Although there are many examples of successful online learning all over the world — from self-paced with peer and educator engagement to highly structured and engaged — it is critical to accept the reality that in some cases, online learning is an unmitigated disaster.
It’s also important to note the differences between online learning as a carefully designed, structured and supported form of educational delivery and emergency remote learning.
Much of the latter, which was widely implemented during the pandemic, is becoming normalized as online learning without consideration of its appropriateness and effectiveness, as well as the ethical and privacy implications involved.
Some would oppose such a strict binary suggesting online learning should encompass a spectrum of possibilities: that it be carefully planned, structured and supportive of learning, but also that it allow for emergency responses. We must recognize that much of the online learning since March 2020 has been done during an emergency, with very little informed design, pre-planning and support provided on a just-in-time basis.
There is a real danger that when we talk about ways in which online learning can become an unmitigated disaster, we’re actually referring to emergency remote learning.
Although we shouldn’t use emergency remote learning to make normative statements about the quality and efficiencies of online learning, the student and educator experience, or the opinions of prospective employers, it is fair to say that recent experiences point to ways in which online learning, done wrong, can turn out to be an unmitigated disaster.
It’s possible that institutions may use their experiences with emergency remote learning to institutionalize online learning as an option or even a preferred choice of delivery.
It’s also important to note that the pandemic revealed some weaknesses in well-established online programs when student support and administrative staff were moved off-campus and worked from home. We often forget that successful online learning depends on a range of people and support departments based on campus or in a central location.
A gateway to the future?
Since the emergence of online learning as a distinct form of distance education, the rallying cry of some inside education, as well as many EdTech and venture capitalists, is that ”education is broken” and that technology can “fix” it. The pandemic pushed many of those voices to the front, inspired by those who claim that a good crisis should never be wasted.
As college and university campuses ran empty and cities quieted down, there was talk of how COVID-19 was allowing us to break with the past and imagine new possibilities. The pandemic was painted as a gateway to the future — one many believed was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to imagine a kinder, more sustainable and equitable future, and to rethink pedagogy, student support and assessment. There was talk about how the pandemic would rearrange the power structure between those in power, whether in business, government and/or education, and those who were on the receiving end.
However, this moment of reflecting on what could be different did not last long. Soon our phones and laptops started beeping with yet another Zoom meeting, another demand from managers for evidence that we were not just sitting at home but actually working, another e-mail from a student who did not get a response from the administrative section and who desperately needed an extension for an assignment.
Managers worried about productivity and requested weekly timesheets of meticulously recorded activities, which did not include time spent homeschooling kids, coping with the desperation of not being able to visit elderly parents, and the persistent feeling that, somehow, one was not coping, not doing enough, not being enough.
Research managers panicked that their productivity (mostly numbers, not quality) would be negatively impacted and affect university rankings.
Amid all of this, while institutions, educators and students scrambled to find ways to adjust and to negotiate meaning and coping mechanisms, EdTech providers and venture capitalists swept in like vultures after a natural or human-made disaster. With change (and money) in the air, there were many desperate institutions, educators and students looking for short-term solutions (many of which turned out to be long term).
What the past year has revealed
Looking back on 12 months of emergency remote learning, what are the five things we know can turn online learning into an unmitigated disaster?
- Lack of theory, research and planning
There is a real danger that for some institutions, the thinking is that if they survived the last year, they can “do” online learning. While the experience with emergency remote learning led to critical questions about the location of the university and the role of the campus (other than sports, of course) there is a temptation to think the role of preplanning, instructional design and careful consideration of technologies is superfluous.
Many authors, including Contact North I Contact Nord Research Associates Tony Bates, Terry Anderson and Dianne Conrad, have repeatedly illustrated that successful online teaching takes many years of theorizing and empirical research, careful consideration of the iron triangle — cost, access, and quality — and various other models and considerations. These include taking into consideration the social, the cognitive, the teaching, and getting the mix of technologies and presences right.
Without considering the rich history, theories and empirical research that underpin successful online teaching, implementing online learning can be disastrous.
- Creeping digital surveillance
As colleges and universities moved online, they had access not only to a greater volume of data but also to greater velocity, variety and granularity of data. A range of EdTech providers and data brokers also had access to this data. Where many institutions may have had official processes in place for approving the use of applications or technologies, many educators neither had the time to read the providers’ terms and conditions nor the legal knowledge to understand them. It was a question of “Let’s get going, we’ll sort that out later.” Parents looked for apps and free software to keep children entertained and students organized. They used a range of technologies and found ways around issues such as copyright and privacy concerns. In many cases, the lack of concern about privacy and data was justified by practical considerations.
Spaces that were previously out of reach for institutions, data brokers and EdTech providers — student and staff homes, bedrooms, or wherever the best connectivity could be found —were suddenly up for grabs. There is a danger that these practices and applications have become normalized and their continued use unquestioned.
Many institutions without the expertise to make sense of students’ online behaviour outsourced data analytics in a rush. There was no shortage of data analytics companies promising speedy and accessible analytics not requiring expertise. They offered not only detailed analysis of student behaviour (and sometimes staff behaviour) but also predictive value. It was an offer too good to refuse.
