The 49 research interviews asked:
a) What was their initial response to the challenges thrown up by Covid 19?
b) What are their concerns going into the new academic year?
Moving online - baptism by fire
The academics we interviewed confirmed that moving to teach online was a baptism by fire for many, with over half of those we spoke to in our initial interviews admitting that they lacked expertise and confidence in teaching online.
That said, many felt they had built confidence in this short space of time through a mixture of colleague support and training.
Throughout the conversations, 3 key themes came to the forefront: Access, Assessment and Engagement
Wifi and hardware issues...just the tip of the iceberg
Many of the academics raised concerns about their students struggling to learn online due to access issues.
Several surveys have highlighted this challenge, including an NUS survey of 9872 respondents in April 2020 that found 20% of students were unable to access online learning adequately.
The Sutton Trust surveyed 895 students via YouthSight in the same month and found that 5% of respondents did not have sufficient internet access, but that the bigger issue was the lack of access to a suitable study space with 23% reporting this as an issue.
Our discussions with academics largely supported these findings. Respondents mentioned student challenges with poor wifi with many family members clamouring to use the same laptop.
Other students had told their tutors they were struggling to find somewhere quiet to concentrate in busy family homes. The list of challenges discussed in our interviews was broad, including caring responsibilities, overseas download restrictions, time differences and problems with student finances. The breadth of issues suggests there is a sizable challenge ahead and more to learn about this complex access picture.
While academics are conscious of the flexible learning provision needed, they would benefit from university wide direction about how to adapt their provision.
Moving assessments online; an opportunity to reimagine how to test knowledge and skills?
Most of the participants moved their exams online and many became open book, with a split between those than ran stricter timed online exams of between 3 and 5 hours, and those than gave 24 hours or more (sometimes up to 7 days) to complete them.
A handful of educators were positive about the changes enforced by Covid 19 as they were already moving away from the traditional exam model. This echoes recent conversations we’ve had with educators looking to move to a more authentic assessment strategy.
Several of the interview participants talked about the crisis as an opportunity to reimagine how they assess skills and capabilities. If universities decide to simply move their current exams online, could they miss the chance to change assessment for the better?
Do open book exams favour some students over others?
The main concerns raised by participants were around the security of assessments, and the practical challenges that ensue from running assessments online.
Where exams were cancelled and replaced with reports or essays, there were concerns voiced about the lack of rigor compared to an exam. There was a strong desire among academics to ensure that the assessments are fair, not only for those struggling with access issues, but also for those who have put in a lot of work over the year, and deserve the opportunity to differentiate themselves from others through assessment. There was some skepticism about whether this is possible in a 3 or 4 day open book exam.
Exam stress not limited to learners
Participants were aware of the stress that exams induce in students, but interestingly talked about the exams being a high stress situation for academics too, concerned about how they will work online, whether the technology will work, and whether they are secure.
Many had concerns about the lack of visibility of students online and how they can ensure that students are ‘present’ during online teaching.
In a physical classroom you notice when someone is playing on their phone during a seminar or not taking any notes, or when someone is taking pages of notes but still looking confused. Online, the signs are often less obvious.
One academic described online learning progress as a kind of ‘black box’, clearly frustrated by a lack of direct interaction and feedback from students.
Thinking ahead to September, academics raised concern about the level of virtual interaction between new students who have never met before and therefore may be even more hesitant to speak out.
Managing emotions with emojis
Some of the participants acknowledged the subtleties of teaching online. If you are responding to a student comment or question in person, you can more easily gauge the response and check whether the student has taken it as a criticism. Can comments made online be taken to heart more easily? One academic mentioned that he had started using emoticons online to help counter that response.
There was some frustration about a lack of analytics around student engagement. Academics know online engagement is not what it should be, but many don’t have the technology in place to show the breakdown of where those problems are – which students, which modules and which types of interactions are lacking. Without this data it’s harder to plan interventions and harder to create a convincing business case for investment.
To conclude, when talking to the academics there was a sense that real progress had been made over the last 4 months, both in moving things online and in upskilling themselves under intense time pressure. However, there was also a clear desire to enhance teaching online next semester and move from just ‘getting things online’ to a higher standard of online delivery.
Thank you to everyone who took part in these research interviews. They were pivotal in helping us decide which products and services we should adapt and develop to help universities deliver flexible learning provision in September. For more information about how we can help you avoid the ‘black box’ of online learning progress among other things, see Learning without Limits