This blog was kindly contributed by Brett Koenig, Senior Lecturer in Law at De Montfort University.
The use of learning technology as an attempt to supplement traditional teaching methods has been on the rise in higher education for the last decade and has been in existence for centuries. Technological developments were always on the horizon for higher education but have been fast tracked as a consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic. The online learning sector is predicted to be a global market worth upwards of £140 billion by the year 2024.
While changes should usually come about in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way, the pandemic has forced overnight changes onto education. We need to ensure that the experience is student-centred rather than entirely focused on the technology itself. Although the means of delivery have changed, the principles should not. The science is clear that the most productive environments are where students are fundamentally involved in the community.
The principles that are true of face-to-face learning remain in play in this online context. Whether delivering face-to-face or online or through a blended format, we have to provide a framework in which the curricula enable all students to gain the skills and knowledge necessary. The shift has been a learning curve but the value is still in providing flexible information resources, student interaction through groups and flexible assessment methods. The focus should not be on the technology itself but on the diversity of learners so we can develop truly inclusive teaching practices. By remaining focussed on these ideals, we will develop expertise in our students who will become more focussed and motivated.
Prior to the pandemic, the online domain often served as a storage facility for soft-copy course materials. As a result of moving online we are now more aware that this space can be used to engage and supplement the learning environment. Clearly, we do not want students to attend online teaching and just sit and look at a blank screen, so there has been an active attempt to make use of videos, online polls, quizzes and interactive media. There is no reason that these aspects should not remain in the months that lie ahead of the pandemic. There may previously have been a view that by merely turning up in person that students were engaged. The pandemic has magnified the fact that engagement and physically being present are not synonymous. I believe the pandemic has forced educators to really consider what engagement means and to be confident that it does, in fact, take place.
The majority of students have mixed understanding of what to expect from higher education before their journeys begin. Indeed, studies have shown that the workload and need to exercise independent learning is a fairly alien concept. However, we are in an era of a more student-centred approach. Ultimately, expectations are important. If it is true that students have improbable notions of what university entails then institutions can act to manage these before they get away. But it is a two-way street, and the student can serve to help in the design of modules and programmes. A number of studies point to the success that expectations can have on participation. I believe the shift to online teaching and learning has increased the need to view students as a factor in the equation and this can only be a good thing. Students should be active learners who help to participate in their own learning.
We now have scope to consider how we can develop courses to maximise the benefits of online learning. Research suggest that students want to retain elements of online delivery. Can we use the online virtual learning environments (VLEs) to provide curricula that can be consumed independently and reserve the face-to-face format for more interactive and engaging tasks?
The move to online teaching has also changed methods of feedback and assessment. Reflecting on Law as a discipline, there is room to improve by offering feedback as a more continuous feature of the process. The benefits of formative assessment are demonstrable and do not have to be overly onerous on educators. A simple recorded comment on an advocacy submission, a line or two on an ungraded section of legal letter writing can make all the difference. There still tends to be a focus on the whole. The methodology adopted should allow students to submit drafts in sections formatively allowing quick live feedback (as would happen in practice). By adopting a more interactive and engaging style students become engrained in the process and must act assertively to improve the next formative assessment.
It is clear to me that there has been more active thought about student engagement and participation because we have moved online. The key now is to keep that at the forefront of our minds and not revert back to old methods. The future of teaching and learning will need to be a blended approach that boasts the best of both online and face-to-face.