Top 10 COVID “Good Reads” from 2021: A Story of Numbers, Narratives and Rich Insights

Following last week’s release of our “good reads” for 2021 in the more general area of Digital Learning, we are pleased to share with you a separate collection of articles with a specific COVID-related focus. As evidenced by the COVID-19 Higher Education Literature Database (CHELD) (Butler-Henderson, et al., 2021), a wealth of literature has been published since March 2020 reporting on the world’s response to the COVID crisis. Indeed, Version 2 of the CHELD database, which contains publications up  to  30th  June  2021, lists 738 journal articles with a COVID-related learning and teaching focus. 

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Special Issue Journals 

Further evidence of the academic and research community’s response to documenting the impact of the pandemic is apparent through the number of COVID-related special issue journals published over this period. Some of the [open access] special issue journals published over 2021 appears below:

Special issues related to the COVID pandemic also featured in several traditionally restricted access publications, although some articles in these journals were openly available. A selection of journals published in 2021 includes…

The Irish Experience

Two of the above journals contain a collection of articles specific to the Irish context. While there have been several reports published by government agencies and professional bodies on the Irish experience during the pandemic (e.g., ISSE, IUA, National Forum, QQI), a recently published journal article by Cullinan et al. (2021) adopts an interesting methodology to illustrate how the lack of Internet access impacted on the quality of student learning. Despite its focus on Irish higher education, the methodology and more particularly the findings are likely to resonate with educators working at other levels in both developed and developing countries. For this reason, we recommend the following article to you…

  • Cullinan, J., Flannery, D., Harold, J., Lyons, S., & Palcic, D. (2021). The disconnected: COVID-19 and disparities in access to quality broadband for higher education students. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 18 (26),

Contributing to New Knowledge

Last year, in producing our 2020 collection of COVID-related “good reads”, we noted the risk of becoming swamped in ‘special issue’ journals, which may do little to contribute to new knowledge. This comment was made in the context of ‘Emergency Remote Teaching’ and what appeared at the time to be efforts to reinvent the ‘online learning’ wheel in early COVID-related publications. More specifically, we noted the tendency to ignore or give little regard to the wealth of pre-existing theoretical and empirical literature in the field of online distance education.

While this year’s analysis of the literature suggests more evidence of past work informing current research, there is still a question of whether we are using the best theories and asking the right questions.

Reeves and Lin (2020) in an article we profiled last year raised this concern and Castaneda and Williamson (2021) reiterate the point in their call for more critical research on educational technology in post-pandemic times. Arguably, there is a danger of what some call ‘learnification’ where too much focus is being placed on the ‘how’ and teaching is being reduced to a series of handy hints intended to promote student engagement. Therefore, in selecting our list of “good reads” for 2021 we paid particular attention to the types of questions being investigated and the potential to challenge conventional wisdom and open new avenues of knowledge.

We wish to emphasise this point as sharing our NIDL “good reads” always runs the risk of being perceived as nothing more than academic grandstanding and an opportunist publicity stunt.

This criticism is something that we are conscious of even though our underlying motivation in taking considerable time and effort to critically review the published literature is:

  • to enhance our own depth of understanding
  • to help promote a culture of professional reading 
  • to provide a service to the wider research and professional community

This third point is one of the reasons why we support our top 10 “good reads” with details around the selection methodology and a narrative explaining and justifying each article. The “good reads” do not just select themselves and feedback suggests that both readers and authors representing the chosen works appreciate this narrative and our own constructive insights. Speaking of authors, we also like to think the exercise helps to acknowledge their valuable contribution to the field and brings more attention to other good reads by the same research teams that might not be known to everyone. 

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

On a related point, however, there is emerging evidence of the academic ‘gaming’ of the COVID experience, as evidenced through an interesting analysis of educator tweeting during early days of the pandemic.

Carpenter et al. (2021) report that alongside and sometimes entangled with information broadcasting and knowledge sharing, “…there was also a great deal of self-promotion” (p. 1).

We are probably guilty of engaging in some of this activity ourselves in sharing news of several COVID-related projects that our NIDL team has undertaken. Accordingly, we have taken care in this year’s selections not to promote any of our own research or development activities and to give particular attention to reporting major literature reviews, insightful institutional case studies and personal narratives that offer valuable lessons for practitioners, educational leaders and/or policy makers. We trust there is something for most people amongst our top 10 COVID “good reads” and they alert or help to steer educators to some publications that may be new to them. 

The Top 10 Articles

We have chosen not to rank the top 10 articles that follow as this would be counterproductive to the purpose of this exercise. Instead, the order they appear below reflects the narrative we have chosen to write to help connect the research and to explain why each article was selected. We begin by introducing several major literature reviews and then shift to the voice of educational leaders and more insightful personal narratives, ending with some valuable institutional case studies.

In total, the top 10 articles represent the works of 46 authors from 11 countries, with 34 residing in the UK and Europe. . 

