Moving Your University Online

Across the world, University buildings are being closed by National Governments as an understandable and necessary step against the Corona Virus. These are significant and drastic steps. We all hope this will slow the spread of the virus for all concerned. This is likely to have short and long term consequences for students.

But… just because the building is closed does not mean that all teaching and learning must stop.

Many universities have years of experience running courses on line, or blended education. In the current situation, universities, their lecturers and students are already improvising. Replacing scheduled face-to-face lessons with creative online alternatives. My colleague recently ran all his classes online for a week. To see his experience including tips and tricks, read the interview.   

In the overview below, I outline some provisional thoughts on what happens when some parts of the university education are moved online. What can be transferred most easily? And what additional technical and pedagogical support might be required?

The list below is in no way a complete overview. It is influenced by my own teaching perspectives and the types of classes I teach.

The value of face-to-face

The face-to-face interactions between faculty and students are central to creating value and social presence in universities. These interactions, or ‘conversations’, are core to the learning process (Laurillard, 2002; Turkle, 2016). Central to the university learning process is the exchanging of ideas, meeting, practicing, receiving feedback and applying theoretical ideas to practical situations. Transferring education online requires technical and pedagogical knowledge. And competence and technical support.

Simple to Complex

Certain learning interactions are relatively easy to move online. Requiring adjustment from lecturer and student for a modified format. Some cannot be easily moved online and may require creative re-thinking.

For this overview, I have arranged the learning interactions based on those I consider to be easiest to move online and ending with the most challenging. Maybe you are already well into this process. Or you have different perspectives. Perhaps I’ve overlooked some key aspects. If so, please let me know so I can include your input and ideas.

SIMPLE

Individual meeting (1 student)

An individual coaching meeting, or feedback on an assignment.

 

  • Online: This can be a phone call or one-to-one video conference. Although many students are used to communicating via video, I notice that students from some cultural backgrounds find it quite difficult to have a personal conversation about important issues, via the telephone, or via video. Steps should be taken to address this up front to make the student feel comfortable. 
  • Pros; communication can take place, focused attention one-on-one, technology (phone or video call) is easy to set up. 
  • Cons: Cultural issues, lack of ‘personal’ approach, challenges to share personal information via phone/video. More difficult to read non-verbal communication.

Project group meeting (6 students)

Lecturer meets in person as project coach to discuss group progress.

 

  • Online: Synchronous video conferencing. Students can be in the same room, or in different locations. Recently I ran 4 online project group meetings of 30 minutes each. These meetings went smoothly and we could follow the main points. We had some complicated personal and intercultural issues that needed to be addressed. It required high concentration on my part. I actively asked questions by name to all project members, asked them to all be visible on screen. I watched body language and non-verbal communication and picked up on that to involve students in the meeting.
  • Pros: Screens can be shared, feedback can be given. Efficient use of time.
  • Cons: Engagement level of students might be lower if joining separately online. Risk of distraction and multi-tasking. Less personal and slightly ‘forced’ interactions. Requires high level of concentration from lecturer.

Faculty Team meeting (20 staff)

Face-to-face meeting. Updates provided to staff, discussions and opinions exchanged, agreements and action points are determined. Important part of creating team culture to establish quality education.

 

  • Online: Online meeting using video conferencing such as Skype for Business or Zoom. Very clear online meeting protocol must be established to minimise unnecessary discussions. Moderator needs to use back-channel to collect ideas and questions. Actively guiding and managing the online interactions. We may think we know how to interact online during a meeting. But there may be different perspectives in the team that have not been openly discussed. This article has some good guidelines for running your next online meeting.
  • Pros: Meeting and discussion can go ahead. Input on important points can be agreed upon. Keeps team up to date and maintains a degree of personal contact.
  • Cons: Technical issues of sound, light and internet speed can hamper meeting. Reduced social presence. Very difficult to concentrate on the discussion, stay focused and to avoid multi-tasking. Need to have good connection, headphones, use the mute button, and be visible on line to show engagement. Consider the room you are in and neutral background.

Student Group Presentation (six students)

Six students in a classroom make a final presentation of their project for assessment and feedback.

  • Online: Via video conferencing, each student logs in separately, or together as one group.
  • Pros: Final presentation can go ahead live. Students get to practice presenting via video. Presenter can increase attention by presenting ‘into’ the camera lens and maintaining eye contact. Other students can watch online.
  • Cons: If each students is in a different location it is challenging to have a smooth final presentation. Perhaps only face visible so non-verbal communication reduced. Unclear who should answer questions. No ‘live’ experience of presenting to a group.

MEDIUM

Traditional classroom with 30 students

Lecturer provides content in class. Could be with worked examples, and interactive elements such as pair-work, discussion and classroom sharing.

  • Online: Pre-recorded web lecture. Interactive elements can be added such as a quiz. Or screen cast with audio.
  • Pros: Multiple viewings, ‘simplified’ content
  • Cons: Lecturers may need support making these, time investment in adjusting and preparing slides, technical skills needed to record content and adjust pedagogical approach.

