A lot of universities are looking for a new balance. Caught between online education and creating a safe physical learning environment, the challenges are multiple. Every year student enrolment is shifting the faculty ratios. Which faculty will change the most? Are there new studies that are more popular than others? But it is currently the pandemic that is bringing a whole new dynamic to the campus landscape.
Even though online education has been around for quite some time now, teachers are still adapting to this new form of education. And that’s mainly caused by this great imbalance of online education. Instead of online being part of a whole program or supporting physical education, it is now all in (or “all online”). I liked Stanford’s University’s approach where in order to begin, you needed to watch an online movie, then do an online test, and only with successful results, you could enter a live session with the professor. That’s leveraging new technology for a higher participation rate. It also taps into the flexibility needed by both Student and Teacher, regarding how and when we need to spend time on this subject.
So again the problem is the imbalance and the “all online” part of this. Nowadays, online doesn’t have to mean less interaction. We have seen some good examples of great interaction, by the use of the chat function for instance. Asking people to answer short questions through the chat will spark engagement and commitment while giving online education. It does ask for a new competence of the teachers, namely that they now have to focus on a second screen, the chat screen.
However, the main thing students are missing is interaction. Students have grown used to new ways of interaction (mainly through social media), and so we have to accommodate those new ways like chat, likes and sending (heart) emoticons during live feeds. Students require attention, and this does not happen by just turning the camera on. It is about acknowledging the fact they are making an effort to follow the teachers’ classes online, but expect a good learning experience in return, one that feels connected. In physical classes, a teacher could sense if students were distracted, or when students were participating but didn’t understand the context. As a teacher, you could more easily intervene, than currently is experienced online.
When asking around among students, we hear much about burn-outs. Diving a little deeper into this matter, makes me think about what is causing these burn-outs. There are a few dimensions here. One of them is the study environment. Students either live with their parents or live in a student house or dorm. Only a few lucky ones have their own studio, but most of them are still small. This environment is lacking all sorts of means to create an ideal learning environment. A desk is normally the table where they eat or store all sorts of things on. And ergonomic desk chairs are not that common (unless the student is a dedicated gamer too). Most of the rooms are small and are built much more for sleeping, than spending a whole day in, let alone a whole week.
There are also the surroundings of those rooms. It could be noisy because of other housemates, hot or cold because of the state of the housing, or just not very inspiring because it is situated in and surrounded by all the students’ own stuff. Then there is the solitude. Spending all this time alone in your room, without the possibility to work together because of the size or circumstances. It is the spontaneous connections that encourage and engage students. It’s the interactions that make them think twice about the content and their effort in comparison to other students that make them strive for more and do better.
Of course, change was inevitable. And I believe we should never waste a good crisis. The current pandemic asked every teacher to change into an online expert, whether they wanted or not. Unfortunately, there was still a steep learning curve. Even now, after a full year of practice, we still have yet to see a new form of teaching among most teachers. It is hard, I understand, but we seem to have only accomplished a digital way to send information across the digital highway into the small student rooms. Sometimes I think we could have better taped the presentations of the teachers. By organising one-on-one in-depth sessions between teachers and students.
Within the Netherlands, we have yet to see a full adaptation of innovative forms of online teaching. I honestly don’t understand why we haven’t seen more examples of forms that already exist and have proven successful. Inspirational videos, online testing, podcasts or panel sessions. It needs to be a hybrid form, where students choose their own preferred way. Just like the Stanford example, and not just a live feed of a teacher in front of a digital classroom. Practise makes perfect, so let’s start experimenting and really learn (to teach).