IN this part of the world, it seems we are finally rounding the corner on the Covid-19 pandemic and the many public health measures associated with it.
Things may not be returning to exactly as they were before but many businesses and services are beginning to re-open – albeit with some restrictions still in place – and many more are poised to follow.
Among these, are the country’s third level campuses, which have been closed to the majority of their students since March of last year. While the campuses have remained closed, however, learning has continued, thanks to what has generally been referred to as “Emergency Remote Teaching” (ERT): typically a range of online approaches for teaching and learning that would otherwise have taken place in a traditional face-to-face format.
Not everyone is a fan of ERT. Some commentators have, right from the start, taken a rather dim view of it, focusing not on what it can do but on the things it can’t, or on the essential differences between teaching online and teaching “in-person”. Those of us working in the online learning field have also often been keen to point ways in which ERT falls short of “proper” online learning which, we insist, is much better planned and supported.
Such criticism can often blind us to the fact that ERT, for all its faults and imperfections, has achieved something quite remarkable.
Perhaps it wasn’t the most sophisticated or advanced form of online learning, but it kept the show on the road and, unlike previous developments in the field of ed-tech, it was a revolution in which more or less everyone took part.
This, in the end, was and is, arguably, the most unprecedented and radical aspect of ERT: it included everyone. It wasn’t limited to the enthusiastic few or to areas that seemed best suited to the latest ed-tech trend or platform. All teaching became part of a global move to the online environment, all third level lecturers became online lecturers. What is sometimes called the “great onlining”, in other words, was great not in the sense of being necessarily top rate or really really good but in the sense of having global scale.
What will be the lasting implications of this kind of inclusivity and scale? Most third level teaching staff, for one thing, will emerge from this period with a repertoire of new – and often hard-won – skills. Many will not only have developed collections of reusable digital learning materials but will also have figured out new techniques and approaches for teaching their subjects online. Staff and students alike have, in addition, had an extended experience of teaching and learning at a distance – and in many cases it was actually quite a good experience.
In May this year, we surveyed staff and students in the Munster Technological University about their experiences of ERT. Some 1,703 students and 381 teaching staff responded (samples sufficiently large to provide generalisable findings for both populations).
Many of the findings are interesting both in terms of thinking about the likely legacy of ERT and in counterbalancing some of the negative press it has received. A large majority of students and staff, for example - 71.3% and 80.1%, respectively - indicate they felt ERT had clear benefits. There was also a notable cross-over in many of the benefits both groups wanted to see carried forward from this period, with respect to things like flexibility, time saved on travel, working or studying from home, being able to have lectures recorded and having the opportunity to improve digital skills.
Neither group, as it turned out, were universally in favour of a return to traditional “pre-Covid” modes of on-campus teaching and learning.
In fact, only 26.5% of students and 20.8% of staff made it their first choice for when campuses reopen, preferring instead a varying mix of online and face-to-face modes or approaches.
Such results give the lie to the assumption that all of us working in higher education just want to get back to the way things were and have always been, or the impression that ERT was universally reviled by everyone who was obliged to go along with it. But that’s actually good news. We may after all need some version of emergency remote teaching again. There may, unfortunately, be other public health emergencies, other crises or other reasons to close campuses on a local or more global scale. On that basis alone, continued reflection and research with respect to experiences of ERT must really be viewed as essential work.
But experiences of ERT in all its many guises should also open the way for bigger and more inclusive conversations about the future of higher education. Conversations about how learning happens, how learners can best be supported and the best ways in which digital and online can help. We don’t have to choose between online and traditional teaching either. We can look to see what works best, based on whatever it is we’re trying to achieve. We can offer more flexibility. We can look to see where digital and online bring value and solve problems. Best of all, now that our campuses are reopening, we can choose.