Sunday, February 23, 2020

Online Teaching is Here Now

Casual teaching staff at some Australian universities are reported to be “panicking” over the implications of students who are unable to get to campus due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Last week I was helping teach one hundred tutors how to teach, and there were no signs of panic. Well, no more panic than any group of teaching assistants about to face their first class.

If students can't get to campus, then there will be less need for sessional staff to teach face to face (F2F). However, if some of those students are studying online, they may need more tutor support.

The same principles and techniques used in F2F teaching apply online. The practicalities are a little different online, depending on the communications technology available. But the same tools already used by Australian universities for blended learning can also be used for online learning. Staff and students are already familiar with these tools.

Universities are providing additional training and support for teaching online, to supplement that already in place. As an example, ANU provides Coffee Courses with short snippets of learning about teaching (not just for ANU staff: anyone can access these). Also, there are the usual self-paced courses on particular tools. For those planning to teach as a career, there are longer, more formal programs. As an example, ANU's "Principles of Tutoring & Demonstrating", starts on 3 March.

Relatively few Australian university courses have been delivered entirely online. More often courses are blended with materials delivered online, alongside face-to-face lectures, tutorials, and workshops. Students typically watch videos of lectures, submit assignments online, and may also do some quizzes. As staff and students are already using online tools for some of a course, a change to all online mode is not as difficult as it might first appear.

The tools already in use at Australian universities for blended learning can provide online learning. Typically a mix of tools provides announcements to students, materials for, and output from, students. Using multiple tools is more complex, but provides some resiliency: if one is not working, another can be used.

Asynchronous Tools

There may be one tool for general announcements, and another to deliver course notes and collect assignments, plus a tool for videos of lectures. These tools are used asynchronously: students work through the material in their own time, and then submit a response. This makes them  convenient to use, and communication glitches less of a problem. However, tutors do not get instant feedback from students, so they need to anticipate what students might need, and when they might need it. Also, students need to understand they will not get instant feedback from tutors.

As an example of the sort of forums, posts and FAQs for an online course, see the tutor guide for "ICT Sustainability" (offered by ANU and by Athabasca University in Canada) and the module Learning to Reflect (for ANU's Techlauncher program). Students read the course notes, watch videos, do quizzes, contribute to forums, and do assignments. They get text-based feedback from peers, and instructors (audio and video are possible, but text is simpler). The full notes, videos, and tutor guides are available online.

Synchronous Tools

Universities also use synchronous tools: live video lectures, and video tutorials. With these, the instructor and students are connected at the same time, simulating a lecture theater or tutorial room. These tools are occasionally used to supplement F2F sessions. However, these tools take considerably more effort by staff and students to use. Because everyone has to be online at the same time, any glitch with the software, network, or the student's computer, results in them not being able to take part.

Usually, a live sessions is recorded for students who could not take part. However, this is not as good as the real thing. As an online learner myself for seven years, I found I was unable to connect to about one-quarter of the live sessions. With the current circumstances, I expect international students will be unable to connect to a session at an Australian university about half the time. So each session should be offered two or there times.

COVID-19 Coronavirus Response

As some students may be unable to get to campus this semester due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus, some universities have decided to offer remote access. Which of the tools will be usable, and what alternatives are possible, is being investigated by technical staff at universities across Australia. So far it appears the asynchronous tools already in daily use will work. These tools are also less susceptible to intermittent problems: if it doesn't work today, try again tomorrow.

The synchronous tools are more of a problem. The usual tools may not work, or require workarounds, and may suddenly stop working. It may be necessary to conduct some courses with no synchronous communication at all. My approach for the last few years has been to design courses for online asynchronous delivery, then blend in add F2F, or synchronous, elements. This offers maximum flexibility for remote and on-campus students. Also I had in mind the possibility that international students would be suddenly unable to attend campus.

Being a student can be a very lonely and frustrating experience, and even more so for a distance education student. Tutors can give the students the sense you are there for them, through regular posts to the class. Staff time is limited, so messages to individual students have to be used sparingly. If they have the time and the technology, to provide video, staff can do so. However, research (and my experience), shows video is not necessary.

Technology-based distance education is not new, or a fad, it has been part of university education for decades. How to use technology for teaching is something all university educators should learn, as part of their basic training. Universities offer such training free. But those with ambitions of making this a career should be willing to undertake further formal study.

Equipment for teaching online is cheap and readily available. A web camera and a quality headset/microphone cost less than $100. This is something those who teach can have as part of their professional equipment, in their bag, with their laptop computer.

In ten years of teaching online, I have had deep and satisfying interactions with students around the world, who I have never seen, and never spoken to. As an international online student for three years, I was able to complete a degree from the other side of the planet, without setting foot on campus. It was not easy or fun, but being a university student is not easy or fun. This experience is documented in an e-portfolio, a blog post, and a book.

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