Until recently, online learning has been largely viewed as a supplementary tool in the traditional university teaching toolkit. However, Covid-19 caused a monumental shift in how we view online learning; no longer is it an aid to teaching, but at the heart of learning.
At the height of the pandemic 1.5 billion students, of all ages, were engaged in remote learning. The entire teaching structure, from primary school up to master’s degrees was turned upside down. I think it is fair to say that teachers and lecturers have adapted remarkably well under the circumstances, but online learning isn’t quite up to the standard of lecture-based learning just yet; a survey led by the National Union of Studentsfound that 45% of students were not satisfied with their online education last semester. This level of dissatisfaction calls for an improvement, and this is best achieved through a specially tailored framework for online learning.
This framework is also known as pedagogy, from the Greek “to lead the child”. A pedagogy can be defined as any teaching method that enhances the learning experience. There are many different types of pedagogy from traditional didactic lectures, where the expert leads, to problem-based learning where learning evolves through questioning and problem solving. Most higher education pedagogies are well established, but currently online teaching lacks a theoretical framework – a student-centred online pedagogy could help transform online teaching.
For engaging online learning, the flipped classroom is the leading method. The classroom is flipped in multiple ways; the lecture content is pre-recorded, allowing the live sessions to be an arena for dialogue between peers and the teacher. The teacher’s role is also flipped, from being the instructor to the facilitator – aiding learning, not prescribing it. And the real flip is from teaching to learning. This more diverse classroom set up gives students more choice and power over their learning, engaging with the content away from a potentially intense one hour Zoom lecture.
Peter Serdyukov’s suggested E-Pedagogy encompasses elements of the flipped classroom, emphasising the importance of instruction/instructor, learning autonomy and a learning community. This suggested pedagogy encompasses educational theories into its foundation, including both behaviourist learning theory and constructivist learning theory, and has the goals of higher education in mind – placing students in control of their own learning. Serdyukov states that “this model of e-pedagogy is all-inclusive and may serve as a backbone for a comprehensive theory of online education.” They key to this being successful is that it is “never static” but “constantly evolving” alongside new technolgies and social processes.
There is evidence that students learn just as well, if not better than traditional lectures in this style of online learning. One study demonstrated that on average students in online learning conditions preformed better than those getting traditional lecture instruction, with some students preferring a blended learning method. Blended learning certainly caters to different learning styles, rather than the lecture format. It could be argued that certain disciplines lend themselves to online learning more than others, with labs, filming and work experience being difficult to replicate online. Covid-19 has proven that this adaption is possible, and although the teaching experience is not the same, it is possible to learn some of these skills online – this is why a blended learning experience is so important for a rounded learning experience. What is highlighted is that “quality pedagogy leads to better learning outcomes, regardless of the medium the course is being taught.”
As well as a need for an online learning framework, other challenges to online learning need to be addressed. The largest challenge to overcome is ensuring that all students have access to adequate learning equipment. If institutions choose to adopt a blended method of learning, universities will have to loan laptops to students who need one. The internet connectivity issue is harder to address, but likewise, needs to be sorted so that all students have equal access to the online learning platforms. Most universities are already providing equipment to those in need, but there are only limited number of resources available.
Other challenges include overcoming the barriers to online teaching. If online teaching is to continue, then learning communities must be established. Break out rooms, socials and discussions are essential in helping form a bond between students. This is a critical part of learning, as knowledge is socially constructed. There also needs to be an understanding that online learning, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, is a big change for students, and perhaps the workload should be lightened under such circumstances, easing the academic pressure – it is unreasonable to expect students to work to the same capacity as they would under regular learning circumstances. There should also be a special focus on first year undergraduates, who will need more assistance and social bonding than those further along in their studies.
The classroom is no longer a unique place of learning. Covid-19 has proven that the learning environment is nothing if not adaptable, and multi-modal, blended learning has been successfully adopted around the world. Perhaps future higher education courses will focus on this hybrid learning, helping redefine what university is –giving people who didn’t previously have an opportunity to study to do so. Covid-19 will be around for some time to come, now is the time to invest in creating a novel and effective online framework, so that education can be more resilient; a new way of learning tailored to the new normal.
Alana Cullen is a MSc student at Imperial College London studying Science Communication, and is the Social Media and Communication's Officer for the Foundation for Science and Technology.