As the 2021 Fall semester is approaching and we start contemplating whether the pandemic will allow us to go back to face to face teaching, force us to compromise with blended learning or will eventually lead us back to online learning, a lot of HE (higher education) colleagues express their concern that this mode of instruction will dominate higher education institutions in the foreseeable future. Most of them seem to approach the relationship between online and classroom learning as a conflict (Watermeyer et al., 2021), and fear our over-reliance on online learning in fact is heralding the demise of traditional, campus-based education. However, while online learning is a powerful and practical tool that has actually supported higher education gloriously in these unprecedent times, it cannot replace classroom instruction on a traditional campus. It does, nevertheless, demand and deserve a dominant place in higher education because it is a powerful tool.
Let us consider, first, the positive aspects of online learning in the COVID era (and not only). Universities and Colleges were enabled to continue to provide their courses to thousands of students remotely. Consider, for example, the number of International students that could not travel from their home country to any destination and who, without the option of emergency online teaching, would have to completely change their plans during the COVID era. Instead, students were not forced to defer their studies and the HE institutions did not collapse financially because Universities made themselves ‘…..more readily available to those people who will want to enrol’ (Bolton, 2021). In fact, besides the initial hesitations, fears and lack of proper organisation resulting from the unexpected new conditions, a lot seem to agree that no massive disruptions were observed, as Professor Babones admits (Bothwell, 2020). Not negligible is also the fact that while the first semester of the COVID age found perhaps the Universities unprepared, the following year the adjustment seemed to be easier although still experimenting to a certain level with new technologies and techniques (Govindarajan, 2020)that would provide the best options to confront the difficulties arising from digital teaching (ensuring student attendance and engagement, the use of variety of online tools and techniques, building an active digital community, training University staff etc.). Revolutionising higher education globally, as it can now be offered to any student in the world (whether located in a remote place temporarily or permanently), seems to be of pivotal important in the post-COVID teaching in higher education
Interestingly enough, universities might be considered by some to have embraced online teaching because they can cram a lot of students in a Zoom room with one professor and call it education, implying that they can make a lot of money inexpensively. The truth is by far different. Online teaching, although initially compared to a face to face lecture in massive lecture halls with the attendance of hundreds of students simultaneously, and being highly dependent on the passive use of Ppt slides and presentations/lectures, it is actually more offered for developing critical thinking skills, discussions and problem solving as well as project work (Lynney, 2019). These require mainlya lot of group work and the use of breakout rooms. During these activities, monitoring students’ discussions with the aid of google docs, jamboards, etc. is of great importance because it ensures the involvement of the tutor, guidance and error correction. Therefore, it is a matter of utilising powerful technological tools and demanding that students examine problems from multiple angles, evaluate sources, analyse information and write their conclusions coherently. Good online learning is superior to most lecture hall learning because good online learning is active and most lecture hall learning is passive.
University, nevertheless, is not only about learning and attending classes. It is also about the holistic experience of life on campus, about sociability and adaptability (Herman, 2020). It is true, for example, that the face to face interaction cannot be easily replicated. Bonding is definitely easier on campus because students are given the chance to engage, discuss and even argue together. Tutors develop a relationship with students more naturally and effortlessly when face to face. Students make lifelong friends easier, they meet people from diverse parts of the world and communicate better with them when in the same environment. The same happens with tutors who liaise better with other colleagues in this way. Understanding different kinds of people, cultures and even different contexts is significantly more advantaged when forging face-to face bonds. Perhaps, the same thing cannot be argued regarding forming relationships online.
What is more, life on campus teaches students independence. As they move away from their comfort zone – their home and family, accountability for actions is required. Generally speaking, online learning requires great self-discipline and self-motivation. In other words, one must be able to motivate themselves to complete required assignments, as well as reading. Several soft skills must, therefore, be cultivated such as time management and regulating time efficiently. Someone who struggles with keeping pace will subsequently be better in a more traditional setting.
As discussed above, the future is not so black and white anymore – one can easily discern the grey in between. Much ink has already been spilled on the topic and it seems still premature to predict a post-pandemic future as the virus continues to ravage vulnerable populations. Some cautious observations can be attempted about some changing practices of educators which might contribute to a post-pandemic pedagogy. Although, educators and students are anxious to return to in-campus teaching, we seem to be moving towards a hybrid model of learning –online and offline. At some point, it is certain that in-campus teaching will make a comeback. What this whole experience, no matter how suddenly and violently we were drawn to it, has already taught us is that the wealth of options available online have claimed an important place in higher education and they will form an integral part of it in the future.
Bothwell, E. (2020). Coronavirus could be ‘make or break’ for universities’ finances. Times Higher Education.[online]. Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/coronavirus-could-be-make-or-break-universities-finances
Bolton, P. & Hubble, S. (2021).Coronavirus : Financial impact on higher education. U.K. Parliament.Fi[online]. Available at : nancialhttps://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8954/
Govindarajan, V. and Srivastava, A. (2020). What the Shift to Virtual Learning Could Mean for the Future of Higher Ed. Harvard Business review.[online]. Available at :https://hbr.org/2020/03/what-the-shift-to-virtual-learning-could-mean-for-the-future-of-higher-ed
Herman, P. (June 10, 2020). Online Learning Is Not the Future. Inside higher Ed.[online]. Available at : https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/views/2020/06/10/online-learning-not-future-higher-education-opinion
Lunney, M., Frederickson, K., Spark, A., Mcduffie, G. (2019). Facilitating critical thinking through online courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Volume 12: Issue 3-4 .DOI:10.24059/olj.v12i3-4.1686
Watermeyer, R., Crick, T., Knight, C. et al. (2021). COVID-19 and digital disruption in UK universities: afflictions and affordances of emergency online migration. High Education 81, 623–641 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00561-y
About Vicky Papageorgiou
Vicky Papageorgiou is an ESL/EAP Lecturer with over 25 years of experience with mainly adult learners. She studied in Greece, Hungary, Italy, Cyprus and the UK. Her fields of interest are ESL and Art, EdTech and MOOCs, creativity and Inquiry Based learning, use of video. She strives for a democratic education that gives the opportunity for critical thinking and continuous questioning through the use of art, images, film and video. She often publishes articles in International newsletters and Journals and is also a conference presenter. She is a co-editor at ELTA Serbia Publications and also a member of the IATEFL Publications Executive Committee. She currently lives and works in the UK.