Education in the Time of …COVID-19
[translated from Polish original version]
For several weeks, one topic has been staying on everyone’s lips. No matter your attitude to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the fact is that conferences, training courses and workshops are cancelled every day around the globe. Fewer meetings, less travel, less personal contact and, as a result, less learning.
In such a situation one thing comes to mind: remote learning, i.e. all kinds of webinars, online courses and workshops. These have been improved and gained popularity over the past years, but they are still virtual forms of learning, so they have stayed in the shadow of their counterparts involving face-to-face contact. And now, for the first time, e-learning stands a chance to make a mark. It is so because we no longer ask the question if online teaching is better than traditional methods. You do not even give some thought to whether the two differ. The thing is, this may be the only option for many of us, at least for a while. And you need to fill this time somehow to survive as an educator.
The situation in many parts of the world is not yet as bad as to have universities, training centres and conference centres closed in large numbers, but this may change, as best proven by the Italian example. So let us consider what would happen if starting tomorrow you are forced to teach/learn without leaving home and without having face-to-face contact with other people.
Theoretically, we have many tools at hand, as the topic of remote learning is not new. Apart from its beginnings dating several hundred years back, the Internet has brought us truly effective solutions.
When talking about remote training, we mean primarily synchronous teaching. In this case, it is difficult to replace contact with the coach with something else. So first, you start exploring webinar platforms. After all, they enable joint work on training materials, real-time communication using audio and video and other interactions, such as quizzes, which can be used as exercises or to check the progress of the group. Working in small groups composed of a few or a dozen or so people, you can even have more freedom in two-way communication, so such training does not have to resemble a lecture. In a well-designed webinar, even the Kolb’s learning cycle will work.
Several dozen solutions are on the market. They are relatively easy to implement just in a few minutes. In the case of small groups, the cost of such a solution in the SaaS (Software as a Service) model, where you do not have to install anything and access to the platform is simply obtained via a web browser, is only a few euros per month. Although on a daily basis many people avoid such expenses, in a situation where online workshop becomes your main method of teaching, such an expenditure seems symbolic. Renting a room for training for one day on average costs 5-8 times more than obtaining access to a webinar platform for the whole month.
So having read this paragraph, why don’t you grab your credit card, especially if you realise how much you can gain at a symbolic cost? Well, online learning platforms are not exactly consumer staples. They also no longer have the air of sophisticated technologies, as nowadays live broadcasting on the Internet impresses no one. It is as common and obvious, as sending an email. These solutions are neither exclusive nor prestigious, so the subscription fees must be affordable. Anyway, the fees have never been very high. These are offered at reasonable prices because their developers and operators do not incur high costs with a sufficiently large scale. The majority of operations are automated and simple, and therefore cost-effective. And this makes sense as long as you do not have too high expectations of the service. Theoretically, at the price of a decent book, you can offer an unlimited number of webinars per month (although usually not more than one at one time). However, if it turns out that the actual number of online sessions in a given month is expressed as a two-digit number, and this will be the average number for all educators, not just selected avant-garde online teachers who do it at all costs, then the business model can change quickly.
The challenge becomes greater when you want to accommodate in a virtual room not a dozen or so, but several hundred people. In this case, the price rises in proportion to the capacity limit of the room and this is a solution typical for the majority of subscription plans. Still, organising an online event for 500-1000 people should not cost more than renting a training room for 15 participants. Again, you realise how low the real costs of virtual activities are. What is more, in this case, you do not need to print training materials or worry about the availability of parking, reception staff or the form a coffee break should take, not to mention catering. And these, no denying, are the most important elements of each training.
However, large groups make us think that not everything can be done synchronously. This applies not only to conferences but also to training courses if their number is high. Hundreds of trainees require follow-up services, to mention the management of their data, tracking learning progress and many other issues.
For several years now, popular online course platforms have simplified many aspects to the limit. Many believe that they have gone too far, and this is because they were often designed without the participation of adult learning experts or their voices were disregarded to the benefit of ‘business needs’. So what is the problem with Udemy and other platforms? They constantly deliver new courses, the majority of which are offered by non-professional educators. So first of all, they got rid off everything that made it difficult to prepare an online course. Methodology questions have been limited to a checklist, and synopsis to a few boxes to be filled in by the author with the course description. Weights and grades have been basically reduced to automatically issued certificates.
