A constant refrain in the current wrangling over higher education is the idea that online education is an impoverished way of learning.
Online learners are framed as “remote” or “at a distance” from each other and the educator. The assumption is that when we teach online, we can neither provide good education nor the sense of connection and community that makes learning possible. We want to challenge this “deficit model” of online teaching and learning that continues to circulate in the public debate, and provide some tried and tested recommendations.
We write as educators. Lisa is an experienced online educator. Sarah has spent the summer on a steep learning curve, like many others in the sector. Both of us are currently working with large numbers of students to make sense of and navigate their university experience, much of which is online. None of this is simple.
As university communities we all have different experiences, perspectives, vulnerabilities, and hopes. The challenges we face extend beyond pedagogic ones, and include university fees and funding models, student experience and wellbeing. Understanding how to provide an enriching education, and what is possible online, will not enable us to sidestep these wider challenges but it should inform how we address them.
Dialogue and partnership with our students are central to designing and refining (online) learning. Many students at “traditional” universities may well say they prefer to engage educationally and socially with each other and their tutors on campus. This is understandable as most have significant experience of learning in person, but much less (if any) as online learners. When this perception is factored in with a difficult job market and months of lockdown at home, the recent move back to campus becomes understandable despite ongoing uncertainty about a “second wave” of Covid-19.
When teaching and learning switched quickly online back in the spring lockdown, it was fair to say that the “emergency” experience was “mixed” for students and staff alike. As we are writing this six months later, physical classrooms, labs and studios have been reconfigured to comply with significant health and safety restrictions. They have (to some extent) reopened for the new term, amid ongoing uncertainty due to local lockdowns and other government restrictions on physical distancing.
Alongside these campus changes, a huge effort has been put in over the summer to develop online materials and activities for the 20/21 academic year, and significant investment made in systems and digital tools. Instead of being seen as a last resort, well structured online programmes offer obvious and significant advantages over a restricted campus-based experience during a pandemic (with obvious exceptions for lab or performance-based subjects). Moreover, a number of these advantages hold true even in the (very unlikely) return to anything like “normal” circumstances any time soon.
We should build on the positives that students already know about, for example, the flexibility that has been provided by lecture recordings while (some) related seminars and other activities took place in person. Even pre-covid, the assumption of physical attendance was challenged. Increasing numbers of students were not necessarily available for “full time” study due to many very reasonable practical or health-related issues. Beyond the basic recording of lectures, modules that we have offered largely online for flexible, asynchronous study over the past few years have proved to be very popular.
For example, our online module on the future of work mirrors work-based developments in digital collaboration by allowing students to learn together and experience that change for themselves. It also cuts across the timetable restrictions on physical attendance so we can include students from across the whole institution, and integrates with an open MOOC for learners from all across the globe. Interestingly, last year 20% of the students on this module had Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) for a variety of health-related reasons, and these were almost entirely mitigated by online rather than physical participation.
Those who see online education as deficient worry that online platforms cannot be used to build learning communities and strong educator-learner relationships. However, online collaboration can be accessible and inclusive in ways that in person just isn’t, including for those with other responsibilities, those who have long commutes, and people learning in a second language. By modelling their own digital presence in a learning environment, educators can lead their students by example.
Digital tools have affordances which create new and different ways of being “present”. We should utilise these and make community building a priority in how we design online learning. Then by providing “scaffolding” to early ‘low stakes’ opportunities, students can be encouraged to be increasingly visible and engaged in online spaces.Community building and collaboration can be supported by both synchronous and asynchronous activities.
For example, educator presence may include video introductions, weekly summaries or adhoc additional explanations, prompt response to questions and individual praise or encouragement. There is an evolving literature which speaks to these themes, and a great example is “the limits of online education are assumed, not a given” by Cris Costa.
Practical next steps
So instead of treating online study as “distant” or “remote”, we have identified some practical ways in which we can create presence and collaboration online – even with “traditional” full time student cohorts.
A first step is using asynchronous and asynchronous activities that support and build on each other. For example, students can be asked to source and contribute examples which are then picked up and developed further in real time discussion, and summarised afterwards for the benefit of the whole group.
The creation of shared documents that students can develop and edit before a synchronous class is also a great idea. This provides a way of practicing collaborative writing in their own time. It creates the opportunity to develop writing skills in ways we don’t tend to do in person. It creates a shared resource to be used after the class. A section can also be added for questions or comments to be used during the class so those who don’t feel so confident speaking can ask questions or raise problems. Tools such as Padlet or Mural are very useful for this.
Staff development events have worked well online through the summer, in a condensed but more inclusive format. Individual and collaborative elements can be included in a combination of synchronous and asynchronous sessions. In post reflecting on the Dartington writing retreat, for example, we make effective use of a recipe sharing exercise to help build community both before and during the event.
Becoming comfortable with asynchronous
There are many benefits of well designed and supported asynchronous teaching and learning, well argued in this article by Madeline St Amour. She argues that trying to force a whole group into real time activities can in fact be discriminatory, and that tutors should focus on providing significant levels of time-distributed support. Tutor presence needs to be maintained throughout, although extra effort at the start can be rewarded later as students grow in confidence.
For example, set time-limited tasks for students to tackle in small groups online. For example, our Challenges Online event included over 400 students working in 67 small teams across 16 time zones. They addressed some of the most challenging global problems such as climate change, loneliness and mental health, or fake news, developing and then publicly presenting their project findings over a week of intensive activity.
Participating students subsequently created guides for others to benefit from on netiquette and the practical steps which had enabled their effective collaborative working. A number of the projects created at this event have since been further developed within the university or as entrepreneurial ventures.
We also think we should take advantage of the ability to invite others in. Short panel sessions within workshops have worked well where external contributors can be brought together for a real time discussion far more easily than coordinating their simultaneous presence on campus. This supports students to develop skills and confidence in communicating with diverse “types” of people. And the integration of MOOCs into credit bearing modules seems to work well, with space to analyse and reflect on the experiences of engaging with others on the MOOC.
The recommendations we have outlined illustrate how online study can build learning communities, and thus be anything but “distant” or “remote”. In fact it offers a more flexible and inclusive experience for students, even setting aside the current restrictions. Looking to the future, we obviously hope to see the “new normal” provide opportunities for staff and students to work together in person, while also maintaining and further developing the affordances of digital collaboration.