Fair Comment: COVID-19 and online learning: lessons for the future

Reading Time: 9 min read

Tony Bates
Senior Advisor, Chang School of Continuing Studies, Ryerson University, Toronto, and Research Associate, Contact North, Ontario

The onset of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 has caused chaos in higher education systems worldwide. In most developed countries, universities and colleges shut down their campuses and made a rapid move to emergency remote learning, literally moving their lectures online through video systems such as Zoom. I blame no one for doing this, because in many cases, instructors had no other options, but it would be a mistake to think that this is what online learning was before the COVID-19 crisis, and it is certainly not what it should be afterwards.

The short-term response

Most institutions teaching online before the onset of the coronavirus had a tried and trusted method of developing and delivering online courses, as part of degree or diploma programmes, that resulted in learning outcomes matching or surpassing those of regular face-to-face teaching. There simply were neither the resources nor the time to apply these methods to the cancelled on-campus programmes, although institutions with an already well-developed online programme were able to provide more support to instructors moving online for the first time. It also became clear that even in economically advanced countries, online learning was not the answer for everyone. The minimum requirement is broadband access at a reasonable cost to the student. There are ways to design online learning for those with low bandwidth, but these do not include downloading 60-minute lectures.

What next?

Institutions are likely to be either closed completely or operating in a severely restricted way on campus for at least another nine to 12 months, until there is a vaccine for the virus (or herd immunity is achieved). But before the onset of the coronavirus, online learning was already steadily growing in North America, for a number of reasons. First, it provides the access and flexibility that many students need in a gig economy, where many are working
part-time or even full-time to pay their way through college. Second, online learning enables the development of many of the skills needed in a digital society. Third, the move to blended learning — a mix of on-campus and online learning — will rapidly increase as instructors realise that much can be taught well online. So online learning is not going to go away; indeed, it will become even more important. At the same time, it is not a panacea. It needs to be used wisely, where it is most appropriate and in ways that are known to be effective. Also, this will not be the last crisis that forces campuses to close.

“Institutions need to be better prepared for future emergencies, and providing good-quality online learning is one valuable strategy for such emergencies.”

The need for new methods of teaching

However, for online and blended learning to be used successfully, teaching methods will need to change. Courses will need to be redesigned to lever the unique advantages of both online and face-to-face teaching. This, though,
will require all instructors to be better informed about the strengths and weaknesses of online learning: which students it suits most; which subject areas require different mixes of online and classroom activities; what choice of media to use; how to support students when they are not in class. Most faculty members are not well prepared for this. They are mainly subject experts. Subject expertise will still be important, but instructors will also need training and preparation for teaching effectively online or in a blended manner.

Resources for instructors teaching online

For this reason, the Commonwealth of Learning has commissioned 12 short videos based on my book Teaching in a Digital Age (see p. 15 of this Connections issue). The videos offer theoretical as well as practical tips to improve the quality of teaching in campus-based, blended or fully online learning environments. Topics range from the choice of teaching methods to ideas on how to implement online learning, to understanding different learner needs and providing targeted supports, to the use of emerging technologies, and much more. The videos are available for free on YouTube and will be the basis of a micro-learning course offered by the Commonwealth of Learning, with a certification. The book on which the videos are based is an online, open textbook for instructors and faculty. It has been translated into ten languages and has been downloaded over 500,000 times.

The need for a plan

It is not enough, though, for individual instructors to find their own way to learn how to teach. Not only do institutions need to provide professional development for their instructors; they also need a plan for how to move into what I prefer to call “digital learning.” Online, and particularly blended, learning will continue to grow rapidly, as will broadband access, and the costs will come down in time. Institutions need to prepare their instructors for this reality, and now is the time to start.

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