Thus, there is a strong Northern Hemisphere bias to the “good reads” as a further seven authors reside in Canada or the United States. Although we strive to offer some diversity in our selections, with a short-list of 43 articles identified for closer ‘slow’ review, three of the “good reads” in the final list come from one journal. However, in terms of diversity, the contributing authors in these three articles are spread across the UK, Germany, Spain and Korea. Another two articles are drawn from three journals respectively, which means that the top 10 selections come from only five journals, partly a reflection of the special issue factor. One article is produced by a single UK author, another is co-authored by two Korean colleagues and eight are written by multiple authors, which does help to enhance the broader representation of the literature.

Crompton, H., Burke, D., Jordan, K., & Wilson, S. (2021). Learning with technology during emergencies: A systematic review of K-12 education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 52 (4), 1554-1575.

This article recognises that technology is often utilised in response to a crisis and the COVID pandemic is not unique in this respect. What makes this study unique is that it reviews the K-12 literature on remote education during an emergency prior to the pandemic. The article provides a systematic review of the literature for 11 years up until December 2020. Adopting the PRISMA selection process, the review includes 60 articles from 48 countries. Notably, most of this literature reports localised emergencies rather than anything on the scale of the COVID crisis, but this does not prevent the study from identifying a set of useful recommendations for teachers, school leaders, policy makers, and funders. A number of gaps are also noted in the literature, including the lack of research arising from the experience in developing countries.  Notwithstanding this point, we selected this article as it provides a useful baseline of research on emergency remote education. 

Khan, M.A. (2021). COVID-19’s impact on higher education: A rapid review of early reactive literature. Education Sciences, 11 (8), 421.

This article reports an early rapid review of the COVID-related literature focusing on learning, teaching, and assessment approaches in higher education. It adopts a clearly outlined methodology to synthesise findings from peer-reviewed articles which report on the experience immediately following the start of the pandemic. The research objective was: (i) to summarize the impact of COVID-19 as reported in currently available studies; (ii) to investigate the measures which were put in place following the lockdown of educational institutions; and (iii) to assess gaps in knowledge and understanding and identify possible future research directions. The sample of literature totalling 39 studies was published between March 1st 2020 and July 10th 2020. Notably, two independent assessors evaluated the search results, although they are not formally acknowledged at the end of the article. Not surprisingly, the early literature is dominated by US articles (n=11), with China (n=5) and multiple country papers (n=5) making up the second-largest source of studies.

The review stands out for its focus on assessment and how changes in teaching delivery have required people to collaborate at different levels in educational institutions. It also gives consideration to how people from Black, Asian, and Minority groups (BAME) are more likely to be seriously impacted by the pandemic and calls for more targeted support and research in this area. In a similar vein, the review notes the need for more research on lesser developed countries along with the importance of hearing the student’s voice. 

Bond, M., Bedenlier, S., Marín, V.I., Händel, M. (2021). Emergency remote teaching in higher education: Mapping the first global online semester. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 18 (50).

This article responds to a plethora of studies now investigating a range of topics related to the move to emergency remote teaching, especially over the first semester. The review is framed by three well-crafted research questions: (i) Where, when and by whom has research on teaching and learning in higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic been published? (ii) What are the characteristics of, methods used, and topics studied in teaching and learning research in higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic?(iii) What technology has been used during emergency remote teaching in higher education?

Once again, guided by the PRISMA reporting guidelines, the study reports a systematic mapping review that describes 282 primary empirical studies with a higher education focus. Therefore, the sample of this review is considerably larger than Khan (2021) reports in the previous article, which is partly explained by a close off date in the first week of December 2020. Notably, as the author team is trilingual, studies written in English, German or Spanish were targeted for potential inclusion using language-specific databases. In total, the review is sourced from 155 unique journals and reports the work of 1,019 authors across 73 countries. Leximancer is used to present various characteristics of the sample which enhances the article’s readability and interpretation of the findings.

Reiterating an earlier concern, only 10% of the of studies in this sample adopted a theoretical framework. This finding along with other methodological weaknesses led the authors to conclude that emergency remoted teaching resulted in “emergency remote research”. Another finding is that educators appear to have employed synchronous delivery and collaboration tools as they “…had the urge to re-create communication and interaction situations that are found during in-person lessons on campus” (p. 19). The review raises several questions for the future about whether we can expect the greater digital transformation of the sector, especially given the relatively limited range of educational technologies used to support teaching, learning and assessment. 

Laufer, M., Leiser, A., Deacon, B., de Brichambaut, P.P., Fecher, B., Kobsda, C., & Hesse, F. (2021). Digital higher education: A divider or bridge builder? Leadership perspectives on edtech in a COVID-19 reality. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 18 (51).

This article begins with the premise that the direct positive relationship between educational technology and ‘better’ education has yet to be established, suggesting that other factors are also important in the digital transformation of education. The study is designed around two research questions: (i) Does the rapid digital push during the COVID-19 pandemic evoke positive and sustainable development for digital teaching and learning? (ii) How did higher education leaders experience the opportunities and barriers that arose during the rapid digital turn, specifically related to the edtech promises of access, learning outcomes, and collaboration?

