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Higher Education on a cross-road! How to teach online?

Today is the day we have been waiting for in Higher Education

Institutions of Higher Education worldwide have been closed over fears of an increased spreading of the coronavirus COVID-19. Students have been sent home. Dorms are closed. The staff is working from home. Faculty are preparing for one of the largest transitions from offering presenting classes on campus to offer classes online. Is Higher Education to teach online? What many institutions were not able to achieve for the last 10 years might now seem to be imperative for survival – moving classes online. Concerns about fraud cases in higher ed certificates seem to not be important anymore ([1], [2], [3]).

The reasons for this delay and for falling back behind startups like Coursera, Khan Academy, Versa, Udemy, Udacity, GetSmarter, and Emeritus, to just name a few, are multifold. They range from disbelief by administrative or academic staff to supposed technological barriers and rejection by many faculty members, who see no value these new things and rather prefer to “do it the good old-fashioned way”. It has been amazing to observe over the last 2 weeks how something that was “impossible” or “without real merit” might now be the only thing that keeps academic institutions alive during large scale quarantines and maybe even beyond. Human nature never ceases to amaze and how major threats can activate large parts of society or an organization to unite, move forward and make history.

History is made today

We are currently in one of those pivotal moments in history. 20-30 years from now we will look back and wonder about the “lost decade” before 2020, wonder, why we didn’t prepare earlier. Students will go through case studies of academic institutions who survived these significant changes and others who didn’t. Scholars will analyze universities who didn’t survive the changes after the “Big Virtualization” that happened in 2020 and will develop models that show that it was totally predictable that what happened would have to happen.

The question for full time and adjunct faculty today is not so much which institution will survive, but rather how they can adapt to this new reality and start teaching online immediately. Over a matter of a few days courses and webinars have sprung up that promise to provide the tools to faculty to “go online” and start teaching.

What is changing?

We are actually on the cusp of a new era that will change completely the way we look at learning … and teaching. The major change will be that we will become much more conscious about a number of things that few people thought about before or just grazed during the preparation of their classes, like:

  • The importance of visual feedback
  • The cycle of effective communication
  • The concept of Learning Objectives
  • The concept of Learning Strategies
  • Blooms Taxonomy
  • The fact that learning is primary and teaching secondary … not the other way around
  • The affective component in learning

How can you as a professor prepare for online learning? You should start by following these steps, complementing each one of them with great resources and materials that are available online. It seems that finally, Higher Education is to teach online!

Steps to move TEACHING online

  1. Probe Reality: Sit down with a paper and pen, relax and think about your career in higher education, its ups and downs. Jot down what you like most about teaching. What scares you? Do you love it when students challenge you in class? Are you comfortable interacting with students and create empathy? How is your teaching reality: are you rather mechanistic, writing down formulas and definitions or do you prefer creating simulations?
  2. Analyze yourself in depth if higher education is to teach online on how this affects you: One tool you can use to do this analysis is imagining yourself in two different class situations:
    1. Blind Professor: Imagine one of your most recent classes and imagine yourself teaching for 2 hours with your eyes closed. You can only hear students. No peeking allowed. How would that feel? Is your curriculum and are you prepared for teaching blind? Which of your teaching strategies would work that way and which wouldn’t? Would students’ capability to learn increase or decrease? Why?
    2. Penpal Professor: Now another situation, one that actually many scholars in previous centuries had to go through. Teaching and learning through letters. Letter written from one scholar to another, their students or disciples are today one of the great sources to learn about the way of thinking in previous centuries. Imagine you would have on year to teach a penpal of your different concepts. Do you think the learning objectives for your 6 months course could be achieved by writing 6 letters and receiving 6 letters from your student? How would that work out? How would you change your curriculum? How would you adjust?
  3. Teaching Basics: Familiarize yourself with the magic triangle of teaching/learning: Learning Objectives – Teaching/Learning Strategies – Evaluation. Those are the three key factors you have to consider before creating your course online. Take a close look at this concept and study some of the numerous online resources available
  4. Learning Objectives: The first step for you is not to just take a video of yourself and put it online and Voila! You are now teaching online. First, you should determine and re-write what the true learning objectives for your students are in this course. Are they aligned with other courses in your school? What prerequisites do you have for students who want to join your course? Do determine Learning Objective, use Blooms’ Taxonomy, print it out and hang it in your office. Create 3-10 phrases in the following format: <ability – based on Bloom> – I want that my student(s) <active verb – based on Bloom> <what you want them to do that relates to the active verb>. An example can be: CREATE – I want my students to PLAN <presentations based on audience needs and expectations>.
  5. Teaching/Learning Strategies: With the Learning Objectives defined (there are great resources available online), go back to what you jotted down in 2.1. and 2.2. Online learning can be categorized into two major groups:
    1. Synchronous Learning – This is comparable to the situation in 2.1. – Professor and students being the learning environment at the same time but with limited sensorial input.
    2. Asynchronous Learning – This is comparable to the situation in 2.2. – Professor and students do not coincide at the same time in the learning environment. Exchanges have a clear offset in time.
  6. Teaching/Learning Strategies: Analyze which one of the following strategies would work for you to achieve the identified Learning Objectives (there are great resources available online):
    1. Lectures (synchronous – but with limited sensorial input on both sides | technological limitations, like bandwidth might add up)
    2. Discussions (better done asynchronous | can be done synchronously with very small groups – requires good discipline)
    3. Case Studies (better done asynchronous | can be done synchronously with very small groups – requires good discipline)
    4. Writing, eg. asking for an essay to be written (asynchronous)
    5. Simulations (asynchronous and synchronous)
    6. Group Projects (asynchronous for the class and synchronous for the group)
    7. Recitations (asynchronous)
    8. Public Reviews or Peer Review (asynchronous)
    9. Independent Student Projects (asynchronous)
  7. Evaluation: You might want to completely review the way you have been evaluating your students. When Learning supersedes Teaching, the way you see evaluation will also change. You can use evaluations as formative as well as selective tool, depending on the identified Learning Objectives and the Learning Strategies. Be creative and think about how each evaluation does not just “filter” students’ knowledge but creates learning experiences throughout the process.

Throughout your online teaching experience, go through a continuous loop with points 5. – 7. to refine your teaching strategies and evaluation as well as respond to changing demands among your students. An online course should never be static but evolve into a “living document” that responds to the real-world needs of your students in their learning process.

What have been your experiences in moving your course online? Did you go through these steps are did you use a different methodology? We are living during a marvelous period, where everyone is learning. Share your ideas and best practice in the comment section below and let other professors participate in your journey through course virtualization. Yes, Higher Education is to teach online! We will all come out of this with more abilities and continue to serve in one of the noblest professions: TEACHING.