Monitoring and evaluating students’ learning and competencies is integral to the mandate of educational institutions. But we must seriously consider the moral boundaries of monitoring student behaviours. There is a real danger — and potentially a disaster waiting in the wings — if we do not seriously consider the limitations and ethical considerations of collecting, analyzing and using student data. Many institutions that signed contracts with data analytics providers will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to renegotiate the terms and conditions.
We must engage educators and staff, not only to determine the need for collecting and using their data but also to understand the assumptions and beliefs underpinning its collection and use.
- Embedded (dis)trust
Successful online learning requires negotiating a social contract between the institution, educators and students. Teaching and learning online compress not only time, space and place, but also reveal vulnerabilities, privacy concerns and trust issues.
As teaching and learning became distributed across platforms and spaces, managers, administrators and educators experienced a loss of control. Suddenly, staff members were not on campus and students were not in the classroom, so the question became: How do we know they are learning or working? If there was any trust before the pandemic between managers, administrators and staff on one hand, and educators and students on the other, it disappeared faster than you could wash your hands singing “Happy Birthday.”
Educators and students were required to switch on their cameras during virtual meetings. Staff had to complete weekly reports and submit evidence on their achieved outcomes. Students had to “report” and be visible and complete frequent assessment, with little flexibility or understanding if they could not submit in time.
Companies such as Proctorio and Microsoft continue to provide meticulous reports on sounds, gestures, activities and hours spent online/offline.
While there was often no time to negotiate privacy and trust issues as emergency remote learning took over in March 2020, online learning has no excuse.
- Increased (digital) inequalities
The pandemic revealed historic (and mostly forgotten) fault lines. As silence settled upon bustling cities and communities and across campuses, and as daily life came to a standstill, we heard the tectonic layers of intergenerational inequality pushing against one another. These layers had gone unheard and ignored for too long. Those fortunate enough to socially distance in their own homes looked in dismay at video footage of thousands of people, if not millions, living in cramped spaces without running water. Many realized, possibly for the first time, that for thousands of people, washing their hands for 20 seconds while singing “Happy Birthday” seemed a terrible waste of a scarce commodity. Many more realized that students and staff who did not want to switch on their cameras might be among those thousands sharing their living, sleeping, cooking and intimate spaces with many others.
Despite early talk that the pandemic would level the playing field and that we were all in the same storm, it was quickly evident that not everyone was in the same boat.
Online learning may contribute to the myth that we are all equal and connected, that we have unlimited and affordable access to the Internet, and that we want to share our personal lives and living spaces with others. The pandemic illustrated what many in online learning settings often forget: the intergenerational challenges many students and staff face. Not considering these challenges in the design of our online courses, opting for asynchronous and low bandwidth rather than synchronous and high bandwidth options, may be disastrous for many students and staff as well as the reputation of online learning itself.
- Assessment without integrity
Linked to the issue of trust is the integrity of assessment, whether formative and/or summative. While there are valid reasons to point out the mistrust institutions show toward students and staff, it is also important to guard the integrity of assessment. The move to emergency remote teaching, and the haste with which institutions looked to ensure the integrity of exams, raised serious issues regarding privacy, algorithmic bias and consent. Institutions’ haste in looking for solutions that would ensure the integrity of non-venue-based exams should be understood against the backdrop of quality assurance, accreditation and institutional reputation. Understanding the need to respond to the emergency of moving teaching online does not, however, justify ill-considered decisions.
What are the most important takeaways?
There is no doubt emergency remote learning dispelled many of the myths and assumptions surrounding online learning. But it also confirmed concerns, for example, around the integrity of assessment, scalability and quality. Emergency remote learning must not be confused with online learning. Yet, issues have been raised over the past year that cannot be ignored.
We know there are many examples of successful online learning that realize context-appropriate pedagogies, support and systems. However, we also know of situations in which online learning changed from success to disaster due to changes in curricula, pedagogy, educators, support, failing ICT systems and a range of other factors.
So what are the takeaways?
- There is much at stake in online learning, whether it is a well-planned, supported and executed process or in response to an emergency. Not only do students, communities, employers and accreditation and quality assurance authorities trust institutions to do the best they can, strategies devised in times of crisis often do not mature well once the emergency has passed. There is a real danger in accepting that just because something worked during the pandemic, institutions, educators and students must continue to do it.
- Inequality is a crude reality, whether it refers to access, cost or sustainability of access to technology and the Internet, or to broader, intergenerational socio-economic inequalities. Online learning must consider the different layers of inequality and ensure that the choice of technologies, the range of bandwidth needed, and the possibilities of asynchronous opportunities are taken into consideration.
- Although institutions have access to more student data than before, there is no way they can defend colonizing students’ private study spaces in service of understanding their learning. Students have a right to surveillance-free spaces.
- Trust between an institution and its staff, and between institutions and students is integral. We have a moral obligation to critically investigate how distrust between institutions and staff and students are informing institutional directives. Increasing surveillance speaks louder than team-building exercises and glossy marketing campaigns.
- Awarding degrees certifying the competency of graduates is core to the role of higher education. Amid increasing disinformation and fake news, higher education has the critical calling to investigate all knowledge claims and validate the competency of graduates. How to ensure the integrity of summative assessments, often at scale, is a formidable challenge. Higher education institutions must take the integrity of examinations seriously.