Large lectures - 100 students +

Traditional lecture in a lecture hall with a teacher and presentation (e.g., PowerPoint slides, large blackboard, whiteboard). 60-90 minutes.

  • Online 1: Many universities are already doing this to different degrees. Livestream webinar. Lecturer in view, live interaction with audience. Requires webinar software, technical support staff and moderator. Adjustment of lecture style and content to fit webinar format.
  • Online 2:  Pre-recorded content as web lecture, with power point slides and talking head. Or screencast slideshow with audio. Suitable software required, lecturer needs basic technology support if has limited experience. Needs to be prepared and pre-recorded. 
  • Pros: Lecture can be viewed multiple times, student has control of learning.
  • Cons: Limited interaction with students, one-way delivery.

 

Excursion to a business (20 students)

 

Work visit to a business, factory or facility. Guided tour with manager, discussion, explanations, gaining sense of place, functions, roles

 

  • Online: Live or recorded online video interview with manager at business. Student generated questions for Q&A. Informal video tour of facility given by the manager during the live video interview.
  • Pros: Gives some insight into business, facility, corporate culture and provides some interaction with the manager.
  • Cons: Limited experience of real interaction.

COMPLEX

Interactive Workshop (16 students)

Lecturer interacts with group of students in class. Practicing and applying theory in smaller groups. Discussions and presentations. Students collaborate and practice and get feedback and see the learning process from fellow students.

  • Online: Students could join session online conferencing and be placed in break-out rooms to discuss and work on assignments. Lecturer can join break-out room discussions and give feedback to smaller groups or whole class.
  • Pros: Content can be addressed at one level with students, some interaction possible.
  • Cons: Technology competence needed from students and lecturer, adequate equipment and location. Difficult to share learning in groups back to the class. Limited overview from lecturer.

Skills Training (16 students)

Lecturer demonstrates and shows how to perform a certain skill (e.g., using a software, giving a presentation, selling a product to a customer). Students practice it and get feedback from this during the session and learn from each other.

  • Online: Software skills training presented via a ScreencastInterpersonal skills could be demonstrated by the student through a video link with feedback from the lecturer.
  • Pros: Students get to practice and can get some feedback.
  • Cons: Difficult to practice interpersonal skills via a video screen. Feels unnatural and awkward. And for other students to be able to see and learn from the process. This would require quite a complex set up and advanced pedagogical skills from lecturer.

Educational Conferences

Many educational conferences have already been cancelled, or are looking to online options. Attending an educational conference involves all delegates travelling to a location and spending time physically together. Can be one or more days. Vendors and delegates meet. New ideas are shared and critiqued by peers and experts. Social presence is high. Chance meetings and networking are essential elements. Profiling your ideas in front of a respected audience endorses your role as expert.

 

  • Online: Individual presentations can be run as online webinars. Moderator with incoming questions and technology support needed to facilitate. Remote virtual presence is also possible through systems such as Double Robotics
  • Pros: Reduced carbon footprint. Ideas can still be shared and feedback received.
  • Cons: Trying things out from vendors is much more difficult online. Technological issues mean that all delegates may be challenged to be online and present. Reduced social contact. Limited chance of chance encounters and networking.

Exams

There are many types of exams and assessments. These can be open book with open questions (e.g., case exam, or essay). Oral exams. Or closed book exams, (such as multiple choice). These exams are taken in an exam room, with other students and lecturer as invigilator at a fixed time. Physical copies of exams are handed out, completed by the student, and returned for assessment. Or they can be completed digitally on school operated devices with instant grades confirmed.

Organising and monitoring exams is a very sensitive issue within a university. The level and security surrounding assessments are a crucial element in determining the quality and validity of the overall degree issued. Any doubts or questions surrounding this process result can result in significant damage to the reputation of the organisation.

Online Proctoring

Online proctoring allows students to use their own computer to sit an exam in their room. And it is on the increase.

The student is monitored via the video camera on their computer. Facial recognition software flags unusual eye movements or behaviour. In some systems, key-strokes are also tracked. Any behaviour that deviates from the norm is flagged and can be checked live by an online invigilator or retrospectively. This overview from SURF.NL, 2016 provides an introduction to this subject. Companies such as Proctorio provide online proctoring.

 

  • Pros: There is added value in certain situations (see Surf.nl overview table). For students in other countries they can sit an exam without having to travel to the university.

 

 

Not all exam types are suited to online proctoring. Risk of fraud vs. exam importance (Surf, 2016).

 

  • Cons: Possible impact on privacy and legal frameworks. Questions about who owns the data and location of servers. Holding exams outside the controlled environment of the university can introduce fraud issues (SURF). Requires all students to have reliable WiFi, working camera and microphone. Quiet space to sit exam undisturbed. All exam questions need to be built into the Learning Management System (e.g., Moodle). This requires extra time and resources. Perspectives in the organisational culture may prove insurmountable to implementing these changes. Online proctoring is possible, but difficult to implement short-term due to cultural issues.