If a trainer wants something more, they can choose a more sophisticated solution, which many believe is something very unintuitive and user-unfriendly. And here the king of LMS platforms, Moodle, enters the stage. It is free of charge and offers well-developed functionalities reflecting the full range of teaching and evaluation processes. However, many users will advise you that instead of starting by adding new functionalities, you should first disable many default ones. Moodle tends to discourage beginner educators who, after the first encounter with this platform may think that they need to earn a PhD in computer science to be able to make use of it. I can assure you, however, that the ‘editorial work is about cutting back’ approach will work perfectly here.
Grades and certificates
People tend to collect various types of diplomas and certificates of attendance at educational events. It is only their multitude that draws our attention to the inflation of such certificates. I myself find it difficult to answer questions if certificates will be issued after my training. I usually argue that even if I wanted to do that, I am not a certifying institution. However, the problem is more serious - how to provide participants with reliable documents confirming their achievements in relation to your teaching.
And here is the room for such solutions as Accredible, which allows some control over and verification of achievements. Even now such a confirmation of participation in a course is much more valuable than a simple PDF file because the applied functionalities allow some security against fakes (which is a real problem on the American market of online courses). So the future belongs to the blockchain technology, where - to put it simply - data about everything will be at everyone's disposal, and will no longer sit on a server inaccessible to the verifier. Thus, it will be easy to check whether a given document is authentic or not, and as a result, such diplomas will gain real meaning, even as an official attestation of qualifications. Although for many it may sound like a blasphemy, who knows if the current situation does not accelerate this process.
Technology is not everything
I have devoted a large part of this article to technology, but it is of secondary importance in practical terms. What usually fails and prevents you from trying and implementing remote learning solutions is the lack of experience and knowledge about relevant teaching methodologies.
In the formal education system alone, we are talking about nearly 100 million teachers and lecturers, and adding all those who teach in other sectors, it turns out that we are dealing with a huge market. And those people need to be constantly taught how to teach. A few years ago, many universities launched their own MOOC courses and started cooperation with platforms such as Coursera and edX. So, in a way, they have paved the way. Unfortunately, I have the impression that only a few will follow the example. In our part of Europe, the biggest motivation to offer academic online courses was probably the European grants assigned for this purpose. You can see with the naked eye great efforts made to develop projects, like Polish MOOC, which today feature a minute number of projects. Now it may just turn out that there is no other solution, and teachers will have to learn how to teach in reality when campuses are closed.
What we can do
You cannot change the world in a week or a month, but it is worth taking some steps now or at least think about them. I recommend to:
- have a Plan B and start learning new technologies right now. try out several applications and platforms that can be tested for free. EPALE also features many educational materials, which are the outputs of Erasmus+ and Leonardo da Vinci projects, including remote learning methodologies and textbooks.
- incorporate elements of technology in your teaching, so that learners become more used to it. If you occasionally offer webinars, you will not only learn how to do it but also teach learners how to use them. It is also worthwhile to prepare a simple version of an online course and publish it on your blog, website or even Udemy. This way you can try on the hat of an online educator.
- During traditional training, you should pay attention to how you and other people in the training room feel. It sounds trivial, but imagine you are faced with the challenge of asking someone whose condition indicates that he or she is sick to leave the training. And it's not just about the threat of COVID-19, but basic principles of coexistence. Many of us still think that coming to work sick is a heroic sacrifice. Time and again I have heard trainers bragging about how they ‘made it’ to the training, even though they woke up with a high fever.
And finally, I wish us all health, reason, and not going into a panic. Please write comments below and share your ideas on how to teach in a time of the pandemic.
Piotr Maczuga - For over a decade he has been dealing with the use of new technologies in adult education. He creates and implements in organizations based on technologies, which combine modern marketing and education. Co-author of textbooks on webinars, webcasts, knowledge pills and others. Methodologist, author of training courses on the use of multimedia in teaching and business and publications devoted to this subject. On a daily basis, he manages the Digital Knowledge Lab - a studio for the production of educational multimedia content in Poland operating within the Digital Knowledge Village ecosystem. His professional mission is to remove technological barriers that prevent those who have the ambition to teach others to support the creation of a society that consciously and efficiently uses the tools around us.