Åbo Akademi University decided to move all teaching online until further notice. Most higher education institutions have made the same decision over the past weeks. Several distance education experts have written down their tips to support staff and students. Donald Clark made ten good suggestions if you’re new to online teaching. Tony Bates narrowed his list down to eight suggestions and he also added useful links at the end of his post. Here are some of my thoughts as a distance education researcher and teacher.
Distance education is suddenly the number one teaching method around the world. Research tells us that there is good distance education – better than face-to-face alternatives. There are bad distance courses that people try their best to forget. And there is the ugly side to it, a lack of resources, no support for students or teachers and lacking infrastructure. It takes time to develop distance education, but now time’s up. We are going online, whether we want to or not.
A clear structure is half the workload
Generally when planning distance courses you need to have the course outline ready when it starts. Simply because students need to be able to plan ahead. They need to know the assignments, the workload and the deadlines. Or, the What? When? How? Where? questions of didactics. Remember that the bigger the group of students the more important this is. The workload quickly becomes overwhelming if you have several assignments that need grading throughout the course.
The bad news is it takes time to design a well-structured course, if you are in a rush, my suggestion would be to start by cutting down the content to make the overview of the course and workload manageable for you and for the students. A lot of distance teachers choose to share weekly assignments which also helps students divide the course into smaller parts.
Gilly Salmon has developed e-tivities as a way for teachers to plan their online assignments to make them interesting and informative. It is also a good way to keep the focus and the overall structure of the course in mind.
Diana Laurillard has introduced her ABC model to help teachers identify what kind of learning they are after in their classes, for example, acqusition, discussion, inquiry or production. This is another way to rethink your course(s).
In a situation like this, when students are thrown into online education I would suggest you keep a close eye on your email and try to answer questions promptly and kindly. This is a good way to establish a relationship with those who reach out (although most won’t). If you get a lot of questions you probably have an unclear structure. 😉
Flexible content is king/queen
In most cases, students take distance courses because they are unable to be on campus for different reasons. These reasons differ and they matter. In distance education, flexibility is key and we rarely expect people to be online at the same time. For that reason, content and assignments are accessible around the clock.
Creating good content yourself takes time. Take a look at the topic you are teaching and ask yourself what the key concepts/theories/practices are and what you want your students to learn from them. This is how I try to narrow the content down. Yes, sometimes I have to kill my darlings to not drag out online sessions. Often we get stuck in interesting background details or additional information that seems relevant to us – but actually it might not be for the students. In online environments, these kind of digressions can be demotivating since there is no relationship between teacher and student to support all those ’fun extras’.
Diana Laurillard (2012) did a study on online video lectures and found interesting differences between two courses. In the first course, 80 % of the students understood the content because the video was clearly focused on the topic, gave examples and provided evidence for it. In the other course, only 46 % of the students understood the content. The video claimed to explain the differences between two theories, but in reality the video provided descriptions of the two theories, while the students were left alone with the difficult task to understand the differences. Pick your focus, stick to it and don’t digress – would be my suggestion.
The platform is your friend
You need to know your online platforms and what they can and cannot provide. The more you know about digital tools and didactics the easier it will be for you to decide what you want your students to do on the platform(s). Examples of bad distance courses include an insane amount of material dumped on a platform without any didactical purpose to it. Take a moment and think about what you want your students to do with the material and why they should do it, when they should do it and where they should do it? The didactical questions are always relevant.
In my view, Moodle works well for structuring individual assignments and it provides a better overview of courses with many different assignments and a set course outline. Teams is better for collaboration and project-based or dynamic courses where the content is negotiated throughout the course and students can add their own content to share with others.
One of my main concerns is that teachers will replace on campus seminars with online seminars and expect everyone to participate as normal. Some students are unable to access online seminars, they may lack the technology or the internet connection. There have been reported issues with, for example, Zoom already – a plan B is good to have for many reasons.
Students need to get comfortable in an online seminar. Make sure you know who is present and get to know the group. Perhaps some personal comments or anecdotes about where you all are spacewise might help. Alastair Creelman asked his participants to show a personal item that is always on their desks as a discussion starter. What a great idea! In my case the Lovi santa is always present.
In big groups chats work wonders. In Zoom, breakout rooms are excellent ways to create spaces for discussions and joint projects. The whiteboard can be used for brainstorming. Students can share their screens and presentations are generally much easier online. If they cannot take part in seminars perhaps they can share presentations on Moodle or Teams.
One of my students told me that with three children at home it is difficult to focus on an online seminar. My course History of pedagogical ideas is planned around four days (9–16) which is not ideal for an online environment. However, when I looked at my prezi presentation I realized that I had already planned for group assignments, Ted-talks and digital texts that work in Zoom too. I will plan for more breaks during our Zooming and make sure there are reflective individual assignments too that can be done away from the screen. If students cannot make the seminars they can do the assignments at a convenient time for them. Since I use a course journal as main assessment it is easy to follow their reflections there. All in all it was fairly easy to change the course to online mode.
Please be flexible and respectful towards your students and provide alternative ways to completing the course. When you look at your structure there might be several assignments that can be done asynchronously on the platform when the students have time or access. Discussions can be done in Moodle/Teams. Seminars can be recorded. You can do distance education in so many different ways!
My school just "pivoted" to online. Here's the message I sent to students:
I'm here to support you however I can. Take care of yourself and your family first. Our class should not be your priority. Everything about this class is flexible. Whatever happens, we will work it out.
— Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) March 11, 2020
Trust your colleagues – you are not alone
The good news is you probably have colleagues that are facing this challenge too. You can learn from and support each other in different ways. Set up a Teams-room or a chat channel (Yammer) where you talk about current issues, successes and share what you are up to. Your digimentors will try their best to answer your questions, perhaps you could meet them as a group? Talking through your courses is always a great way to specify potential pitfalls and unclarities. An online lunch with supportive colleagues is more productive than struggling alone any day.
I made a couple of videos on teaching in higher education in case you want some more pointers. In the playlist you also find Matilda Ståhl’s input on gamification if you are ready to try something slightly different.
If your class starts in a week you might struggle with some or all of the points above. We all did! Start with the things you know and the first classes, then take on more as you gain a footing. No need to worry, students will no doubt understand the pressure you are under if you explain it to them. Flexibility (and a couple of crazy ideas) is always needed in distance education. As my student wrote in the email: thank you for being flexible – I really appreciate it! Meeting each other halfway is the best we can do in most situations.
4 thoughts on “The good, the bad and the ugly of distance education”
Couldn’t have asked for anything better today!
Thanks for this amazing article. The insights helped me sort out a lot.
Glad to help, have a great day!
Wow! Lots of great information here. I’ve just scanned it so far but will be bookmarking and coming back and going through each one slowly but surely. Thank you!