There are times when we all need to remove a pebble from our shoe. This is one of them.
The long-standing belief that face-to-face contact hours and traditional modes of teaching are inevitably superior to teaching online is suddenly under scrutiny because of the onslaught of a pandemic. As it happens, the email announcing the University of Malta’s immediate ‘one-week’ closure because of Covid-19 dropped in my Inbox just after I got back from a morning of student tutorials in my office. I immediately hammered a caustic tweet, which I then shared on LinkedIn and Facebook for good measure:
“It’s going to be fun watching the digitally-illiterate bastions of bricks & mortar education getting to grips with the tools that they have for so many years resisted and loudly proclaimed to be inferior.”
Mine was meant to be a coded message. If you’ve been in the trenches of OER and EdTech, written policy papers on the accreditation of online learning, managed projects that have to do with emerging tech like blockchain or AI or advocated for ‘21st century skills’ in the boardroom and the lecture hall – the likelihood is that you will have met your fair share of shrugs, belligerence or outright antagonism. There are people who for years were in a position to deliver much-needed change in education regimes in Europe and – for reasons that range from ignorance and fear to outright protectionism – chose to resist the affordances of technology to re-align education with the real learning needs and practices of digital natives.
Not everyone within the academy was amused by my tweet: there were murmurs along the lines of “Digital education can never be at par with an in-person lecture”; “Online courses and MOOCs are not fit for purpose”; “Not everyone within the academy is a Luddite.” Yet people are inevitably listening online. Godfrey Baldacchino, a pro-rector at the University of Malta and on the Board of the 3CL commented: “Radical social changes are expected in wake of Covid-19, as with the Spanish flu a century ago. A modal shift in the technology of instruction is underway in Malta this weekend. Many UM academics should wake up on Monday ready to face their classes, but this time remotely. It’s a force feeding of Skype, Zoom, Blackboard and Google Meet”.
Resourcefulness is a critical skill for good educators. In the past week, it’s been gratifying watching and diving into the back-channel of peer-learning as people took to chatrooms to help others get to grips with a raft of teaching tools. For many, it has been a veritable crash course. Migrating a course online overnight or just diving into a live lecture means time, doggedness and taking risks. A routine two-hour in person lecture on social networking theory and principles ended up as a four-part MOOC which took me the best part of two days to organise and eventually record. And all that to prepare for a subsequent live online lecture later in the week. There are more heroic experiments underway. A colleague in Turin posted on how she had got her grandparents to use WhatsApp as a video-conferencing tool so she could check in on them. Many years ago, I had found my father in the middle of an online cooking class on Skype with my youngest brother who was doing voluntary work in Guatemala. Now, as we all find ourselves under siege, we turn again to the tools of disruption and distraction to hopefully remind us of what it means to be human.
Before coronavirus, bricks and mortar universities and higher education institutions in general had been slow in embracing blended learning – let alone encouraging online learning. Sure, there were those institutions that wanted to reach out to students that could not attend on a full-time basis – the various Open Universities set up to facilitate distance learning, or the MOOC platforms such as EdX, Coursera, Alison, Future Learn etc; or platforms specifically set up to reach marginalised groups, such as Kiron for refugees. Clearly it was not in the interest of most traditional bricks and mortar universities to advocate for online learning when the ‘value added’ (besides the brand equity) was always deemed to be the value of the face-to-face teaching that needs physical infrastructure. Paraphrasing Klaus Conrad‘s response on my Facebook timeline: “Face-to-face interaction is required in some cases for learning, but not for everything. Existing education systems place far too much value on physical presence for things that can be managed remotely, and not enough on the things where face to face is essential. Things will change, if not by choice by necessity”.
We are being forced to change our behaviour and re-think established norms because of Covid-19. If we have to get our heads around social distancing, then we also need to take responsibility for ensuring that education as a public good is finally made fit for purpose. For many, that means making the best of already-available online teaching and learning tools. We must use this moment to find solutions to long-standing issues – such as online assessments replacing crowded exam halls. We need to do this now, if a generation of young people are to move on to whatever’s next in their lifelong learning journey, and particularly if this is going to be in the hallowed halls of Europe’s universities.
As the world closes its doors to try and beat the pandemic, it is vital that education remains open. Traditionally cautious policy-makers and institutional administrators must respond to the urgent needs of digital natives and update their own digital literacy skills. Rather than living in some parallel universe, young people increasingly rely on a back-channel of YouTube clips, Wikis, MOOCs, blogs and podcasts to supplement the face to face teaching served within the walls of the academy. Nothing will quite be the way it used to be, once Covid-19 has taken its course. The alternative will not necessarily be inferior.