Update: I developed the ideas in this post further and brought the thinking together in a talk for Online Educa, Berlin:
This is a reflection on some key areas which have come to light with the sudden move to online teaching. I wanted to write this post very early our academic term (less than two weeks in) to capture the moment.
While some of the thoughts might appear a bit grumpy, that’s not really representative of how I feel. From what I’ve seen at my institution the move online has had its bumpy moments but overall it’s going ok. If you’d asked me what moving to 100% online over about three weeks would look like then I’d have predicted some kind of socio-tech disaster. Instead, it’s spectacular how quickly everyone has adapted and how well the tech has held up. Perhaps we are discovering we were already working more in digital spaces than we cared to admit?
1. What is crisis and what is digital?
It’s important to separate out our experience of the COVID crisis from our responses to teaching in the digital environment. Access issues and digital platforms struggling under the weight of unplanned for levels of usage are due to the crisis. The speed of the shift to online accounts for the prevalence of some teaching practices which experienced online educators would not recommend (see the points on deficit and practice mirroring). This is to be expected as we all bring the practices we know into new environments. It takes some time to transpose/modify how we work.
It’s definitive that we don’t scrutinise that which we are normalised to. As such, we tend not to ask too many questions of face-to-face teaching around themes like engagement and participation. Actually, that’s not fair, we do ask a lot of questions, but classic lecture and the seminar practices are still basically sacred and carry massive cultural weight in terms of representing ‘university’. When we move to the digital though, all the questions we should be asking about face-to-face suddenly appear, as the change of location breaks the normalisation spell and greater scrutiny is applied.
I’d argue that all the pedagogical questions we are asking about the digital environment should also be applied to the physical environment, especially on questions of engagement, access and inclusion. I’ve seen the ‘How do we know students are really engaging?’ question being applied with more enthusiasm online than it usually is face-to-face because embodiment is a powerful, but false, proxy for engagement.
Because we are responding to a crisis we are inevitably clashing with our current (face-to-face) students’ expectations of what they signed-up for. Given this, it’s inevitable that online teaching is framed by what it’s not rather than what it is. It’s seen in deficit, which tends to mask opportunities and the take up of ‘new’ modes of teaching. The simplest example of ‘new’ (retro-novel) being the use of asynchronous modes of engagement, such as the humble discussion forum (a lively discussion forum is a difficult thing to foster, but then a lively discussion amongst students in any context has always required expert facilitation).
That’s not st say that we aren’t already recognising the benefits of online teaching. Anecdotally I’m hearing that lots of courses are seeing much higher levels of attendance than before and that many students find the online environment more inclusive, especially those who are perhaps more reflective or those for whom English is not their first language.
4. Practice mirroring
The principle of Contact Hours is, in my opinion, the biggest stumbling block for the move to online teaching. The narrow definition of Contact Hours in the UK basically boils down to ‘time spent in the same room together’. In largely face-to-face institutions there are vague gestures towards ‘online’ as contact but in most courses this doesn’t seem to be officially mapped in. This is amplified by a cultural attachment to the University as a set of buildings. (Until you can screw a plaque to a VLE with the name of a benefactor on it I guess buildings will always win?)
So in the move to online teaching our initial instinct is to preserve Contact Hours by mirroring what would have been face-to-face sessions with webinar style sessions. What this looks like is exhausting 3-4 hour online sessions which must be almost impossible to stay engaged with. Not only is this unstatable, it is also damaging to the learning process. In short, our limited conception of ‘Contact’ is antithetical to what we claim we are trying to achieve, especially when we move online.
In an era of information abundance we know that students are more interested in moments of contact than they are in access to content. Beyond credintialisaion, it’s access to expertise and those moments of feedback and co-presence which come to signify ‘what they are paying for’. Of course, some courses also offer access to specialist equipment but even then I’d argue that access to expertise is still the main concern.
What I propose is that instead of thinking in terms of Contact Hours we should move to the concept of presence -the extent to which a member of teaching staff is present and in what mode. This could come in many forms:
- A fairly quick, reliable, turnaround to emailed questions
- Being active ‘live’ in forums or text chats (an ‘office hours’ approach to asynchronous)
- Lively synchronous sessions – such as, webinars with plenty of Q&A
- Artfully ‘flipped’ use of pre-recorded teaching videos
- Audio, video or text summative feedback (if it’s been created just for you then it’s always a moment of presence)
- …and of course face-to-face sessions in various forms.
We are highly attuned to the levels of presence and attention (we are social beings) which is why a move to online shouldn’t involve cutting staff time or staff-student ratios.
With some thought it should be possible to weight the various modes of engagement as forms of presence and broaden out beyond the ‘time spent in the same room’ concept. Making this work would involve being explicit with students how these various forms of presence support learning and contextualising the value of face-to-face as one of many presence modes. Communicating that will not be easy, as it requires a shift in what we perceive as ‘university’, but this is something we need to do if we are going to be increasingly online from now on.