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Guest Post: Re-shaping the (digital) learning experience after Covid? by Kamakshi Rajagopal & Steven Verjans

 

Since the Covid19 crisis started in the Spring of 2020, teachers at (Belgian) higher education institutions have been scrambling to online or blended teaching modes to allow students to continue their education. In this blogpost, Steven Verjans (Programme Manager Teacher Training at University Colleges Leuven-Limburg) and Kamakshi Rajagopal (lecturer and post-doctoral researcher at itec, imec research group at KULeuven) look back at this period from the perspectives of the institution, teachers and students, to reflect on the (re)design of our blended higher education.

Institutional perspective

During the complete lockdown in the Spring semester of 2020, teachers and institutions went into emergency mode, and chose to use their VLE – often in combination with a web conferencing platform – to ‘deliver’ online duplicates of their regular classroom sessions (Substitution according to the SAMR model). When it became clear that the pandemic would not be over by the summer holidays and that the majority of classes would be online for most of the 2020-2021 academic year, most institutions ramped up their teaching support structures and staff. Teachers and support staff spent enormous efforts in – partially – modifying their courses to better fit the online delivery mode (Augmentation or sometimes Modification in the SAMR model). Teachers at the university were asked to be prepared to move from on-campus formats to fully online formats during the semester.

In many colleges and universities in mainland Europe, lectures are still the dominant form of student-teacher interaction, with other forms of interaction gaining ground slowly over the past years. In the digital switch, the lecture seems to have been the fallback option for many teachers. It is not clear why this was the case, but we assume that issues concerning the possibility of arranging social learning formats online played a big role. Online platforms do not allow efficient switching from small-group to plenary sessions, taking into account needs such as making specific content available to different groups, or recording complete sessions for students who are not present. Good online learning requires more preparation by teachers and educators, which in time requires time, resources, ongoing skill development and a supportive teacher team.

Teacher perspective

Throughout the current academic year, teachers at the teacher training college kept hoping to be allowed more on-campus time with their students. When partial on-campus teaching became possible, priority was given to those classes that involve labs (e.g. chemistry, biology, electricity) and those classes that focus on acquiring professional skills (micro-teachings, practical exercises), while most knowledge-oriented classes remained online. A recent small-scale survey within the teacher training programme about the role of online learning for the next year shows a nuanced response, where most teachers want to have mainly on-campus classes and some would prefer to mainly continue their online delivery.

The response of the teachers differs according to a number of parameters:

teachers show a preference for on-campus teaching for first-year students, e.g. to enable them to get to know each other and the teaching staff,

teachers prefer on-campus classes for practicing professional skills (micro teachings, small group exercises and practical skills).

On the other hand they seem to have a preference for online classes for knowledge-oriented classes.

Next to these parameters, the responses also show practical considerations, such as avoiding extensive travel when only teaching a single 2-hour class or when visiting interns all over the region. The current expectation for the 2021-2022 academic year is that – when the pandemic slows down sufficiently in the coming months – the majority of teachers will want to ‘revert’ to mainly on-campus teaching.

The key question at the moment is: is it in the best interest of students and teachers to revert to a predominantly on-campus mode of teaching and learning in the next academic year?

Student perspective

Although the last few months and years have resulted in more students engaging in online learning, the question needs to be asked if we really know and understand our students’ experiences and expectations. Many educational institutions are now embarking on studies to do exactly this. To what extent should these expectations be the rule of thumb in shaping institutional policy? To what extent do we want to cater to those expectations?

The sudden switch to online learning in Spring 2020 and the subsequent redesign of mainstream education to virtual or hybrid formats have brought to the fore many issues that we might not have experienced without the COVID19 crisis.

Students have experienced the flexibility of online learning, making decisions on how and when they study autonomously, when they engage in group interaction with peers, and when they reach out to teachers. Also, they have experienced how they can do this to fit their personal context of work, family and friends. Can we still entice them back to campus for early-morning lectures?

Increasing diversity in the classroom – an ongoing trend even before the pandemic – has been exacerbated in emergency remote teaching, where digital inclusion and digital skills create new lines of division. Students who have entered higher education in this last year have experienced particularly hard situations. Coming from high levels of classroom instruction in secondary school, they have to face the tough challenge of adapting to the requirements of learning in higher education, being autonomous learners as well coping with digital online learning. Moreover, many have not been able to create the new social relations that usually emerge in the first year in higher education.

“Envisioning life after COVID, nearly one-third “never want to take another class via Zoom”; half responded that while some things about remote learning worked for them, they are “anxious to get back to all or more in-person classes.” And […], 9 percent of the 2,000 undergraduates from 120 [US] colleges surveyed don’t ever want to return to in-person classes.” (Ezarik. 2021).

“We all want to return “home” to the security and safety of campus, where we can embrace the lifestyle, workstyle, and learning models we cherish. Campuses will certainly reopen, and

reopen safely, but we must ask: “How has this experience changed expectations? What will emerge as the new normal across campus and in the classroom?”” (Curtin, 2021)

In other words, students and staff have seen both benefits and drawbacks in online learning, posing the question again, to what extent a return to predominantly on-campus teaching and learning is desirable. Or, if a more blended form of higher education is to emerge, which form will it take? And how do we – as institutions and educational technologists – determine what is to be the optimal blend of on-campus and online learning that fits the learning purposes, as well as teacher and student preferences?

Sources:

Harrington, C., & LeBlanc, E. S., 2020. Now Is the Time to Redefine Learning — Not Recreate Traditional School Online. Edsurge https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-12-16-now-is-the-time-to-redefine-learning-not-recreate-traditional-school-online

Curtin, R., 2021. Reimagining Higher Education: The Post-Covid Classroom. Educause Review.
https://er.educause.edu/articles/2021/4/reimagining-higher-education-the-post-covid-classroom

Ezarik, M., 2021. COVID-Era College: Are Students Satisfied? Inside Higher Ed
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/03/24/student-experiences-during-covid-and-campus-reopening-concerns