By Serge Gérin-Lajoie and Cathia Papi, TÉLUQ University
In the spring of 2020, the world of education dove into distance learning. Since that time one would expect the quality of online training to have improved. However, while some teachers perform well, others have had less success, to the detriment of the students.
It must be said that even if this type of education was undergoing rapid and continuous development before Covid-19, especially in higher education, the majority of students and teachers were surprised.
Faced with this extraordinary situation, the teachers did their best, but with mixed results. Likewise, the students had to learn in an unusual context.
As specialists in distance learning, we are interested in the use of this form of training and the support of those involved. After more than a year, we find that the quality of online training is still inconsistent.
First, as we can read in the book The distance learning book for college and university teaching, published in September 2020 by a group of education researchers: “Teaching during the pandemic wasn’t really distance learning. It was teaching in a crisis.”
Both face-to-face and remotely, creating great courses takes time, training, and coaching. And beyond the courses, a whole ecosystem of life and support surrounding learning is necessary for learners to persevere and thrive. In fact, distance learning cannot be improvised.
The Rule of the Exposed
Some institutions have required their professors to replace all scheduled class time with “synchronous” online classes, meaning classes offered live to everyone at the same time via video call.
Knowing that the average length of a human’s concentration or sustained attention is about 15 minutes, we can understand that after 30 minutes, some students pick up their cameras and close them. For students completing multiple courses this way, it’s like asking them to listen to a movie on a loop all week!
In fact, it would be possible to keep students’ attention by varying the pace, encouraging them to participate, and getting them to engage in engaging learning activities. However, the scenario of an online course is often not very elaborate, as can be the case with a program or a film. The teacher presents content. So it is not surprising that the motivation and concentration of the students in their distance learning courses decreases or that they prefer to listen to the recordings again at a time that suits them.
In a classroom, the ability to concentrate is no better – students surf social networks, consume or play online – but the teacher can use different strategies to get his attention, such as varying the volume or tone of his voice, circulating around the class and intervene to bring a student to justice. It’s a lot harder to operate from a distance like that.
Create an event
Then what to do? First of all, the question arises whether it is necessary for a course to have the same number of synchronous sessions as if it were offered as an in-person event.
For example, we can use one of the strengths of this type of distance learning to interact, ask questions, and give students instant feedback. On the other hand, one can take advantage of “asynchronous” training with readings or watching videos. This allows the student to learn at their own pace and take the time to reflect deeply.
In other words, we have to make sure that the meetings are events that shouldn’t be missed and not just rely on these meetings to teach students. Also, these encounters need to be scripted and prepared like your favorite TV shows can be.
The sense of presence, a great absence
A study conducted by two professors from the University of Aix-Marseille has shown that 61.2% of students think that distance learning reduces exchanges between them and almost 70% of students say that they interact much less with their teachers.
One student quoted in a Radio-Canada report last fall said that of her five courses, two were taught entirely from PDF documents, without any interaction with their teachers. “I think $1800 for PDF lessons is expensive,” she said.
These comments clearly illustrate students’ feelings of isolation, while acknowledging that mentoring and support are fundamental dimensions of distance learning.
This supervision needs to be proactive and reactive to create a sense of presence that is nurtured by the teacher but also by the other students. It must encourage greater closeness between all.
Supervising students means not just answering emails, but planning interventions to boost motivation, encourage interactions through questions, and reduce anxiety during assessments, throughout the course. If you don’t take the time to consider this aspect of a correspondence course, you fall into one of the main traps, which is to only implement a correspondence course in person.
No more cheating
Several educators have the perception that plagiarism and cheating are more common at a distance than in the classroom. However, recent studies on the subject show that this is not the case. In fact, if the proposed assessments were adapted to distance learning, there would be as many, if not fewer. If the number of cases seems to have increased with the pandemic, this is probably due to attempts to “simple” remote implementation of the assessments (exams, oral presentations) without attempting to counteract plagiarism and fraud.
Designing assessments in a distance learning degree is a great opportunity for innovation. It is possible to use digital tools and allow students to demonstrate their skills, know-how and skills in contexts of reflection, discussion, analysis and assessment. Thus, it is possible to implement richer and more complete assessment contexts than simply being limited to multiple choice or essay questions.
In fact, remote evaluations can be segmented and more easily focused on delivery processes rather than outcomes. Distance learning makes it possible to go further in assessing learning without increasing proofreading, while reducing opportunities for fraud and plagiarism at source.
Solutions to known pitfalls
Fortunately, the means are known to avoid the pitfalls associated with distance learning. Teachers need training and support. They must also be given time to organize their distance learning. In addition to housing teachers and students, this would allow for the design of more durable and higher quality teaching materials.
Having more efficient technical-pedagogical tools would also allow teachers to go beyond the traditional pedagogy based on presentations. Distance learning, whether synchronous or asynchronous, has well-known advantages, provided it is used well so that teachers, and especially students, can benefit.
By Serge Gerin-Lajoie, Professor, TELUQ University and Cathia Papi, Professor, CURAPP-ESS, TELUQ University
The original version of this article was published on The Conversation.