Higher education is one of the sectors most severely affected by the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. In a large number of countries, many university campuses were closed. The learning process had to be immediately transferred to an online environment without any preparation.
It has been over eight weeks since the first universities decided to switch to online courses using tools including web conferencing, virtual classrooms, and online whiteboards within their learning management system (LMS). There were different factors that affected how the transition process went. Although it is still very early to draw conclusions about the efficiency of this type of distance learning in university education during the pandemic, the first impressions of instructors and students can significantly help in finding what works and what doesn’t. How can the quality of education be improved in online courses?
This article will provide some tips for university educators on how to best combine self-paced with live online teaching in order to ensure the smooth continuation of their courses.
1. The adjustment of universities to the unprecedented situation disrupted but did not discontinue higher education.
The circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic required immediate action by universities, including eliminating campus visits to ensure the safety of students, lecturers, and staff. The most important goal for academic institutions was to provide their students with required lectures and courses without in-person contact with professors. Online education became the only alternative to regular academic studies. However, the temporary transition to exclusively online learning created numerous challenges for some universities.
The limited-time for planning and organising the switch to this form of distance learning was the biggest obstacle for academic institutions. In addition to adapting courses and getting fully set up for virtual learning using a online learning platform, universities had to make changes to different aspects of the academic year, activities, and events. Some of these included changing admission dates, finding alternatives to on-site examinations, rescheduling thesis defences, cancelling university tours, and much more. Numerous universities around the world suspended all on-campus lectures and enrolled students in online courses.
Fortunately, the growing adaptation of online learning in higher education worldwide, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, significantly helped this transition to virtual learning. In recent years, more and more universities around the globe have been offering various online BA and MBA programs, individual courses, summer programs, and many more that show promising results and great potential for this form of education. The universities that have experience in providing online programs were more prepared to meet the rapid changes in the learning process with fewer disruptions of lectures and courses.
Thanks to the united efforts of universities’ administrators, information technology professionals, instructors and students, the initial chaos caused by the switch to virtual learning is being replaced by the “new normal” experience of university studies. What approaches and changes are working in the online learning of university students in this situation of a world pandemic? What can be done to improve the process?
2. New perspectives—new possibilities
One good old expression reads “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” The “forced” transition to online learning during a global pandemic was not an ideal situation for some instructors. However, thanks to the learning management systems implemented in education today and the tools they support (online whiteboards, web conferencing, virtual classrooms, etc.), professors have great opportunities to explore new teaching techniques, approaches, styles, and much more.
Now is the time to acquire new skills for working with these learning platforms to learn how to use the full potential of these digital tools. This unique situation is a good opportunity to work on creating an inspiring and engaging learning experience for your students that adds to lectures more interactive materials as well as engaging content with more discussions to encourage sharing ideas and participating in the sessions.
One of the benefits of online learning is the ability to adjust the teaching methods to your students’ different learning needs and preferences for the most fulfilling synchronous and asynchronous study process. The learning platforms also make it easy to add an abundance of online learning materials and resources like shared documents, videos, scripts of lectures, lists of helpful e-books, and much more.
Collaborative activities, working in teams, and group assignments are among the most engaging activities for university students that can be especially helpful during this time of forced social distancing. The breakout rooms in the learning platforms are great virtual environments for exchanging ideas and working in teams.
3. An inclusive learning experience
One of the challenges facing universities was to provide high-quality education to all their students. Among the main issues that still remain is the fact that not all students have access to a high-speed internet connection. How can you help in creating an inclusive experience for all students?
- Adjusting the courses to use less bandwidth is helpful for students who have a slower internet connection. Using browser-based learning platforms for lectures helps in reducing the necessary bandwidth when downloading materials. Include links to existing videos and images in lectures instead of loading them directly in the prepared materials for the session.
- Create various online learning resources for students; this includes summaries of lectures, additional materials, directions for assignments, schedules, recorded lectures, lists with useful webinars, videos, e-books, podcasts, etc. that are accessible at any time.
4. Better communication on all levels
- Create clear and open channels for communication with your students. Choose the most convenient day of the week for you to schedule time for online consultations with students who have questions. It’s helpful to organise discussions among small groups of students on more relaxed topics, even those from everyday life, by asking questions like “How are you doing?” “How are your families doing?” and “Can I help in any way?” Encourage students to communicate with each other outside the study activities through various channels such as web conferencing, phone, text, social media, and group chats.
- Provide clear information about the schedule of lectures, instructions for assignments, and deadlines. Create open communication channels for your students to be able to reach you even after class. Make sure to provide them with information about whom they should contact in case you are not available.
- Body language, facial expressions, and nonverbal clues still matter, even in online education. Thanks to video conferencing during live sessions, the instructor can observe student behaviour and view it as instant feedback about the lecture. Web conferencing with live video chat is great for using a more expressive teaching style through nonverbal techniques like eye contact (look at the lens of the web camera), hand gestures, nodding, smiling, etc.
- Communicate with your fellow professors and other colleagues. Exchange ideas, knowledge, and support, or just talk about anything that can distract you from the situation. Active socialising can decrease the stress of working online from home during this pandemic.
5. Have realistic expectations
The crisis caused by COVID-19 created unprecedented conditions for living, socialising, and learning. This quick switch to exclusive online learning can be overwhelming for everyone involved. Therefore, now might not be the time to expect or demand perfection.
Be mentally prepared that sometimes things will not work that well. It may happen that the microphone is not working properly, the internet connection might be slow, videoconferencing might freeze, or any other type of technical mishap and mistake might happen. Take it one step at a time and do your best to deal with the situation, but remember that it is not under your control.
Preparing for the online session can help in avoiding some of those problems:
- Run a test session to be sure that everything is working fine.
- Show up for the lecture early and set up your virtual learning space. This gives you the time to troubleshoot, restart, or ask a colleague to replace you until the problem is resolved.
- Avoid multitasking, which will decrease your focus on the task you are tackling.
- Organise your time and schedule to adjust to these new normal conditions.
6. Have a positive attitude
Try your best to remain positive and hopeful by talking about future activities once the crisis is over, and encourage your students to do the same. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you feel overwhelmed. Most universities offer counselling and resources for mental health help. Take advantage of tech training if it is provided, and ask your colleagues for advice if you are experiencing difficulties.
Will higher education move entirely online after the COVID-19 crisis? The experts predict that even though e-learning has a lot of benefits, it will not completely replace the traditional form of education anytime soon. The most probable change that we can expect is the rise of hybrid forms of education that blend online courses with face-to-face sessions. And there is no doubt that more and more universities will work on preparing programs and protocols for quick and effective adjustments that can be made in case of unexpected events.
This blog was produced in partnership with Vedamo, one of D2L’s partners in learning. To learn more about the Brightspace learning management platform by D2L and the integration with technology like Vedamo, reach out to us at www.d2l.com/contact.