Online Education: How can we get the next phase right?
Posted on November 8th, 2020

Dr. Gamini Padmaperuma

Background

Online Learning has become a household term and is fast becoming a way of life. Schoolchildren and students from state and non-state higher educational institutions, and their teachers and lecturers have started experiencing online teaching and learning during the last several months. Although online teaching and learning existed in a limited scale before the onset of Covid-19, a rapid transition to online teaching and learning occurred following the closure of educational institutions owing to the spread of virus. The way and speed with which the educational institutions adapted to and faced the challenges of shifting to online learning are commendable. Higher educational institutions and schools, and private tutors have implemented online teaching and learning with varying success. The general satisfaction level among the students and teachers about online learning appears to be somewhat satisfactory despite certain shortcomings such as internet connection issues and associated costs, lack of suitable digital devices to practise online learning and appropriate learning material, etc.

Definitions and contexts

Online learning can be broadly defined as learning that takes place over the Internet. However, online learning is just one type of distance learning – the ubrell term for any learning that takes place across distance and not in a traditional classroom. Online learning can be used in both distance learning and in face-to-face context. Blended learning uses a mix of online and traditional face-to-face approaches. This however, makes it necessary for the online learning material to be prepared with appropriate design features. It is not effective to use teaching material prepared for face-to-face context in online teaching without modifications as the two contexts are quite different.

Current Situation

The common approaches to online teaching have been to use free videoconferencing software such as Zoom to organize online lecture sessions where the lecturer explains the subject matter using PowerPoint slides or whiteboards. Lecture notes are sent to students electronically in advance to read and come prepared for the Zoom session on a specified date.  During Zoom sessions, the lecturer explains material, solves problems, questions students, answers student queries, etc. In some sessions, video and audio clips are played or sent them for use by students at their leisure.

Notes, hand-outs, etc. prepared for face-to-face teaching may not be attractive to all the online learners. There are different types of learners in any given student cohort. Four primary types of learners are Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing preference and Kinaesthetic. Appropriately designed online lessons shall meet most of these learner types. When particular learning material cannot meet all types learner styles, there shall be other complementary material which can satisfy the unmet styles. Ideally, there shall be different learning material which caters for different types of learners. Attention also needs to be given to learners who have visual, auditory and other impairments.

Some institutions have more structured online courses which are designed and built using Learning Management Systems (LMS) which also enable effective course and programme administration. In other institutions, LMS are used primarily for routine course administration purposes only; uploading assignments, receiving answer scripts, project submissions, conducting surveys, recording online presence, etc.

The above emphasises the importance of appropriate design of instructions to suit online learning. In order to achieve desired learning objectives, the lessons need to be designed using appropriate instructional design strategies and models. Instructions need to be developed with high visual appeal, clearly stated learning outcomes, means for close engagement, availability of feedback on student performance, summaries of core content, appropriate media components, all delivered in small chunks to sustain student attention during the lesson.

While the access to many institutional web servers has been made free by many educational institutions in collaboration with telecom providers, poor internet connections in rural areas, costs associated with general internet access, heavy dependence on mobile phones (with attendant limitations) for online learning due to lack of better devices such as tabs or laptops have not made online learning a pleasant experience to a significant portion of learners.

Actions to get the next phase right

Now that the first phase of online learning has passed, what comes next? Following are a few specific actions that universities and other educational institutions could take to help improve student learning, engagement, and experience while operating remotely.

These moves may inspire institutions to pilot new initiatives, learn what works, iterate, and position themselves to create capabilities that will enhance instruction permanently. However, the educational institutions may not be able to handle all of them alone. Due organizational, professional and financial support need to be provided by the government, public and private sector corporations, non-governmental organizations, professional institutions, philanthropists, specialists, consultants, alumni, etc.

Focus on access and equity: Moving from on-campus to remote learning raises issues related to access and equity. There are the immediate logistical challenges of ensuring students have the basic technology they need to learn remotely. Some possible actions include: offer stipends for internet access and laptop rentals or purchases. Provision of loaned equipment and hot spots for internet access to under-resourced students.

Consideration also needs to be given to effects on mental health and stress created by the epidemic, and also to mitigate the additional difficulties encountered by physically impaired learners due to shifting to online education, e.g. provision of recorded lessons with captions, etc.

Support faculty: Most academics are working hard to respond creatively to teach their students to the same standards. What methods work best in a remote environment will differ by discipline and the technology available. There are a few broad ways that institutions can help.

  • Offer more teaching support. Many institutions have centres that offer support to faculty in their teaching; these should be scaled up and shift their orientation to support the academics in design and development of online learning material and learning environments.
  • Use social media and online forums to share best practices. Highlighting and explaining successful remote-teaching practices during faculty meetings can cultivate a sense of camaraderie, as well as a culture of sharing and improving.
  • Set up a structure for the faculty to get regular feedback on their teaching. Two sources are: student surveys and engagement data derived from LMS. These surveys should be used not to judge professors, but to give them information on how students are responding and where they can improve. Survey results can also give administrators a sense of where they might need to intervene to support student learning.
  • Create online ‘student centres’.  As institutions move to remote learning, they can think about how to use existing tools to move in-person gatherings online and open up spaces for discussions, events, wellness classes, study groups and online tutoring. This is to offer virtual spaces in lieu of physical ones to enable the university community to continue to connect.
  • Activate stakeholders.  One way to start is by identifying and activating tech-savvy students and staff to coach faculty and other students to use online tools. Another possibility is to ask alumni and community members to provide remote mentorship and coaching to support students with remote learning, career discussions, and virtual internships.  
  • Invest in cybersecurity to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning.  This is to ensure security and data privacy while enabling teaching and learning to go on.