While these are quite broad and challenging questions to answer the study reports the findings from three data collection cycles involving surveys and interviews with a total sample of 85 participants from 24 countries. Participants were educational leaders recruited through purposeful and snowball sampling, with data collection taking place between June and November 2020. Based on their diverse experiences, the article acknowledges that context is crucial as institutions have different starting points, barriers and constraints, and so on, which means there is “…there is no one-fits-all solution around digital learning” (p. 5).

The findings are presented according to micro (individual experience) and meso (institutions/systems) dimensions, with the authors illustrating the multiple layers that shape the ability to realise the potential of digital education. Not surprisingly, they identify from both the Global North and South how lack of access to technology and a stable internet connection is a major individual-level barrier. A myriad of issues is reported for women along with generational differences providing evidence of systemic inequalities. While the study is very broad and high-level, the rich inclusion of direct quotes from a diverse range of participants helps to illustrate the complexity of successfully implementing educational technology for learners, teachers, and institutions. This is the major contribution the paper makes to the literature. 

Jandrić, P., Bozkurt, A., McKee, M., Hayes, S. (2021). Teaching in the age of Covid-19 – A longitudinal study. Postdigital Science and Education, 3, 743–770.

This article offers a richer and more compelling global account and analysis of the COVID pandemic experience in terms of the impact on teaching and learning. It syntheses short testimonies and case material presented in two articles written one year apart from each other by a group of 84 authors from 20 countries. In the first article, our colleague Dr Jones Irwin provides one of 81 textual testimonies sharing his personal reflections and workspace photo submitted at the end of March 2020 (Jandrić, et al., 2020). Similarly, Dr Michael Hogan from the School of Psychology at NUIG shares his reflections from an Irish perspective.

The second article also consists of short testimonies and workspace photographs this time collected between March and May 2021 (Jandrić, et al., 2021). There are 74 testimonies with once again insightful contributions from two Irish colleagues, with Dr Irwin from DCU’s Institute of Education trying to find positives amidst the pain. Taken together the testimonies provide a valuable historical account of the response to the pandemic in the words of each author.

This latest article treats the testimonies as personal narratives, while also trying to make sense of them as a form of data. As data, the authors suggest they provide a much larger, powerful commentary on the COVID experience across the globe during this pandemic. The article is unique for the way it invites the reader to use both lens and endeavours to maintain a dialogic quality by giving voice to each author. While you need to read the description of the text and image analysis carefully not to lose a sense of the personal and emotional quality of the narratives, the interpretation of the data is anchored in the understanding that words gain meaning from the contexts in which they are used; and secondly that all knowledge is socially constructed.

Accordingly, the authors ask how does data and narrative interact in a unique study of this type, which they call a postdigital methodology of data-narrato-logy. The final section of the paper is quite theoretical in terms of exploring what data-narrato-logy might look like and might be more relevant to researchers than practitioners. In carefully following this line of discussion, there is a question of why the authors did not offer their analysis and (re)interpretation of the data to the 84 participants as a third round of critical reflections. This might be the next step to help extend and enhance the trustworthiness of the analysis, especially given the commitment to collaborative writing and shared voice. 

VanLeeuwen, C., Veletsianos, G., Johnson, N., & Belikov, O. (2021). Never-ending repetitiveness, sadness, loss, and “juggling with a blindfold on:” Lived experiences of Canadian college and university faculty members during the COVID-19 pandemic. British Journal of Educational Technology, 52 (4), 1306-1322.

This article tells an insightful story of the lived experiences of Canadian faculty members during the early months of the pandemic. It adds an even stronger human dimension to the above studies  by reporting vivid descriptions of academics’ experiences of their upended work lives from home offices whilst teaching geographically dispersed students. Adopting a phenomenological approach, the article is based 20 in-depth interviews with faculty holding varied academic appointments at universities across Canada. What will resonate with many educators is how the early months of the pandemic were exhausting and at times overwhelming, with as the authors describe “…a cycle of never-ending repetitiveness, sadness and loss, or managing life, teaching and other professional responsibilities with little sense of direction” (p. 1306).

In light of the methodological failings of a plethora of “emergency remote research” identified by Bond et al. (2021) in one of the above articles, this study stands out for being anchored in a solid phenomenological method which, despite the small sample, paints a very real and compelling picture of faculty experiences that serve to remind us what it felt like to live through this time. It makes a valuable contribution to the published literature by providing a holistic view of the pandemic experience, going beyond the transactional activity of merely continuing to deliver the curriculum. For this reason, the article may well be frequently cited by educational historians as a valuable primary source record of the COVID pandemic over the next century.

Littlejohn, A, Gourlay, L, Kennedy, E, Logan, K, Neumann, T, Oliver, M, Potter, J., & Rode, JA. (2021). Moving teaching online: Cultural barriers experienced by university teachers during Covid-19. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, (1): 7, 1–15.

