Dual” online teaching at the time of COVID and beyond

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Joseph Weiler‘s timely and thoughtful contribution will certainly ignite a debate on online teaching during and beyond the pandemic. Covid 19 has hit almost everyone and everything, sometimes brutally. Universities have not been spared. But they have rapidly reacted and adjusted their business to the new environment. They have managed to replace or integrate face-to-face teaching with online teaching, most of the time turning problems into challenges.

Now that an emergency plan has been put in place and Universities are able to function, it is time for a broad and deep reflection. It is safe to assume that, at least for the time being, face-to-face teaching remains the optimal educational format and should continue to be the core business of Universities. Yet, online teaching is the future and the pandemic has simply accelerated a process already well underway. Gleider Hernández and Evelyne Schmid reminds us that “teaching remotely or using digital technology represent a new frontier”.

The challenge ahead is not merely to change the means through which higher education is supplied. It would be a mistake simply to reproduce as much as possible the face-to-face teaching. We need to take a fresh look at the way we will teach in a learning environment that is significantly different and requires a new mindset, new skills and new ideas.

In my opinion, recorded lectures, even if embellished with some parallel and attractive activities (such as a forum), can hardly offer a fully satisfactory option. Without interaction, the lecture would probably be reduced to additional materials provided in a different format. The added value risks to be very limited due to the wealth of materials, including traditional textbooks, literature, blogs, and of course videos already available on the market or online. 

If teaching has to be online, then it must be interactive, which means live. Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, in Cambridge, reminds us that “learning is a social act”. We have to fully exploit the potentialities of online teaching and enhance students’ participation beyond traditional oral questions.

There is plenty of good news. Technology provides different channels and modalities for inciting interaction between students and between them and teachers. There is room for creativity and each teacher should continue to develop his or her personal teaching style. The exchange of ideas and best practices has never been so rapid and efficient as today. From this perspective, the ESIL Teaching Corner is an important hub for the dissemination and discussion of examples and good practice, with a view to enhancing the sentiment of belonging to and the solidarity within our community, as explained by Gleider Hernández and Evelyne Schmid.

Joseph Weiler has already indicated how teaching may evolve to adapt itself to the changed environment. His very extensive and liberal use of discussion rooms is intriguing and promising in terms of students’ engagement. Remarkably, it works in a class of 117 students.    

Other techniques may help rescuing teaching from online alienation. One possible development is what we could call “dual teaching” being delivered by a teacher and an assistant on the basis of a clear labour division. The basic assumption beyond this proposal is that the teacher alone can hardly fully exploit the potential of online teaching.

The teacher will give the lecture and try to get the students as much involved as possible through oral questions and comments. Students’ engagement, however, may prove difficult, especially in large groups, as raising a question through the medium of a screen remains, at least for the time being, rather unnatural and far too impersonal. The almost complete elimination of body language clearly does not help.

The assistant will be in charge of the channels of communication that can be activated online. They include obviously the possibility offered to students to make comments and raise questions through the chat function. This may be particularly effective as students may be less reluctant to ask questions in writing than orally, especially in large classes. The assistant will collect, filter and group such comments and questions, which can be shown on the screen shared with the students. If appropriate students may be invited to answer to those questions or react to those comments, either orally or again through the chat function.

The assistant can also stimulate other forms of participation and interaction by students. He or she could regularly test to what extent students are following the lecture. This could be done by asking them to express how comfortable they feel with the content and the pace of the lecture. They can also be invited to answer quick questions (for instance yes-no questions, or simple multiple-choice questions). Another option would be to invite students to express their position with regard to a certain issue or judicial decision through polls. The exercise can be repeated during the lecture to detect possible changes in the students’ orientation.  

In a more advanced form of interaction, students could be invited to provide a concise answer to a specific problem or issue. Their reflection may of course take place in discussion rooms duly managed by the assistant. Each group could submit a short proposition, orally or even in written form. In the second case, the assistant could format and process the propositions and make them suitable for a discussion.

The above examples are just a possible combination – amongst many – of different traditional and online techniques. The essence of the method is the additional and important role played by the assistant, who ensures the full exploitation of the potential offered by online technology, while allowing the smooth flow of the lecture which is indispensable to maintain an adequate level of attention. The advantage is evident: students will benefit from different forms of participation and be given real opportunities to develop their capacity to think, react, and interact quickly, thus creating a dynamic and vibrant learning space.

In order to work properly, this method must satisfy two main conditions. First, teacher and assistant must coordinate and integrate their roles in a single enterprise. They must learn how to manage time and how each other activities fit and are synchronised in the allocated time. The teacher remains the main host and directs everything, including the pauses to the lecture that may be necessary to interact online, either individually or within discussion groups. The assistant immediately conveys the instructions from the teacher into the appropriate channel and receives the inputs of students in the form of questions, comments, responses and so on. The exercise must not become mechanically or be put in a straitjacket. Quite the contrary, the task is to be as flexible and reactive as possible, with a view to understanding the needs and interests of students as well as triggering and trying to satisfy their intellectual curiosity.   

Second, from the standpoint of students, the method requires a good deal of discipline. Questions, comments and reactions must be concise and to the point as they need to be efficiently and timely collected and processed by the assistant. Students must also develop the capacity, whenever necessary, to simultaneously follow the lecture and take advantage of all forms of interaction. No doubt that both exercises may be useful also in a professional perspective.

Such “dual” approach may be applied not only to purely online teaching or dual modal teaching (simultaneous face-to-face and online teaching), but also to traditional face-to-face teaching. After all, why should we keep the different forms of online interactions outside the classroom?

Obviously, the “dual” approach has important human resources and financial implications. Most Heads of School would probably jump on their chairs when prospected with the idea of providing the presence of assistants in each module. With all due caution, however, the idea may deserve to be considered with an open mind and possibly be tested in some pilot classes. It may turn out that the allocation of additional resources may be fully justified by the enhanced learning experience.

Furthermore, the costs of the operation may be covered, at least in part, by the recruitment opportunities offered by the online format of teaching and the diversification of the learning offer. Importantly, we should not forget that online teaching has a potentially huge democratic effect. It offers unprecedented opportunities to categories that have been traditionally excluded or marginalised from higher education for different reasons, including lack of financial resources and professional or personal commitments.     

Be that as it may, we definitely need a serious debate about online teaching. Only interactivity can preserve teachers’ capacity to adapt their lectures to the needs of students by clarifying, reiterating or elaborating as appropriate. Because the raison d’être of a lecture is the creation of occasions for intellectual growth. 

What is at stake is not only the survival of teachers (perhaps more than that of Universities themselves), but also and above all the education of our students. This is why students must be fully involved in the debate.

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