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On challenges and opportunities: Emergency remote teaching

The social distancing measures imposed by various governments in their attempt to contain the spread of the new Coronavirus have forced many schools and universities across the globe to halt face to face classes and switch to online education.

In theory, it all sounds great! Learning processes go on, students finish the degrees on time and faculty receive their salaries.

But practice comes with its challenges. Moving everything online hastily is not as rosy as one might think. Most educational institutions were not prepared for this crisis. A significant number of students, educators, and school and university administrators were caught off guard by the restricting measures caused by the pandemic. Online education is a completely new experience for many teachers and students.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, and every challenge is an opportunity in disguise.

The challenge: Move all learning activities online at lightning speed

In the context of the global public health threat, many educational institutions turned to online learning environments as the only way of ensuring the continuity of education during these times of crisis.

Promoters of online education have touted their horns about the advantages it brings and the great results it can have. Online learning programs cand be of very high quality, especially in the case of Higher Education, but there’s a catch: time. It takes time to plan, design, implement and refine such a program; estimates vary between a few months and more than a year.

By contrast, most educators who have been tasked to move all learning activities online had a matter of days (or maybe a few weeks) at their disposal. What’s more, online education is a completely new experience for many teachers and students and an easy adjustment to it is anything but sudden. Time is a luxury commodity these days.

With such a narrow preparation window, we can’t expect teachers to become online teaching experts overnight. They can’t possibly design the best online learning experiences for their students in such a short time and without a robust support system in place (course design support, targeted PD opportunities, LMS or other edtech training and support, etc.).

The abrupt migration to online learning practices requires creative problem-solving.

The solution: Emergency remote teaching

In times of crisis, educators must improvise quick solutions even though circumstances are less than ideal. All online learning activities that are designed and offered in response to the current crisis are not exactly the same as those of a well-planned online learning program; the careful design process of the latter is missing. But they do have a name: emergency remote teaching.

Emergency remote teaching is a shift in instructional delivery that provides temporary access to education in a quick (and reliable) way. It may not be perfect, but students are resilient, faculty are resourceful, and everyone has to make the most of what they got.

In fairness, most professors mean well and try to do their best in adjusting to the online medium, but the high volatility of migrating teaching online is not for everyone. It’s true, some do learn how to swim when they are thrown into the pool, but others prefer guidance from a certified swimming instructor.

I must confess, I am a mix of both, in the sense that I prefer to learn from an instructor, but I somehow manage to tolerate the inherent frustration of this unexpected situation and try to find solutions. They may not be the best ones, but I am not afraid to ask for help and I am willing to learn new things and try new ideas.

When proper training for online teaching is not available in due time, faculty try to adapt to these circumstances as best as they can, using their previous experiences with technology. For years, university instructors have been using at least their email if not a learning management system to send reading materials to their students, so now they improvise some kind of asynchronous teaching with the help of edtech.

Read more: Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning

But teaching is more than sharing reading materials to students. Interaction and feedback are also important. Teachers use their email to answer students’ inquiries, but this strategy is very time-consuming (or even impossible) for those who teach hundreds of undergraduates. It might work for small groups (for instance, if you supervise five to ten Ph.D. students), but it’s almost impossible in certain contexts.

In an attempt to organize online synchronous classes many teachers turn to various online tools, such as Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, etc. These solutions might offer some sort of interaction, but classes are difficult to manage if you are not an experienced online facilitator.

The opportunity: Develop coherent digital strategies

All these coping strategies point out the obvious thing: higher education institutions need to come up with coherent digital strategies. From now on, an email and a web-conferencing app are not enough for online teaching and learning. These might do the trick during a crisis, but they cannot be a solution in the long run.

Emergency remote teaching is not synonymous with coordinated online learning. As I was saying, people try to do their best, but without a coherent digital strategy for online education, universities face challenges beyond the current pandemic.

Read more: Campus vs. Online: Where is the future of education located?

It’s high time for each university to design and implement a coherent online education strategy. COVID-19 will eventually become part of our history, but natural disasters of all sorts will continue to happen and who knows with what sort of challenges we’ll have to deal with in the future.

Read more: Why e-learning is key to building disaster-proof education

Having an online education strategy in place, at least as a very well planned Plan B if not as an integrated part of the entire system, will ensure a smoother and better transition to the virtual learning environment next time all that will be a necessity.

A learning management system (LMS) — a tool that was designed for this purpose — will be better than any improvised solution people are using now. Switching to online education is more than sending reading materials and organizing videoconferences. With an LMS, tracking and reporting are automatic and in real-time. What’s more, a teacher can adapt their method on the fly, as they can assess the engagement of each student and see what works and what doesn’t.

Also, an LMS is an effective channel of communication for both students and teachers. You can imagine what it’s like being a student nowadays: it’s essentially keeping up with a myriad of apps that teachers use in their attempt to adapt to online education. But if all communication that is school-related happens in one place, based on specific rules, both students and teachers will have an easier time keeping up with each other and be able to focus better on what they have to do: teach and learn, respectively.

Read more: Top 5 LMS benefits for HE students

Those educators who have been using an LMS at least partially before, now find that they are more proficient in online teaching than they thought. So when the next crisis will force us all to migrate all learning activities online, why shouldn’t all teachers be able to say they know how to grab the horns of that bull?

Final thoughts

The threat of the new virus has come with a set of unprecedented challenges for Higher Education institutions and all its stakeholders — faculty, students and staff. Everyone needs to adapt to all sorts of changes in terms of delivery of instruction and learning. Emergency remote teaching may be just a coping mechanism, but it is a valuable exercise in developing a coherent online education strategy for the future. A challenge is an opportunity in disguise, after all.

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