This article provides an interesting institutional case study on the experiences of academics and professional service staff at University College London during first weeks of the move to online teaching and working from home during the pandemic. Similar to the first article in our collection of “good reads”, the paper begins by reminding us that this is not the first time higher education institutions have had to shift their practices in response to a crisis, noting the SARS outbreak, the 9/11 terrorist attack and Hurricane Sandy (unofficially known as Superstorm Sandy). The difference they suggest is that this crisis is on a global scale and there may be no return to the previous ‘normal’.

A unique aspect of this study is that it involved a survey where university staff were invited to share an image that represented their experience of working from home under the lockdown. Participants were also asked to comment on the image and write short narratives about their experiences of teaching, research and working from home. Data from 412 survey responses and 32 follow-up interviews are reported as the authors trace the varying ways people characterised themselves during the first months of lockdown (from March to July 2020). Arguably, the image analysis is contextually richer than the text and images analysed by Jandrić et al. (2021) as the narrative is linked to the image and reflects the story from a single institution.

It is noteworthy that the findings highlight how institutional support services “…underwent a metamorphosis to support the transition to online teaching” (p. 1). This adds a further layer to understanding the institutional response to the crisis, but the study also reports that insufficient attention was given to the ‘identity crisis and threats perceived by academic staff who had limited online teaching experience. Amplifying the findings of other research, the authors report how teaching staff tended to focus on transferring their traditional ways of teaching to the online environment, as opposed to more fundamentally changing teaching practice. Thus, traditional face-to-face teaching was used as the default model for emergency remote teaching. While this finding adds to the weight of evidence showing how pre-existing beliefs and pedagogical approaches mediated practice during the COVID crisis, the study goes further by raising the significance of cultural barriers as persistent obstacles in adopting more productive engagement with new models of digital education.

At the same time, the research reports that there were limited resources available to learn how to teach online with a short timescale and institutional policies and infrastructure had not been developed to support the pivot to emergency remote and online working. As a result, such efforts were challenging for staff who often did not have dedicated workspace at home and for those with caring responsibilities. Coupled with the extra support needed by students during the crisis, these factors contributed to added emotional dimension to already-full workloads. The authors conclude with several broad recommendations noting how several forms of disadvantage need to be acknowledged and supported if universities wish to create a sustainable and just working environment.

Lee, J., & Jung, I. (2021). Instructional changes instigated by university faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic: The effect of individual, course and institutional factors. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 18 (52).

This article offers a contrast to the narratives presented in the two above papers by providing a statistical analysis of quantitative data collected through an online survey. The contrast between numbers and narrative—for better and worse—along with the context of the study which involved a sample of 201 South Korean university faculty considered to be at the beginner level of online teaching, are the main reasons we chose to include this article.

The study adopts Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory as an umbrella framework, placing a strong focus on the relationship between individual experience and interactions with surrounding contexts. It also draws (uncritically) on several other theories and models related to technology adoption to support the analysis. The research is designed around two main research questions: (i) To what extent did university faculty change their emergency online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic? (ii) How did factors at the individual, course, and institutional levels contribute to the changes that faculty instituted in their emergency online teaching? Data collection was from May 2020 to July 2020, although the paper is short on details in terms of how participants were invited to contribute to the study. Unfortunately, despite reporting a breakdown of demographic data, this shortcoming in terms of documenting the sample recruitment process, with little contextual analysis, limits the weight that can be given to the findings.

The results show, nevertheless, that few faculty engaged in critical course redesign and ‘redefinition’ through new digitally enhanced teaching and learning approaches was rare.  Moreover, there was limited evidence of changes in beliefs about online teaching, which supports previous research showing that new educational technology is typically mediated by, and assimilated within, pre-existing pedagogical beliefs (see for example, Tondeur, et al., 2017). The study also offers several theoretical and practical implications. Firstly, theoretically, it is important to recognise that planned voluntary adoption of new educational technology is different from urgent change required in the face of a crisis. Secondly, the authors recognise that the method applied in this study is insensitive to capturing faculty beliefs or subsequent changes in their beliefs. They conclude that a more phenomenological methodological approach is required, pointing towards a valuable line of future inquiry and highlighting the need for more longitudinal research, which combines numbers with narratives.

Rapanta, C., Botturi, L., Goodyear, P., Guardia, L., & Koole, M. (2021). Balancing technology, pedagogy and the new normal: Post-pandemic challenges for higher education. Postdigital Science and Education, 3, 715–742.

This article helps to advance the COVID story by looking at the experience one year on, with the intention of understanding how to bridge the gap between online and in-person teaching beyond the pandemic. It follows up on a paper identified in last year’s list of “good reads” by the same authors reporting four expert interviews. In contrast to what Bond et al. (2021) reports in one of the above articles, the paper begins by suggesting there is increased openness due to the COVID crisis towards learning innovation that was not as evident before. Accordingly, the article is refreshingly built around the language of opportunity and sets out to support more innovative teachers in post-COVID campus-based institutions, with the goal of helping to mainstream their efforts within their organisation.

