Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Transition to online teaching - so far so good but who are we leaving behind?

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels
With the vast majority of schools and universities in the world teaching online there is plenty scope for research into how well or not the transition has been managed and what conclusions can be drawn from the experience. Already there are survey results indicating that most students are satisfied with the online solutions being offered, given the exceptional circumstances prevailing. However that should not lead to complacency for behind the positive indications there are also students who are being excluded.

One new survey, of law students at the University of Oslo, is described in an article in Mirage News, Digital teaching provides good learning outcomes, lightning-fast research shows. A week after moving to online teaching 175 students were asked about their experience of the transition and although this is an extremely limited survey it does reveal some interesting tendencies (the published article is available in Norwegian, Første uken med digital undervisning i koronatiden: Jusstudenters erfaring). 60% of the students stated that the online teaching was as good as or even better than the campus teaching and the teachers express surprise at how well the transition was received. One teacher explains:
My main thought is that the findings indicate that the students across the faculty have positive experiences from the first week of digital teaching. Although there is of course some criticism here and there, I had really expected far greater dissatisfaction, especially considering that this evaluation applies only to the first week. At the same time, we need to be a little cautious about the use of these findings, as they are only based on the first week of digital teaching.
At the same time there was a significant number of students who were less satisfied and this was mostly due to other technical and social factors.
A substantial minority of students are struggling with childcare, illness, poor internet connection, lack of workspace at home and lack of contact with teachers and fellow students. There is a strong correlation between the number of challenges and how the student evaluates their learning experience and study situation.
Most of these factors are beyond the control of the university but are critical to students' academic success, not just in exceptional times such as these. One uncomfortable truth is that university education is still largely geared to the traditional student model who are able to live and study on campus, do not need to combine study with work and do not have families to care for. University study whether on campus or online is designed for the traditional notion of a student, as described in an article on The ConversationUniversity study is designed for the privileged – students from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer. This becomes even more true in the exceptional circumstances today. Those who cope best with online learning are those who are already have good study skills, have access to fast internet connections, own the right devices and have a social environment that allows them to study in peace. For others simply finding a place to study in peace is a challenge, especially when even places like public libraries are closed. 
Additionally, flexibility may make it harder to carve out time for studies. Scheduled on-campus blocs of time allow students to focus, which they may not be able to do when faced with the immediacy of children or younger siblings not attending school. Many students are working in retail, meaning they may be their family’s only source of income as parents are unable to work. The risk is that the pandemic exacerbates existing inequities and makes it even harder for these students to engage with their studies.
These themes are further developed in a blog post by Tharindu Liyanagunawardena (UCEM, London) Online learning in challenging times. In the rush to switch to online mode it is all too easy to forget accessibility issues and not take the students' home situation into consideration. We cannot, of course, remedy their social situation but should at least try to ensure that our platforms and tools are as accessible as possible. For example we can ensure there are transcripts of the video lectures for those without access to broadband or who prefer to read than to listen. Maybe an asynchronous activity is easier to access and participate in than a synchronous video meeting? Tharindu gives further examples:
For example, if a student with a hearing disability was supported by a note-taker in class how could we support this student now that we have moved to online lectures? Or now that most overseas students have gone home to their countries, can we conduct online classes at the same time and expect them to be present despite the time differences? What if the technology we adopt is barred in some countries where our students reside?
It is only natural that in the scramble to move online some issues are forgotten or omitted due to lack of time and resources but as we move on these issues need to be addressed. In all situations we need to take time to consider who we are excluding or limiting and try to find the right balance.

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