Changes in teaching and learning

The examples provided above show that in many cases, there are technological solutions. However, implementing them may be more complicated than at first appears. But there is no better time to try things out. Moving online may be technically possible, but it requires significant adjustments in thinking about how we teach and learn/

Lecturer Adjustments

Under the current crisis, lecturers may find themselves having their hand forced. They must now provide more of their content on line. Some are open to this and embracing new opportunities offered by technology. Others may remain more comfortable fulfilling the traditional role of university lecturer. Embracing new online teaching methods may challenge the security of established interactions. This can be frightening and confrontational. And teaching online is complicated and requires practice (Bates, 2015). However, as Awofeso and Arida outline in (Remenyi, Grant, & Singh, 2019), these changes can improve on traditional on-campus approaches.

‘Learners are required to be motivated, technologically adept, and self-paced in their learning activities. Academic staff, apart from developing core competencies in their field, are also expected to be skilled in online course design and instruction’.

Lecturers working at home need a suitable space to work, sufficient lighting and audio. And a neutral background. Working at home can create additional pressure.

Student Adjustments

For students, learning online requires a very different approach than learning in class. Higher concentration and focus is needed to stay involved in the material. Watching video explanations, or joining a live session can be a challenge. Staying focused. Not getting distracted. Students need support and guidance to develop good online studying skills. Watching videos may be seen as entertainment, inducing a passive, lean-back approach. Learning with video needs to be structured, active and lean-forward. Students should not underestimate the amount of effort and concentration needed to study online. An excellent overview of this is provided in the Motivation and Learning Strategies for College Success (Seli & Dembo, 2020). Chapter 8 has a section on strategies for learning from videos that focuses on before, during and after viewing.

Several recent works have outlined our susceptibility to distraction (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2016) and the importance of creating a suitable studying environment  (Alter, 2017; Eyal & Li, 2019; Newport, 2016).

Organisational Adjustments

Perhaps the biggest challenge are changes to perceptions in organisational culture within the university itself. How does the physical university justify its right to existence (Shark, 2015; van der Zwaan, 2017)? How open and ready are faculty to evolve their role from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’? What technological and pedagogical expertise does the university currently have in order to support faculty and students to transition into online contexts? How can concerns about going online be reduced? How can the value of all face-to-face learning interactions be enhanced and improved in order to ensure quality learning (Biggs & Tang, 2011)?

Uncharted Territory

As Sam Deans of the Los Angeles Times writes ‘Going virtual on this scale is a step into uncharted territory’. This uncharted territory involves complex shifts at many levels within higher education. Some of these can be implemented today easily (or are already in use). Others are complicated and there may be no satisfactory online replacement.

I do not suggest in any way that all learning interaction should be on line. Far from it. Every day I experience the high value of personal interaction and face-to-face learning at the heart of university teaching and learning.

Looking to the future

We hope that all universities will be able to reopen soon. That face-to-face teaching and learning can return to ‘business as usual’. However, my sense is that once we emerge from this current health emergency, universities, faculty and student will view the previous delivery of education from a new perspective. Having experienced more online formats we may consider more critically time spent travelling to university and the value of face-to-face encounters.

The current health situation may accelerate these changes in higher education. Using technology we are more than capable of ensuring we provide the education for our students. Teaching online is possible, but from now on, we will appreciate even more the qualities of face-to-face interactions and the value of personal contact in the digital age.

References

Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible; the rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. New York: Penguin Books.

Bates, A. W. (2015). Teaching in a digital age; Guidelines for designing teaching and learning for a digital age. Retrieved from http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university (Fourth ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Eyal, N., & Li, J. (2019). Indistractable; How to control your attention and choose your life. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The distracted mind: Ancient brains in a high-tech world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking university teaching: A framework for the effective use of learning technologies (2nd ed.). Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep work. London: Piatkus.

Remenyi, D., Grant, K. A., & Singh, S. (2019). The university of the future. Reading, UK: ACPIL.

Seli, H., & Dembo, M. H. (2020). Motivation and learning strategies for college success; A focus on self-regulated learning (Sixth). London, UK: Routledge.

Shark, A. R. (2015). The digital revolution in higher education; How and why the interet of everything is changing everything. Alexandria: Public Technology Institute.

Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming conversation; The power of talk in a digital age. New York: Penguin Books.

van der Zwaan, B. (2017). Higher Education in 2040; A Global Approach. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

The Tools I use

My overall repertoire of tools is relatively limited. I use Mediasite by Sonic Foundry for making pre-recorded web lectures and to capture selected live lectures. Skype for Business and Zoom pro-account for online conferences and meetings with faculty and students. For throw-away, one-time-use formative feedback on student work I use the pro version of Screencast-o-Matic. And for informal student contact Skype or FaceTime.

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