A brief summary of relevant literature helps to establish the context and the paper then repeats the same interview approach as last year. The sample is somewhat unusual as the authors are also the interviewees. Although there is no reference to a specific methodology, such as Self-study, the responses to the five questions offer quality and depth of expertise that makes for insightful reading. We found they provide a valuable source of critical self-reflection if you consider your own answers to each question as you read through the article. Importantly, the work is firmly anchored in the area of learning design but from a whole organisation perspective, with strategic decision-making at the heart of the institution.

One of the most timely and valuable contributions is the question of whether we should be focusing on the digitalisation of higher education or rather a ‘Pedagogisation’ of technology use in higher education? While this question could be rephrased in more simple terms, and incorporate an even stronger student perspective, it helps to shift attention to pedagogical innovations and the outcomes we seek through new educational technology. Similarly, the article adds to the weight of evidence rejecting binary conceptions between offline and online forms of teaching and learning.

Gourlay, L, Campbell, K, Clark, L, Crisan, C, Katsapi, E, Riding, K., & Warwick, I. (2021). ‘Engagement’ discourses and the student voice: Connectedness, questioning and inclusion in post-Covid digital practices. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, (1): 15, 1–13.

This final article in our collection begins with a brief summary of the contemporary literature on student engagement, noting this remains a contested phenomenon and complex field of practice. The reality is that ‘student engagement’ can mean different things to different people, as Kahu (2013) observes in her seminal work in this area. The theoretical framing of the present study recognises the risk of related concepts such as active learning leading to various forms of performativity in students and “…an over-emphasis on ‘learning’ over teaching may lead to ‘learnification’, rendering the idea of the figure of the teacher as somewhat redundant” (p. 3). In briefly commenting on a recent Jisc guide on “Active Learning in a Digital World” (Barrett, 2020), the article points out how the more everyday literature often does not fully recognise the complexities of student engagement.

Set against this review of the literature, the next section reports on two projects at University College London which investigated student perspectives on digital engagement during the lockdown. The two studies although separate shared a common commitment to the institutional notion of a ‘connected curriculum’ requiring a strong student-staff partnership. Thus, the two studies are noteworthy for the way they incorporate students in the research design and the article is co-written with students as authors. In discussing the findings, the authors argue that these student accounts of learning during lockdown challenge some of the mainstream assumptions about student ‘inclusivity’, academic ‘community’, and teaching which encourages a rich, deep and meaningful online experience.

They suggest the importance of relationality, belonging and an ethos of care, which needs to be positioned as central to the development of digital education and the practices of student engagement. In concluding, the authors return to how student engagement has been under-theorised, especially in online learning contexts, with an over-emphasis on learning ‘activity’, while giving insufficient attention to students’ “…ability to be ‘active’, their willingness to participate and their sense of belonging, all necessary for engagement to take place” (p. 11). This article should be essential reading for anyone wishing to better understand and promote a holistic and multifaceted conception of student engagement in the context of digital education.

Wrapping Up

The task of selecting this year’s “good reads” has proven once again to be invaluable in helping ourselves to ‘slow’ read and make better sense of the literature. It has demonstrated how the COVID pandemic has helped to advance scholarship and the depth of understanding around implementing new digital models of education. We believe the articles that we have selected this year provide an excellent overview of the COVID experience one year on and together they make a good reader for postgraduate students wishing to pursue research in the area. This year’s exercise has also got us thinking about introducing a monthly online journal club, “Reading at the Edge of Digital Education” (REDE), that is open to all educators interested in participating in rich conversations based around a chosen article. This group might also play a role in selecting our future “good reads” as we collectively share our insights, interpretations and critical reflections. Watch this space for more information.


Barrett, E. 2020. Active learning in the digital world: Inspiring learning. UK: JISC

Butler-Henderson, K., Tan, S., Lalani, K., Sabu, K. M., Kemp, T., Rudolph, J., & Crawford, J. (2020). Update of the COVID-19 Higher Education Literature Database (CHELD v2). Journal of Applied Learning & Teaching, 4(1), 134.137.

Carpenter, J., Trust, T., Kimmons, R., & Krutka, D. (2021). Sharing and self-promoting: An analysis of educator tweeting at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Computers and Education Open, 2, 1-11.

Castaneda, L., & Williamson, B. (2021). Assembling new toolboxes of methods and theories for innovative critical research on educational technology. Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research, 10 (1), 1-14.

Cullinan, J., Flannery, D., Harold, J., Lyons, S., & Palcic, D. (2021). The disconnected: COVID-19 and disparities in access to quality broadband for higher education students. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 18 (26),

Jandrić, P., Hayes, D., Levinson, P., et al. (2021). Teaching in the age of Covid-19—1 year later. Postdigital Science and Education, 3, 1073–1223.

Jandrić, P., Hayes, D., Truelove, I., et al. (2020). Teaching in the age of Covid-19. Postdigital Science and Education 2 (3)1069–1230.

