Online education: Quality and sustainability?!
On 7 April, the Minister of Higher Education made another visit to our zone Facilitating professional development for lecturers, among other colleagues in the field. This time, of course, the visit itself took place online. The subject of the conversation was also easy to guess: The effects of COVID-19 on current higher education. One of the main questions of our zone used to be how we could ensure that the “sad forerunner” in educational innovation with ICT would get followers.
Suddenly, this question is no longer relevant. In a short time, all lecturers have switched to online education. We are impressed by our colleagues in the educational sector. Everywhere you look, you see creative ideas emerge, lecturers are involved, and we’ve completely switched to online education in a period less than two weeks.
Conversations and interviews with students and lecturers show there are several positive developments to be noted: Sometimes in an online setting, the transfer of knowledge and materials is more structured and efficient than before, some alternative forms of education (e.g. using a tablet to show how calculations are performed) are experienced as an improvement to how the lecture explains themselves. Students and lecturers are working together to create good quality education and students are in direct contact with more fellow students who were previously less visible in the lectures.
Of course, there are also concerns: Students miss physical contact, the social threshold for entering an online meeting room is high sometimes, there can be technical problems (online breakout rooms with a limit of 4, whilst the project group consists of 5 students). Practical exams are currently not taking place, and lecturers are concerned about a group of students whom they have difficulty reaching (online).
On our way
We’ve been on this road of online education for several weeks now. The technology works (mostly), we have (almost) mastered the technology, and now we start to deal with the big(ger) issues, such as the quality of our online education (digital didactics) and online testing. Now the initial panic is under control, some of us are starting to think about the future. What will happen when we can provide real-life contact education again? All kinds of fantastic things are happening right now. The question that rises is: How do we prevent things from going “back to usual” straight away? How do we ensure that we maintain the successes we achieved (“best practices”) in online education and learn from where things didn’t go well, the so-called “best failures”? For example, I’ve recently published a paper with a colleague from San Diego about two failing data teams (educational innovation in data use). I may have learned more from this than from our success stories…
The work of the zone
As an acceleration zone, we can support institutions around the sustainability issue. For example, we’ve developed a motion sensor (Dutch) that enables institutions to see where they stand with regards to a number of important indicators on leadership, vision, and policy, professionalisation and infrastructure. This tool can be used to reflect on the current situation. We’ll also design additional guidelines for making successful educational innovations more sustainable. We don’t want all these beautiful and successful innovations to die silently. It would be a shame about the financial resources, time, and energy we’ve all put in. However, more importantly: certain educational innovations have a positive effect on the learning process of students, and that is what we do all this for.
Our zone is looking at how we can support lecturers and educational services in the current situation. A lot of information is being shared, but many people are also trying to reinvent the wheel. For example, manuals for online tests are suddenly written everywhere. The zone is linked to the Online Education Community that provides information from the community. We’re thinking about how we can streamline the information provided for both lecturers and support staff.
National centre of expertise
We also wonder whether the Online Education Community might be the first step towards a national centre of expertise on professionalisation in higher education, like they have in the UK, for example. It is striking that when we were talking to people two months ago about whether a national centre of expertise could add something, the answer was a resounding no. Institutions indicated that they wanted to keep professionalisation in-house, close to the fire and in line with the needs of their own people.
We are now seeing a turnaround, in which people cautiously admit that it would be useful if you could turn to one place with all your questions, for example about online testing. Our zone’s testing grounds (professionalisation activities in the field of specific educational innovations with ICT, such as digital peer feedback) could also find a place here. It might also be used to train and professionalise support staff to become so-called learning designers, who can help lecturers to design flexible education.
In short, it is important, as also mentioned by the Minister, to learn from the current situation: What does this mean for the lecturer of the future? I would like to add to this: And what does this mean for the role of the supporter (ICTO coaches, e-learning specialists, educationalist) and the role of the student? After all, students are central and every student is entitled to good education, whether it’s contact education or online education.