The Online Learning Phoenix Moment

Looking back, we know that unexpected impactful events power widespread transformation. Big crisis of all kinds accelerate innovation. There are many indicators that the Coronavirus Crisis will transform numerous aspects of life, including the 1000 year old higher education system worldwide. In this moment in history, the pandemic is imposing remote learning, teaching and assessment. This extraordinary and sudden need for transition to isolation from the campus offers us a growth chance for educational provision.

I suggest a rough and ready pathway to this better place.

If we can lift our heads from the ‘University of Zoom-Doom’ for one moment, we can consider what insights that we are gathering to inform ‘what’s next’?  and ‘what’s important?’ Right now, virtual teaching is emulating what happened on campus. I admire the many students and staff who have stepped out of their comfort zones and up to their computers, on a massive and impressive scale. We have seen heroic efforts from technology platform providers to make virtual spaces available, and the super-rapid training of academic and support staff to deploy technology as productively as possible. So far, so good.    

Quality education though, it is not. There has been 25 years of research on and development of online higher education, and longer through traditional distance learning such as the UK Open University. In practice, great online learning for credit requires purposeful, iterative co-design achieved in teams including faculty, learning designers, developers, information specialists and maybe alumni and employers. The way it works best is through creative but planned and well-rehearsed pedagogical design and build processes, married with well-prepared tutoring, i.e. design once, deliver many times.

It’s dissimilar from the way we formulate campus teaching, still often a ‘lone wolf’ activity. There are two key threshold concepts that are different for entirely digital learning. First that that the pedagogical pathways must be clearly scaffolded and paced. Second that the focus should be on active student study hours, not academic contact time. Key actions include drawing from previous research and evaluation, development for academic staff through direct and practical involvement in co-design, and the training and development of tutoring staff to ensure academic support for students.  Such an approach leads to student-centredness and a continued focus on quality experience for all. All this can be achieved rapidly and results in scalability for providers and retention and achievement of learners.

So, what if we move now to setting up such processes? Here’s my suggestion of a plan for a shift from contingency to sustainability.

First, our emergency responses have included reproducing what happens on campus, mainly through synchronous conferencing, virtual classrooms and using existing resources. For the next few months however, we need to build up capability and capacity by moving to designing and building for online learning, teaching, feedback and assessment. I suggest institutions start with online courses for new starters for the next academic year, along with those returning for year 2. The courses need to and can be ready for the start of the new academic semesters in September and October. At that time, they will be accessible from anywhere – whether students are still studying from home or back on campus by then.

Universities that already have significant online programmes can repurpose these for campus-based students. Universities with little online provision can prioritise for courses expecting large numbers and/or international students, deploying outside assistance if necessary. It can be done.

Second, during September to December 2020, high quality online courses can be designed and built to provide flexibility and choice with quality for students during 2021, and most of all, to ensure future resilience, whatever the bumpy road to the new normal.

If we revert, after the empty-campus crisis, to just what we were doing before, or even build directly on what we’re doing now in the emergency, then our organisations remain exposed and vulnerable. If, in the stress and tragedies surrounding us, we allow emergence from the ashes, we reduce future risks and offer new opportunities to our students, wherever they are. 

Written for OEB 2020 by Professor Gilly Salmon, Academic Director of OES and member of Online Educa Berlin’s Global Council.

One Response

  1. Kulari Lokuge

    Well said, Gilly. Everyone is delivering online now – compared to all sorts of barriers in the past in a moment the transformation that has happened is really eye-opening.
    Your eModerating and Five stage model has been shared across and used in several situations – thank you for developing such a great model


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