Kahu, E. 2013. Framing student engagement in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38(5), 758–773.

Reeves, T., & Lin, L. (2020). The research we have is not the research we need. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68, 1991-2001.

Tondeur, J., can Brank, J., & Ertmer, P.A. (2017).  Understanding the relationship between teachers’ pedagogical beliefs and technology use in education: A systematic review of qualitative evidence. Education Technology Research and Development, 65, 555-575.

Top 10 Covid-19 “Good Reads” from 2020: Lessons for the Future

A wealth of literature was published during 2020 in response to the Covid-19 crisis, ranging from blog posts, opinion pieces, media commentaries, major national and international reports, and a steady stream of peer reviewed journal articles. One thing is certain, we are not short of material offering an opinion, viewpoint or perspective on what has been described as the Great Onlining of 2020. Indeed, picking up on a key point made by Reeves and Lin (2020) in our top ranked article of 2020, which we shared last week, there is a risk that over the next few years we will become swamped with special issue publications that may help to meet the pressure on some of us to publish in referred journals to advance our careers, but actually fail to ask or respond to the right questions. 

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

With this point in mind, the decision to single out just a handful of good Covid-19 reads from open access journal articles arose for three reasons. Firstly, we did not want this literature to overly dominate our annual selection of other top scholarly reads in the general area of digital learning which offer valuable lessons and perspectives for the future. Secondly, because so much has been written in response to the pandemic and the situation remains very fluid, it is virtually impossible to keep up-to-date with everything that has been published. Therefore, we felt it was useful to flag some valuable work that many educators may not have already come across. Lastly, not everything published thus far is solidly grounded in evidence and to put it bluntly there has been a lot of myth, misinformation and even rubbish written about digital learning in the Covid-19 era. 

The selection of top reads that follow seek to address this last point as each article is the outcome of scholarly peer review and we have given particular attention to major literature reviews or think pieces from highly respected educators and researchers working in the area. However, before introducing the selection of top reads, with a brief commentary about each article, we would like to acknowledge those at the frontline of education who are actually doing the work of responding to the crisis as well as the significant contribution of many professional bodies in supporting their efforts.

In Ireland, for example, the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education along with the Irish Universities Association (IUA), and others, have played key roles. At a European level, EATDU and the European Distance and eLearning Network (EDEN), in particular, played a major leadership role, with in 2020 over 20K registrations, almost 10K live participants, 20K views of recorded webinars and 119 individual presenters and moderators across a diverse range of events.

The value of more organic initiatives should not be underestimated either, with events like “Gasta Goes Global” back in April 2020 standing out as particularly memorable at a key period in the crisis. You may like to read the following article as it offers a valuable insider’s perspective to the format and experience of this unique Irish event, which according to rumour may be returning again in 2021.

Farrelly, T., Suilleabháin, G., & McCarthy, K. (2020). Gasta goes global as a rapid community response to COVID-19. All Ireland Journal of Higher Education, 12 (2), 1-9. Available at

The Top 10 Articles

We have chosen not to list the articles that follow in rank order as doing so would be counterproductive to the purpose of this exercise. Rather the order they appear reflects the narrative we have chosen to write to help explain why each article was selected. While it is noteworthy that three journals appear twice in this list the work reported presents a diverse and truly global perspective with contributing authors representative of many nationalities. In total, the 10 selected “good reads” come from the collective efforts of 100 authors, which is another good reason to acknowledge and celebrate the valuable contribution of this work. 

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause Review, 27 March, Available at

We selected the above article as a huge amount has been written about how to design effective online learning. Dozens of valuable checklists, design guides and top tips for online learning and emergency remote teaching were produced throughout the year in a variety of formats. On a slightly more critical note, it does beg the question:

“If online learning was the default mode of education before the Covid-19 pandemic, and we had to rapidly pivot to on-site learning due to a different type of crisis, how problematic would it be to try to reduce or encapsulate the complex, multifaceted and idiosyncratic nature of good teaching for campus-based education down to a list of 10 handy hints?”

Professor Mark Brown

This question is an interesting thought experiment as it serves to underscore the point that online learning is not a single monolith entity and like traditional teaching methods has many different and varied faces. Hence sweeping generalisations about any form of teaching or learning are usually problematic. This point is implicit in the above article as it helps to articulate important differences between emergency remote teaching and online learning. The fact the article was published back in March 2020 was a consideration in its selection, as in many respects this distinction only became more apparent, and the question of how to design effective online education, until after our initial response to the Covid-19 crisis. 

Bozkurt, A., Insung, J., Junhong, X., et. al. (2020). A global outlook to the interruption of education due to COVID-19 pandemic: Navigating in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Asian Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 1-126. Available from

This article reports 31 case studies from around the globe and was chosen as it provides valuable insights of how educators and institutions responded to Covid-19 relatively early in the crisis. For this reason, it has a degree of historical significance and like the above article by Hodge et. al. (2020) identities how early practices during the initial pivot were essentially emergency remote teaching, as opposed to carefully planned practices more akin to the principles of distance education, online learning or other derivations. Moreover, the collection of cases raised an early flag of how inequity, digital divide and fundamental issues of social injustice were being exacerbated through the pandemic, and require unique and targeted measures if they are to be addressed. This issue is even more pertinent now and therefore the article still has currency in helping us to grapple with deep challenges beyond the health pandemic.  