Summary                                                                                                    

Often with limited experience and training, our educational institutions have hurriedly shifted to online learning and teaching. Many have done so in an exemplary manner; others have not been as successful, at least so far. This can provide institutions with an opportunity to experiment and innovate. Universities may find that they have a new remote-learning capability that can be integrated with on-campus instruction, to everyone’s benefit, when this crisis has passed. This added online education capability can directly assist the government in meeting its commitment to increase the intakes to universities and provide access to higher education to all who qualify.

Author:

Dr. Gamini Padmaperuma, a Fellow Member of IESL and a former Senior Lecturer at OUSL, holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury, NZ. His PhD thesis was on Instructional Design for Computer-Based Learning. email: gamini_pad@hotmail.com

2 Responses to “Online Education: How can we get the next phase right?”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    Thank you Dr Padmaperuma.

    A very positive and encouraging article on Online Education especially in relation to Sri Lanka our Motherland. It is continuous encouragement and recognition of successes that will spur all stakholders to do more.

    Sri Lanka is currently well connected on the phone systems. However the Government should work to improve Internet facilities even further – the speeds, bandwidth and the cost of internet services.

    With a President who is digital savvy I am confident the necessary groundwork will progress as per his vision – Visions of Prosperity!

  2. Nimal Says:

    As a team member that developed the initial digital transmission and protocol where our team changed the old mechanical Strouger system to the first digital PCM system where the combine speed of 32 channels were mere 2048 bits per second since then they developed system routers and regenerators that combined cities where the speed between the nodes were excess of 1000GBs.I support the involvement of digital technology many aspect of our lives where in the process I get thousands every year from the dividends of the shares of the company I worked all my life.It made us very rich as well but I don’t agree with the article above.
    Few of us who were involved hated what we have unleashed and all of us only carry the basic cell phone.It is sad the system is capable of intruding very much into our personal lives, our thinking, sadly emerging the new culture is not to the benefit of most people. Things will get even bad for Sri Lanka and here is the reason.
    At the age of 15 I got on well with foreigners, growing up with burghers helped me a lot to think out of the box was able to get on very well with the foreigners where my INTERPERSONAL SKILLS WERE ABOVE AVERAGE TO A SRI LANKAN OF MY AGE, whereby I had not only foreigners as my friends but many foreign girl friends, just in Kandy alone, was the envy of my friends in Trinity. I had no time to teach them due to their strong influences of their traditional families. To get on with a such a girl one must have the art of singing the latestEnglish songs that are going at that time, must be fond of dancing the western way like the Jive and rock ‘ n roll etc.Art of giving a girl a birth day card and even flowers,etc.
    Since I was pushed out of the country of my birth, came to UK where we foreigners were not welcomed with open arms. Within a week I found job as a cleaner in a flour mill but with my little skill in mechanical and electrical work managed to get the machines to work where they were deliberately put out of action at the night shift,the shift I worked.Workers used to enjoy doing no work at all just sipping tea whole night thus putting that company into financial ruin. I could not bare to see the downfall and took it on my self to put the machines right and announced at the canteen that all the flour milling machines are working and they could get back to work. They were furious and called me names but I stood my ground and said that likes of us ran their British Empire where the sun never set.Next morning the top management all came before we broke off the night shift accompanied by the mouthy union man and the head mechanic/electrician.They were shouting at me for startingup the massive 3 phase motor that powered the entire factory’s machines over 5 floors. They were berating about me breaking the health and saftyregulations by powering up the massive electric motor that is powered by 415V supply.But I explained that I know something about electricity and I proved it to them in front of all the directors of the company(that had 8 such factories and over 120 tea restaurants nation wide).To prove my capability and knowledge I touched the live 415V electric supply with my bare hands without killing my self.They were truly stunned and I was urged to attend the technical college about flour milling and went through the 4 year course in two months and I was put in charge of the night shift and overnight their attitude changed as I got the production going,making enough money to give every one Sunday work to clean the entire building and machines of flour dust that is lethal, that could cause a dust explosion. More than the men their wives were very happy that I made a business reason for the company to give double money for 12 hours work on a Sunday.I was well respected and was nicknamed the man from the Empire but sadly I had to leave that job to enter the university and soon after the entire factory was shut down along with the rest as the work ethics were crumbling due to the emerging welfare state.
    Point I am making here is our social interpersonal skills were very low in 1950s due to our cultural restrains where we hardly associated with one another, only during school times But with the incoming digital age working and studying from home putting the population detached from on another which they will severely pay a price in future. It is a strange co incidence while I was writing this a young couple,both doctors from India came to my hotel before they took up job in a hospital but now they are going back as they could not socially and other wise fit in.
    With their cultural ,background where one must have good interpersonal skills will never have effective control over the people below you. Since I was brought up with them I could deal with the worse lot which I have done.
    If learning or working from home is going to be the norm then one gets no chance to personally interact with one another and crudely speaking one must touch(appropriately),even taste if needed like a kiss,play and do ,team work which should together physically, other wise there would not be any fulfilment in life.I know many of engineering colleagues met their friend and partners for life in work place and other places of social gatherings out side their homes.
    We also must protect our young from the notorious intrusions from the internet that would intrude and influence the young minds even though we may have the best antivirus, the best spyware and malware that could be easily bypassed to get into an innocent student. Internet could be used in a malicious manner that had resulted in the recent terrorist incidents. Hope I get some useful points to the readers and I am not at all against the progress in science.
    I am too busy to recheck this, please forgive any grammatical mistakes as most of my letter writing is done by a paid professional.

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