In a recent New York Times piece, David Deming addressed the seismic changes to higher education brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. While aiming to allay fears of both face to face teachers who may see their jobs threatened by online instruction, and learners who may see this as the future of education, there is much that merits further exposition.
Three key clarifications are in order. First, teaching is more than just delivering content. Synchronous lectures designed to keep to the same days and times as face to face instruction are a major factor distinguishing Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) from online education which tends to use asynchronous lecturing (if any) allowing learners to get content on their own schedules. While online lectures are getting cheaper and more effective, education is more than just lecturing, and attention needs to be paid to the engagement of the learner with pedagogy designed to increase engagement and build community. Beyond just lecturing, the key for both ERT and online learning (and face to face classes as well) is the activities used to foster discussion, engagement, and active learning.
Second, the same criticism applied to ERT (e.g., “often ugly and understandably spotty”) can be applied to all education whether face-to-face or online. There are great classroom teachers and poor teachers. There are effective online classes and ineffective classes. Even a chalkboard can be misused. Likewise, we are bound to hear of some exemplary examples of ERT in the months ahead. Our challenge is to capture and share them.
Finally, let’s not forget that keeping education going, whether in K-12 settings or higher education via online instruction, is not the same as what prior to the pandemic has been called “online learning” or “eLearning”. The educators who keep teaching are delivering ERT, a distinction obfuscated too often in the last few weeks.
Much of the writing surrounding ERT right now relates to whether it is good enough. What is good education? As Deming (2020) rightly pointed out, factors such as tutoring, individualized feedback, and mentoring are critical elements of successful learning. These factors are often neglected when we think about simply moving face to face instruction remotely.
What needs to be stressed is ALL education needs to be scrutinized to establish if these factors are present. We should always compare different pedagogies. Instead of only asking is ERT during the pandemic the same as normal face to face instruction, we need to always assess our courses. There is a wealth of research on whether online courses compare to face to face courses (it depends, but they do), but we should also be asking if summer courses compare to regular term courses or if 6-week courses are equal to full semester courses (as they award the same credits).
In fact, the scrutiny of ERT highlights what higher education should be more sensitive to in general. Students are facing significant challenges with ERT because of internet access, stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, unstable living conditions, and existing mental and physical health issues. Guess what, many of our students always face these challenges! Now perhaps we are in a better position to address this issue even after the pandemic.
The upside to ERT during the pandemic is that it will make us realize the ways technology can aid learning. It will also force us to consider what we have lost from in-person teaching that we could not compensate for. Have we been using our face to face time optimally? What DO students get out of coming to college in person? Can the ways community is built, students are engaged, and instructor presence felt in ERT and online teaching be elevated in face to face classes with technology?
We may assess learning across modalities more closely, and most importantly catalyze more scholarship on teaching and learning as we attempt to ascertain what worked in during this disruption and for whom.
Regan A.R. Gurung, Ph.D. is Interim Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, Professor of Psychological Science, and Director of the General Psychology Program at Oregon State University.