Fernandez, A.A., & Shaw, G.P. (2020). Academic leadership in a time of crisis: The Coronavirus and Covid-1 9. Journal of Leadership Studies, 14 (1), 39-45. Available at

Most people would agree that leadership was, and remains, a crucial factor in our capacity to effectively respond to the Covid-19 crisis. Accordingly, the above article was chosen as it directly speaks to this challenge and notably reports key lessons in an educational leadership journal from authors who are not international experts in the area of online learning. It identifies many of the key dimensions of effective leadership drawing on contemporary thinking, including the importance of emotional intelligence, connecting and enabling people, building and distributing responsibility for leadership and the crucial role of clear communication. Also, the authors note how effective leaders can see opportunities in a crisis, a point that remains highly relevant as we increasingly turn our attention to the future. However, it needs to be noted that micro-leaders played a crucial role as well throughout the crisis and our thinking and takeaway lessons should not only emphasise the value and impact of positional leaders.

Johnson, N., Veletsianos, G., & Seaman, J. (2020). U.S. faculty and administrators’ experiences and approaches in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Online Learning, 24(2), 6-21.

This article continues the focus on leadership by reporting the findings of a survey which investigates the rapid transition to emergency remote teaching in the early weeks of the pandemic at over 650 higher education institutions in the United States. Data were collected in April 2020. The study helps to illustrate the agility and resilience of many institutions along with providing an early snapshot into the disruptive aspects of the Covid-19 crisis at a large scale, as many faculty report using new teaching methods regardless of previous experience. Moreover, there is clear evidence of changes to assessment practices as participants report the adoption of new kinds of assignments or exams. In asking participants what assistance would be helpful, it is noteworthy and perhaps not surprising that the top response related to student support. More specifically, participants identified how to support students to succeed as an online learner as a matter of priority, which validates as well as resonates with our own decision to commit NIDL resources back in June 2020 to designing and then delivering in September, A Digital Edge: Essentials for the Online Learnera free online course through the FutureLearn platform. At the time of writing over 6,500 learners have registered for this course with a 56% completion rate. 

Marko Teräs, M.  & Suoranta, J., Teräs, H., & Curcher, M. (2020).  Post-Covid-19 education and education technology‘solutionism’: A seller’s market. Postdigital Science and Education, 2, 863–878.

Another dimension of leadership during the early stages of the crisis was filtering B.S. and managing the ‘solutionism’ being peddled by an array of EdTech providers and arguably snake oil merchants. While leading critics like Audrey WattersBen WilliamsonBryan Alexander and Neil Selwyn, to name a few, help to deconstruct the ‘education is broken’ discourse and provide critical commentary on the creeping datafication, corporatisation and commercialisation of our schools, universities and education system through EdTech, the above article synthesises many of the key arguments in a Covid-19 context. It is a very accessible read that importantly goes beyond the pedagogy of the depressed. The piece is written by some good colleagues at Tampere University and Tampere University of Applied Sciences in Finland who are collaborating with the NIDL team in a major EU funded project, known as BUKA, to support the development of online education in universities throughout South East Asia. The central thesis of the article urges educational leaders to think carefully about the decisions they are currently making if they wish to pave the way towards better, and more desirable, education future which go beyond our response to the current crisis. 

Rapanta, C.,  Botturi, C., Goodyear, P., Guàrdia, L., & Koole, M. (2020). Online university teaching during and after the Covid-19 crisis: Refocusing teacher presence and learning activity. Postdigital Science and Education, 2,923–945.

This article, which comes from the same journal as the previous paper, shifts the focus back to the question of pedagogy. It endeavours to provide some expert insights into the type of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) required for effective online education to help non-expert university teachers navigate their way through the challenges they face. Drawing on research, and their individual and collective experience across three continents, the authors point at the design of learning activities with certain characteristics—that is, the combination of three types of presence: social, cognitive and facilitatory. They also stress the need to adapt assessment approaches to the new learning requirements, and in so doing reflect on how our “best efforts” response to the current crisis may help to precipitate enhanced teaching and learning practices in the postdigital era. This last point serves to flag Postdigital Science and Education as one of the best new journals to emerge in the last couple of years if you value fresh ideas, critical thinking and insightful perspectives on the future of education.

Carrillo, C., & Assunção Flores, M. (2020). COVID-19 and teacher education: A literature review of online teaching and learning practices. European Journal of Teacher Education, 43(4), 466-487.

