Guest post – All Digital: Reflections on The Online-Only Experience…by Steffen Skovfoged

When the ALT Winter Conference organisers asked me to write a blog post about how to prepare for an online event, my very first thought was to compile a Do’s and Don’ts list based on the past nine months of what has come to feel like one long, never-ending online event. Do: expect to be asked to show colleagues your dog if it can be heard barking on a Teams call. Don’t: forget to change your Zoom name back from the comedy title you chose for a quiz. But I’m guessing everyone will have experienced similarly interesting, dreadful and hilarious moments in the countless online events and forums we’ve all become so accustomed to by now.


What initially felt somewhat awkward quickly became the norm, and as the meta-discussion about the online format itself that seemed to start every virtual meeting and event finally faded away, I personally began to appreciate some of the smaller pleasures technology suddenly paved the way for. For instance, how it enabled a whole new dress code. It seems quite acceptable to skip the suit and tie, but I, for one, have found it particularly interesting to experiment with being dressed for the occasion from the waist up only. It’s not often you get to combine slippers and shorts with a shirt and blazer, a look that became a real favourite of mine during the summer. During some of the less inspiring online events I attended during the year, when concentration slipped, I often found myself wondering whether the speaker was also rocking flip-flops and tropical print shorts underneath (literally) all the formalities.


The switch to online-only interaction has had some unexpected benefits. During a series of recurring negotiation meetings, I noticed my counterpart had a new background image from his holidays for every meeting. From our side, we started doing the same, and it quickly became a great icebreaker, as we spent the first couple of minutes of every meeting exchanging vacation memories. It helped us to get more personally acquainted and build trust more easily than would’ve been possible to do in many offline meetings. On the other hand, sometimes working from home brings new complications and insights into people’s private lives, such as when our fabulous housecleaner, whose job, by the way, has gotten much harder with me sitting in the middle of his workspace, was dusting and cleaning just behind me, clearly visible to all meeting participants.


In the light of this, Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, “The medium is the message”, which tells us to reflect on the change in interpersonal dynamics that follows innovation and new technology, seems more appropriate than ever. During what must have been the fastest scaling of communication technology in history – the conversion of events, meetings, teaching and assessment to an online format – we have all had to cope with unanticipated consequences both individually and professionally. But how this is going to affect long-term student experience, in particular, as well as the structure of learning and assessment, remains to be seen.


In a blog earlier this year, I reflected on the significant increase of remote proctoring (online invigilation) among higher education institutions and schools as a consequence of the lockdown caused by the pandemic and how this has led to an ongoing debate in the education community as to what extent surveillance and privacy invasion is reasonable in order for universities to carry out their obligation to ensure fair and credible assessment of students. In essence, online invigilation is based on Foucault’s panoptic model of surveillance: an invisible omniscient who constantly creates anxiety about whether actions are wrong. No matter how it’s presented, it’s inevitably unsettling and intimidating to have a stranger observing you close-up through a one-way webcam and perhaps also monitoring your actions on your desktop and listening for sounds in your surroundings.


Additionally, as students, just like most of us, have been confined to their private homes and rooms, without any options to go to “neutral” grounds, remote invigilation easily becomes invasive and compromises the sanctity of the home. Needless to say, this isn’t helping to reduce anxiety among students taking exams. As the adage goes, if you’re nervous, picture your audience naked. In recent months, that might very well have become picture your audience in pyjamas. But in the student’s case, when it comes to remote proctoring, my previously mentioned trick doesn’t help at all, as it’s based on reciprocity: since the student can’t see her invigilator, she can’t even begin to speculate on dress code. And where it might be embarrassing for us when the housecleaner moves into frame behind us, to the student, a similarly innocent occurrence they might not be able to control could easily lead to an accusation of academic misconduct and a wasted exam attempt.


All of which means there are plenty of issues to reflect on and prepare in advance of the remote proctoring session at the upcoming Winter Conference event. Personally, I’m really looking forward to a range of interesting discussions on learning technology and particularly online exam and assessment and to reconnect with many I haven’t seen since the ALT conference back in the days when we could all travel. And if we do meet in a virtual room and you see me smiling, now you know that it’s 95% down to the interesting conversations and company, 5% down to my slippers being super comfortable.

Steffen Skovfoged

Executive Director, UNIwise – provider of WISEflow