Something this way blows — Delivering online education in a Covid world
Back in March 2020 I was half-way through a Masters module and the world got turned upside down. I was not quite a fresh princess of Nottingham, but for a lot of people things were genuinely scary, which made me appreciate all the more lockdown and switch to online courses. I am not the world’s biggest fan of e-learning, primarily because I am very much a hands on, talk through an issue and engage with my lecturers type. However, one of the things I found during webinars and tutorials was that it forced me to actually think about my questions and see if my question was actually worth asking. Ask the beginning of my PhD approaches, then, I am thinking more about how this switch to e-learning will impact my learning style and what I must do to adapt.
Obviously, few, if any, students actively want an on-line only education. One of the primary reasons for attending a three or four year undergraduate and them post-graduate courses is to make connections and actively engage with the content you are learning from. There has been a lot of comments from students about value for money, and while I do not particularly like engaging in that debate because I feel it is relativistic, there comes a point when it has to be asked about the substantive value to be students and lecturers to engage in online learning, especially if it is pre-recorded. University education is so much more than simply being talked at, and it is the engagement element that is critical to get right in any online learning space. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that universities need to better promote and moderate online forums within which students can engage with each other, rather than simply relying on those spaces to organically evolve. There are plenty of students who are both digital natives and have grown up with technologies such as Twitch and Discord, but equally students who find those environments remote and cold where they feel they cannot engage for fear of bullying or misrepresentation.
From personal experience I found the online world a remote place where engagement with ideas is hard, especially when there is little to no context or emotional weight behind what is being said. Yes, this style of learning does suit some, especially those who may be nervous in person or are able to navigate those spaces. At the same time, if university learning is a place for everyone on a course to excel, then there needs to be better understand of how these spaces are operating, and how best to maximise the technologies behind them. Most students are digital natives, using online platforms and sharing tech in ways that even my generation is struggling to keep up with. There are many hidden conversations, ideas, and methodologies that if blended in with an online environment, such as Discord or Twitch, would amplify and make the learning both more interactive and accessible to students.
I have had a relatively neutral experience, having used WhatsApp and Teams for online learning, but the biggest negative has been the disconnect with engaging with course material in an enquiring manner. Platforms such as Youtube, Khan Academy, and LinkedIn Learning offer tutorials ranging from amateur to highly polished professional, and because most lecturers have not been trained in how to deliver remote content, sadly it is often the case that their online presentation does not match their face-to-face skills. Most lecturers are being thrown in at the deep end, and if we want them to swim they must be given the chance to be master online environments and opportunities to be less prescriptive in their delivery. If online learning is going to be a blended part of universities from this point forward then it is essential that lecturers are effectively trained and mentored in how to deliver interactive learning in these spaces.
As a digital researcher it is exciting seeing these technologies emerge, as while I am not thrilled by their current use, I believe they can affect positive change on how learning is delivered providing that the right blend of technology and skillsets are put in place. Yes, there are significant safeguarding issues with technologies like Discord and Twitch being used, though at the same time tech like Microsoft teams is not really designed to cope with the sort of learning environments being proposed. Streaming is very different from a meeting, and you only have to partake in any number of Teams meetings to see how clunky the tech is. Watch a Twitch livestream, or partake in a discord community and you will see how communal interaction takes place in real time without significant lag on either delivery or engagement. It is interesting that online gaming communities often combine Discord’s chat and engagement with a game or streaming, creating a hybrid that harnesses the best of both technologies. Safeguarding and data protection are essential, but these are not insurmountable issues.
In this I think that existing online communities have an edge on what most universities appear to be doing. It is very easy for us to kvetch about what is working or not working, but if we truly want to create innovate and engaging learning environments that work for both students and lecturers there has got to be a better way than Teams or Zoom. Best practices emerge over time, and while there is no guarantee than any one particular technology will be the silver bullet, surely there is scope to learn and utilise technologies that many students are already using in their daily lives. Being behind the bleeding edge is not a bad thing as it allows the bumps to be smoothed, but simply relying on technology just because it is packaged in with a browser or software package leaves a lot off the table. Yes, I appreciate that Teams in particular allows for simplicity and connects with the wider MS apps and has a degree of security built in, but is that enough to depend on a fairly middling piece of software for content delivery?
In this Covid world, surely delivery content experimentation is worthwhile, if only to find more engaging and community building methodologies. If the gist of a university education is engagement and developing a sense of self alongside learning, then finding ways to amplify them has got to play a significant role in future content delivery. Twitch and Discord are potential solutions, and I am sure that there are already plans afoot for a hybrid educational platform that can deliver both, but in the meantime, would it do educators any harm in experimenting with their delivery to allow all students to engage with their content?