Sunday, January 23, 2022

Back to the classroom - risk for a post-pandemic backlash?

Photo by Changbok Ko on Unsplash

Over the last year or so there have been countless articles and blog posts about how the pandemic has finally brought online education to the forefront and how education will now be able to take a leap forward as we fully integrate more collaborative and active learning with the help of digital platforms and tools. This is linked to similarly optimistic forecasts of how work culture will change radically as working from home becomes mainstream. Of course there will be changes in the way we teach and learn but don't underestimate the power of tradition and the desire to return to familiar ingrained practice. 

Several posts in the past week have featured the risk of a backlash against the online transformation narrative. Politicians in many countries are increasingly focusing on the need to get students back on campus and return to traditional teaching. This is understandable but it is often combined with a bias against online education as a poor substitute - the assumption that education is always best in the physical classroom. This point is discussed by Martin WellerWhy do education secretaries hate online learning? with reference to recent remarks by UK politicians.

I mean, it’s weird, right? On the one hand, all Governments like to berate education for not fully preparing students for the modern workplace. They unveil plans about how they will be a modern, 21st century, digital economy. And yet, successive education secretaries have berated online learning, which one would think was an essential component in realising both of the previous aims. And not just offer up some valid criticisms around issues of retention or engagement, say, but they use terminology that portrays online learning as, at best, a lazy, cheap option and at worst, some form of abuse.

I wish we didn't always play off the one form against the other. It would be nice to hear that the progress in online teaching gained during the pandemic will now be integrated into classroom practice in order to offer greater flexibility and active learning opportunities for students. But somehow the rhetoric of back to the traditional classroom appeals to voters and any changes to the well-worn system are viewed with suspicion.

On a similar theme is a post by James ClayPredicting is hard, and we can get it wrong, commenting on an article from HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute), Five common predictions about COVID and education that now appear to be wrong. It outlines how several predictions have been proved wrong: the number of students has not been reduced because of covid, test results in most subjects have not suffered, drop-out rates have not increased significantly and the graduate work market has not suffered either. Despite all this, Clay notes that attitudes to online education from those in power have not responded.

One prediction made at the start of the pandemic by many involved in education technology was that the forced working from home would (post-pandemic) be a catalyst for more blended and online learning in higher education. The prediction was that following people being forced to use tools such as the VLE, Teams, Zoom, lecture capture, that this would embed such technologies into future teaching and learning. Well we know from the press this week that this may not be the case, with Nadhim Zahawi talking in the Daily Mail that “Students made to pay tuition fees for Zoom lectures should revolt”. This kind of rhetoric makes any (current and future) use of online technologies challenging for universities.

Will the experience of the pandemic period simply be seen as a temporary diversion? If we really want to change education it will require major investments in professional development as programmes are redesigned to integrate more flexible and collaborative models. Institutions will need to change their organisation and strategies, teachers will need to learn new methods and students will also have to adapt. This all costs time, effort and money as opponents will be quick to point out. With many institutions under financial pressure, the temptation is strong to return to familiar practice. 

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