To be direct, generally not well. This is not because they are not familiar with online environments. Nor is it because they are necessarily uncomfortable with a sudden shift in mode for learning. It is because the quick turnaround has put the content presentation ahead of the design for learning.
The speed of the shift to online has seen us enduring the worst of online pedagogy. Time was against us. But the result has been, in many instances, the worst possible approach to teaching and learning. Whole lectures have been recorded and served to the students as passive consumers. Lecture notes and readings have been curated and simply loaded up for students to access. For school children, there has been online worksheets to complete. For tertiary education, online quizzes. These approaches treat students as passive recipients of information, rather than as active learners.
Online pedagogy requires careful design with the following principles in mind:
- Learning is active and requires meaningful interaction.
- Learning needs to be authentic with relevance and context
- Learning is socially mediated
- Learning is activated through language
- Learning is personal
For best effect therefore, online pedagogy needs to demand student attention, interaction, simulate real life contexts, require application of the concepts to novel situations, and the sharing of ideas. Effective online learning is purposefully designed for heightened engagement.
But even if an academic has gone to great lengths to package the material, to design for application and interaction, students may still seek to disengage. This is because the presentation environments of zoom, Microsoft teams, skype are more confronting than a face to face classroom. It is not a natural environment. Every participant is on camera, and to contribute to discussion, individuals need to be forthright. The speed of banter can slow down, and control of the conversation is heavily moderated. For many students this can reinforce disengagement. It takes a very skilled teacher to manage the learning inclusively.
Many students also report that they are struggling. The demand is for greater self-reliance and self-regulation to manage their learning as they wade through curated materials. There is a sense that they are getting a weaker product, and they are not as confident in their learning. Poorly designed online teaching has left some students feeling anxious, lacking confidence in their abilities, and disconnected from their peers.
I think for most students and academics, the shift to online has not been ideal. But what we have learned during this time is that online does not have to be passive. Online can be creative. In the hands of a skilled teacher, and with purposive design, the gap between effective learning online and in person, can indeed be narrowed. Even enhanced by allowing students to go back over their materials, to pause and reflect on their learning. Students can even connect with a global community of learners.
Now I’m not anti-online. I’m an advocate, truly, for well-designed online learning. The affordances of technology are tremendous. But the difference is where we start. Not with the content but with the design for learning, and with the learners … always.