This article continues the pedagogical focus but with a more specific emphasis on teacher education in an initial preparation and schooling context. It analyses over 130 empirical studies published between 2000 and 2020 to provide a review of the literature of online teaching and learning practices. Not surprisingly, the findings highlight the importance of social, cognitive and teaching presence according to the Community of Inquiry (COI) Framework. While reference is made to the importance of emotional support, perhaps due to the specific teacher education focus, there is limited acknowledgment of other presences and, in particular, growing research interest in the role of emotion in online learning. Several members of our NIDL team share this interest, with last year Dr Elaine Beirne completing her PhD thesis on this very topic. Overall, the most valuable contribution of this literature review is helping to underscore the need for a comprehensive view of the pedagogy of online education. 

Darling-Hammond, L. & Hyler, M.E. (2020). Preparing educators for the time of COVID… and beyond. European Journal of, Teacher Education, 43(4), 457-465.

This next article coming from the same journal also addresses the issue of preparing K-12 teachers for the time of Covid-19, and beyond. Notably, in light of the above comments, the authors talk about the importance of supporting the social emotional and academic needs of students. Particular emphasis is given to what policy-makers and those in educational leadership roles can do to address these considerations from a more systemic perspective, ranging from developing high-quality educator preparation, transforming educator professional learning opportunities to match current and future needs, supporting mentoring and the development of new teacher roles, and creating time for educators to collaborate with each other and key partners. Like many of the other articles identfied as good reads, the authors see the disruption that Covid-19 has created as the opportunity for rethinking and reinventing teacher preparation, as well as education itself. Many of the lessons and discussion points are relevant to educators irrespective of the level. 

Bozkurt, A., & Sharma, R. C. (2020). Education in normal, new normal, and next normal: Observations from the past, insights from the present and projections for the future. Asian Journal of Distance Education15(2), i-x. Available at

This article, the second appearing in the Asian Journal of Distance Education, is an extended editorial published right at the end of 2020. Therefore, it benefits from greater time to critically reflect on the highs and lows of the Covid-19 journey, and key lessons emerging over the year. The authors suggest that the pandemic was more than a crisis; it has been a global wake-up call to rethink and change our paradigms and how we perceive and engage with the world. Arguably, the definition of normal has been stretched and redefined over the course of 2020. More to the point, if we wish to stretch our thinking even further to take further advantage of the “great reset”, now is the time to ask what is past?, what is present?, and what is next? Importantly, the authors acknowledge there may be negative consequences arising from the next normal, including a growing human and digital divide between half the world on the cutting edge of technology, while everyone else is left to struggle on the bare edge with only digital crumbs to survive. This uncomfortable reality raises big questions about the future of globalisation and the emergence of deglobalisaton as it relates to education. The paper also invites readers to grapple with questions concerning ethics, privacy and surveillance, as well as the role of the openness movement and renewed emphasis on the so-called pedagogy of care and empathy. In terms of the latter, however, there is a disconnect in the way Emotion, and related constructs, are being defined in contrast to pre-existing literature. Overall, this is a creative and highly readable article, which serves to remind us that discussions about the future of higher education, and the role and impact of new digital technologies, inherently raise much bigger questions about the type of good society we want to create (or not) for the future. 

Peters, M. et, al. (2020) Reimagining the new pedagogical possibilities for universities post-Covid-19. Educational Philosophy and Theory. Available at

The final article rounding out our top 10 good reads comes from an impressive team of authors with different backgrounds and disciplinary roots. They present a collection of short think pieces which individually and when taken together serve to help reimagine new pedagogical possibilities for new times. Although not everything is likely to be to your taste, the collection continues the discussion about normality, drawing on an historical perspective to reflect on ruptures to the old normal of education in efforts to adequately respond to the Covid-19 crisis. Part of the central thesis is that “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality”. The collection offers both a depth and breadth of political, philosophical, sociological and interdisciplinary thinking about the future of education, which is often missing from the field of digital learning and should not be taken lightly. It is difficult to briefly summarise the collection, particularly given the wide range of viewpoints and because as Rizvi and Peters (2020) acknowledge, the paper is three times longer than a normal academic article and it speaks to a different genre. For this reason, take your time reading each piece as the pandemic is far from over and the big questions are not going away in the near future. In between each article, you may wish to explore another collection of high-profile scholars reflecting on lessons from the Covid-19 crisis in a special issue of Prospects: Comparative Journal of Curriculum, Learning, and AssessmentThis collection might be more to your taste with very good short opinion pieces from the likes of Professor Michael Fullan, Sir John Daniel, and the late Sir Ken Robinson.  

And finally…

At the risk of self-promotion, this extra read, written by several members of the NIDL team, stretches futures thinking to the year 2050.  It adopts a somewhat novel methodology of speculative fiction to present a darker side to life and education after the pandemic. Our only excuse for this line of thinking is that the article was written at a time when we were all grappling with the challenges and new realities of living and learning through the Covid-19 crisis. Enjoy!

Costello, E., Brown, M., Donlon, E., & Girme, P. (2020). The pandemic will not be on zoom: A retrospective from the year 2050. Postdigital Science and Education, 2 (3),  Available at