Spotlight on Continuity Plans: Renewed Focus on Online Education

The outbreak of the Coronavirus has placed renewed attention on the value and potential of online education, particularly in terms of planning to keep teaching to campus-based students. In this regard, there is increasing reason to believe that online education is about to go mainstream.

In China, for example, with the opening of schools pushed back to March, millions of students have been asked to go online to continue their study. Accordingly, it’s estimated that China’s online education market is expected to more than triple by 2023 to a value of around $100 billion (Forbes, 2020). While there is a long history of distance learning, with more recently the MOOC movement having established itself as an evolving feature of the global higher education landscape, the focus is now on how to harness the potential of online education to fully support campus-based students should the need arise. Indeed, on Friday Stanford University announced that from Monday March 9th classes will not meet in person and where feasible teaching will be moving to online formats.

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With the situation in most countries evolving on a daily basis, it’s important to plan for different scenarios. In Ireland, for example, most universities already have plans in place should they be needed to offer online classes and exams in case of campus closures (Irish Times, 3rd March 2020). This is certainly the case at Dublin City University (DCU) where through Loop and the DCU Connected platform we have a long history of online education.

photo-1513492365349-8ba97c199501.jpegBeyond Ireland, there is evidence from around the world to suggest that over recent weeks universities and educational institutions have been reviewing and updating their business continuity plans,. From a brief analysis of many leading university websites along with a published table of related continuity plans, it would appear that some institutions are better prepared than others. With this observation in mind, the examples below from five U.S. universities help to illustrate the different types of things to consider in terms of quickly scaling up for online education. They offer examples of how best to support people and present key information in order to keep teaching if campus access is restricted. 

As already observed, the level of preparedness and type of information available to staff and students appears to vary greatly across universities. Therefore, the following guiding principles may be useful in helping to update your own institution’s Continuity Plan and in deciding what key messages and types of information you wish to communicate to your staff, students and wider community:

    • Plan ahead for all scenarios
    • Ensure everyone is plugged in
    • Prioritise to cover the essentials
    • Focus on already familiar online tools
    • Offer both self-directed and real time options
    • Promote awareness of open educational resources
    • Keep it simple but don’t be afraid to go a bit further
    • Ensure people know where to reach out for help
    • Build an online community to share good practice
    • Manage expectations and keep your students informed

Coincidently, later in the month the #OpenTeach project team in the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) at DCU is offering a free online course for anyone wanting to learn more about how to teach online. The #Openteach course which takes approximately 10 hours to complete starts on March 23rd and continues through to the start of April. 1OpenTeach.jpgThe course aims to:

#1. Demonstrate awareness of teaching and learning pedagogy associated with online learning.
#2. Facilitate online communication and discussion forums that engage
students in learning.
#3. Create a supportive community of learners using online teaching
pedagogy.
#4. Develop and facilitate online collaborative activities that support
student learning.
#5. Design online teaching activities that encourage student
participation and learning and reflect on personal learning from this
activity.
#6. Use digital tools effectively to support online teaching.

You can register here to sign up for this free online course. If you want some reading before the course starts, then we suggest you download and familiarise yourself with our recent report which offers useful tips and suggestions for effective online teaching and learning.

Finally, online learning is not restricted to just students and with many educational conferences scheduled over the next few weeks and months, this draft workbook on how to successfully host an online academic conference in the backdrop of the Coronavirus may be useful. Already a number of high profile events have been cancelled, including the ASCD conference and American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference which both typically attract upwards of 10,000 delegates. Currently online options are being explored to ensure virtual conversations and meaningful professional dialogue can continue.

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The upside, as some educators have begun to speculate, is that these revised plans and cancellations in the face of the current health situation may be the “black swan” for online education. Indeed, they may well spark a boom that no one could have foreseen or predicted as recently as the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning that DCU hosted in November 2019 in Dublin.

Teaching Online is Different Seminar

On the 27th of January the #Openteach project team in the NIDL led by Dr Orna Farrell hosted a seminar about teaching online. This seminar was funded by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

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The aim of the seminar was to explore effective online teaching practice and how to support the professional development of online educators. The seminar featured two very interesting guest speakers: Professor Elena Barbera from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, and Dr Helen Coker from Queen Margaret University Edinburgh.

Time in online education

Online 3Professor Barbera spoke about her research on the role time plays in online education. She outlined her ideas about the online time paradox: that students enrol in online courses because they don’t have enough time to go to a campus based course, but the remaining  time that the student has to study is low quality, and they may end of up dropping out due to to the lack of time they had to begin with.

Barbera described how this consideration of time is woven throughout their approach to online education at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.

Online 4

Being an online lecturer

Online 5Dr Helen Coker’s talk focused on her journal article “Purpose, Pedagogy and Philosophy: “Being” an Online Lecturer”published in IRRODL. Coker’s study took an ethnographic approach to exploring  the lived experiences of online educators. She identified three approaches to online teaching practice: knowledge, affect, and dialogue, as illustrated below.

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These three approaches were found to be mutually constituting, one could be brought into focus but the rest were still there.

Social presence: Scenario 1 of #Openteach 

Online 8The final part of the workshop was an interactive session on social presence facilitated by the #Openteach project team. The aim of this session was to pilot the first scenario from the #Openteach short online course.

Participants were presented with a scenario  related to the topic of social presence in online teaching and worked through a scaffolded activity designed to prompt discussion about approaches to establishing and maintaining presence online.

Join #Openteach

Online 2If you are interested in taking part in the #Openteach short online course about teaching online which will run from the 23rd of March to the 3rd of April 2019 and will take approximately 10 hours to complete. The course is open to anyone with an interest in online teaching. You can register your interest https://openteach.ie/join-openteach/ or email orna.farrell@dcu.ie for more information.

Final thoughts

Overall the seminar was well received by participants, and was a good opportunity to open up dialogue and discussion about teaching online in Irish higher education. All of the resources from the seminar are available from the #Openteach website:

https://openteach.ie/