Corona Virus: The Prompt to Move Universities Online
Updated: Mar 15, 2020
Universities are now at a crossroads having to choose between closing down, staying open but allowing the risk of potential infection, or transferring as much of their courses to virtual platforms. Countries such as Ireland and Denmark have closed schools and universities completely. Whether you are one of those who believe this is overblown hysteria related to a slightly nasty flu or you believe that we have many more deaths to come, the reach and speed of this virus has taken us all by surprise. These past few weeks have taught us we cannot underestimate the impact of the Corona Virus. If nothing else the virus has also shown us our shortcomings; hospitals are being overwhelmed, stockpiling has meant the reduction of essential items to the most vulnerable and even governments seem uncertain how to deal with ensuring health crisis and economic fall-out. Universities equally seem unprepared and many are scrambling to find solutions by reducing teaching contact with students and even shutting down courses. Given the spread of the disease is happening via human-to-human contact, reducing interactions in large groups is important. For universities with teaching hospitals, for example, where there is significant contact with vulnerable people this is even more an important issue. However, universities with their many conferences, workshops and lectures are reliant on connecting with large groups of people on a daily basis.
Leading us to question: how can education continue in a pandemic?
Blended learning appears on the surface to offer an easy solution. Lecturers present their courses online and students follow from home, using chat functions etc to ask questions. In theory this seems easy, however the reality is a little more complex. Simply, many universities do not have the digital infrastructure in place to easily switch a large bulk of their teaching online. Such ‘infrastructure’ includes access to easy-to-use virtual platforms for staff and students, equipment for recording videos, staff expertise of how to develop and teach online courses, students’ knowledge of how to make the best educational use of the platforms etc. Universities have had access to online platforms such as Brightbox for quite some time, yet the mainstreaming of blended learning, and the general implementation of training for most staff has been slow to come. Many lecturers feel uncomfortable using online platforms for teaching, and others feeling it is a less useful way to communicate with students. Didactic approaches to education may be easier to adapt quickly to an online environment. Lecturers can record their lectures and hold simple Q&A systems via free platforms such as Zoom. One-to-one tutorials for thesis supervision can easily take place via video chat platforms. As a quick *rough* fix it can work, however, not all teaching in educational courses use didactic approaches. Workshops, tutorials etc need a more reflective, interactive and engaged approach. Tutors and lecturers are not fully trained in how to use online platforms to teach in an interactive manner. While there are many fantastic lecturers and teachers, not all of them are prepared to change the instructional basis for their courses at the pace required to deal with the pandemic.
Finally there is a question of access to online teaching as this requires sufficient internet connection and ability to log into the platforms for free. Students will be highly unwilling to sign onto platforms with extra costs. Meaning if departments can they need to make use of more interactive features of virtual platforms they already have such as Blackboard or Canvas, or fund extra institutional access for staff for platforms such as Zoom / Bluejeans etc. Students with learning difficulties may struggle to make the switch quickly to a new learning platform they are unfamiliar with. Although, with careful thought and planning, a well-constructed course can provide an active learning environment that in some ways exceeds the benefits of the live classroom for those with accessibility issues (in a later blog I will discuss how to be interactive for online teaching).
Universities are not only teaching institutions but also research and collaborative spaces.
All the issues highlighted for education also extend to conferences. Lecturers and early career researchers have a great deal of emphasis placed on their career progression through networking opportunities. These come from being able to attend conferences / workshops / working groups etc in person. Despite the technology existing to implement workshops and conferences online, academics are far less enthusiastic to attend virtual conferences. Early career academics rely on their ability to find opportunities at conferences, but also gain experience from presenting. However there is less weight given to presenting online compared to presenting in person, which for early career academics can be a problem. It is much harder, although not impossible, for networking in online workshops / conferences.
There are advantages to be gained from switching more towards online conferences. Firstly, this increases the number and range of people who can attend. There is a certain elitism to those who are funded for attending conferences and those who are not. Parents, carers and those with mental health difficulties, increase their ability to participate in academic dialogue and have greater opportunities to present their research. Online conference could allow for a greater equalising of relations within academia and also open up academia to other voices in the field.
Blended learning and digital platforms do offer an opportunity, which has not fully been taken advantage of by universities thus far. Had blended learning infrastructures and training been in place earlier, then this would have lessened the impact of the Corona Virus on universities. Overall academia can only benefit with a greater willingness to be flexible in how to connect with both students and other academics.
For now, it appears universities are going to have to make short term knee jerk decisions on what courses or conferences to cancel or continue. Given the technology and platforms we have available, there is little need for emergency meetings and confusion and fear among students and academics. If nothing else, the Corona Virus has shown the shortcomings of slow implementation of digital platforms to our educational and academic practices.