TEL Specialists, e-Learning professionals etc. who I know, from both my work and involvement in sector communities, have been working flat-out to help support their institutions during these most challenging of times.

Thanks for reading, I truly hope I haven’t upset anyone and, of course, if you’d like to respond to any of my thoughts, feel free to do so in the comments section.

Stay safe,