From Crisis to Opportunity

By   March 19, 2020

From Crisis to Opportunity: Online education and the chance to change how you teach forever

Last week my university went from the 19th century (or earlier) model of education to a deep into the 21st century unknown.  Just like many other institutions we had to switch to online or distance education, and just as in many other institutions, guidelines for what an online or distance education model should look like were scant.  Lacking this model added to the confusion that many professionals I talked to were feeling last week and this one. A lack of vision has contributed to this crisis, but it’s this same lack of vision that can make us very far-sighted if we choose to be.

At my pay grade few, if any decision makers at my university will  take my advice, but maybe someone out there will. Here’s my advice:  use this opportunity to permanently rewire how we teach and how students learn! 

Let’s start with how we teach. This week, I watched and I did help several teachers try to cram their traditional course into an online setting.  For some professors, it meant helping them figure out how to present their course just like they would always do it a pre-recorded lecture or an online lecture with students.  I am not saying these things are wrong, but I am saying such types of classes are passive in nature. 

Passive or active learning? Well, active learning in which students are engaged and collaborate with other students, solve problems and work on projects is much more effective than passive learning (lectures, powerpoints,etc.).  Read: The dangers of fluent lecturesIt’s only one of possibly billions of articles on the subject.

I deliberately refrained from the headlong rush to appear on camera before my students. Why not? Well my EFL  classes are problem, project, and task based. I spend about 5 five minutes talking for a two- hour class. The rest of that time is for the students to be at the center of learning.  Any other talking I might do is to clarify instructions or make small talk in English. That’s all. I can’t see setting up a time-consuming teleconference, lecture or powerpoint presentation that many students would have a hard time staying awake for in person or online.

 I didn’t commit to a set schedule, either. I told my students I would be available in Google Hangouts during our regular class times and days. Two days in and I have gotten far more emails outside of class time than contacts for my live presence. My students are in exam week for their other classes, and I know they will make time for my stuff, when they can.  I wanted the students to have this flexibility as well because for many of them, online learning is a new experience. Also, and this is an admonition for some of my fellow teachers who want to only lecture on line…video consumes a lot of bandwidth and demanding students absorb all these costs on their plans, seems a little unfair to me. It would also be prudent to understand not all students have the same access to the internet off campus as they would on campus.

I would like to further advise those alert decision makers that blended learning isn’t just for EFL classes. There are benefits for students and professors of any subject.  The outcomes, if done correctly will be more prepared students who will learn actively and better professors who will now have to be less of a mouthpiece and more of an active, thoughtful, and engaging teacher.

For institutions there are several benefits to converting to a blended model of learning. First, a reduction of costs.  Students on campus spend money, but they also burn through a lot of resources, not to mention the environmental cost of transporting students to a centralized location.  

Further exploration of a blended model of education might also reveal that fewer classrooms and spaces would be needed on a daily basis.  I estimate that by turning just my university’s language classes into a blended type of setting, the university could free up more than 15 class- rooms every day: classrooms that could be used to alleviate a critical room shortage.  From my humble perspective, the current model of university education is not sustainable, but by changing how we go about the educating of young minds could go along way to a better future for everyone.

For those of you just starting out with your online adventure, I recommend you stay flexible, have a back up plan, or platform, and share militantly!