Social Distancing Education

Social Distancing Education: Questions Abound over Online Courses

One major response to social distancing in light of the Coronavirus has been a rapid move of schools and universities to online education. To many, this is a stopgap measure that will end when guidance on social distancing ends. To others, this was an innovation long waiting to happen that should alter the future of education at many levels – moving online teaching from the periphery to the core of educational institutions. 

I can understand why so many are convinced this change will be successful. Nearly all faculty and students use the Internet and related digital media in their everyday life and work, so it is not as major of a transition as it would have been in earlier times. Also, informal learning – outside formal institutions – has worked well online, with many routinely seeking advice or instructions on YouTube and other platforms. Moreover, the tools exist in the form of online platforms for course delivery. Many training courses and some university courses are already delivered online and many institutions are using these platforms today. Do they simply need to be scaled up to accommodate more students? Has it taken this pandemic to push conservative institutions and faculty into the obviously more efficient future of education? 

However, as one of many who has followed the development of online and distance education for decades, I worry that many of my colleagues are not aware of the serious difficulties that lie ahead. 

Since 1974, I had been studying and writing about computer-mediated communication and began studying innovations in online education with the rise of the Internet. In the midst of the dotcom bubble, 2000-2001, I was the faculty senate president at a major US university and worked with the administration to take our university into the future of higher education. I worked with colleagues to organize a forum on online education and edited collection, entitled Digital Academe: The New Media and Institutions of Higher Education and Learning (2002).* It was dedicated to Michael Young, the founder of the Open University. I was very optimistic at that time, but even by the time this book was published, the problems were becoming more apparent. 

Here are some of the issues to consider:

  • The rapid transition in response to the pandemic is pushing many educators and students into the use of tools and techniques that they did not choose and have not been trained to use. For instance, you can already see some of the teething problems with the problem of zoom-bombing. 
  • The tools and platforms do indeed exist but they are not up to speed with the platforms used by most Internet users. They are relatively slow and clunky and more limited, such as with the use of video, or accessing the wider Internet, depending on the particular platform.
  • We don’t really know how to do online education in a way that is successful in motivating and holding students. The dropout rate of students in many online courses is unacceptably high. This is not to say that individual faculty think they know how to teach online – many sincerely believe they do. But the track-record of online courses has not seen the successful patterns of many other online innovations, such as shopping. To the contrary, many who have taught online have realized that it is far more difficult to teach online and even then the outcomes are not as satisfying to teachers or students. 
  • So much of education is not simply the transfer of information. We can transfer information very well online, and online materials are being substituted for books and articles, but there are other processes that might be even more significant. These include social comparison with other students, learning from peers, and the social presence of the teacher, who can recognise an exceptional or a failing student and help them earlier and more effectively. 
  • We really don’t have a business model or let’s say the business model of traditional educational institutions does not accommodate online education. Online courses need teams to deliver them well, when traditional teaching can be handled well by individuals. Already you are seeing students asking for reductions in their tuition payments. There will be some students who will pay whatever it costs to get a degree from a prestigious institution, but then we are moving into the territory of selling credentials, rather than teaching. 

Today, possibly because of the lessons learned over the past two decades, I am more skeptical than in the dotcom bubble, despite advances in technology. I expect that the transition will be far more difficult in the short run than many institutions expect, and very problematic indeed to sustain in the longer run.

One possibility is that serious innovation might result from tens of thousands of teachers experimenting with online teaching. We should work hard to capture best practice, what works, and what might even begin to diffuse among teachers locally or globally. If there is a breakthrough in the techniques, equipment, or practices of online education, let’s capture it.

That said, I have also written about what I called ‘innovation amnesia’, which referred to the way everyone tends to forget the history of information and communication technologies, and therefore, many try to reinvent the same innovations time and again. This is good in that as time changes, the context might be more favorable and supportive to innovations that failed in the past. Early innovations in video communication were in 1974, with PicturePhone!

With respect to online learning, we shall see. I hope I am as wrong today, as I was 20 years ago. 

References

*Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

**Dutton, W. H. (1995), ‘Driving into the Future of Communications? Check the Rear View Mirror,’ in Emmott, S. (ed.), Information Superhighways: Multimedia Users and Futures, London: Academic Press, 79-102. 

A Virtual Professor: Putting Herself in the Hands of Others

The Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University had one of its (now) annual retreats on a beautiful Friday in the clubhouse of a local golf course. One of our faculty members, Professor Carrie Heeter, was in San Francisco, but she worked with colleagues to create a means for her to participate virtually. Her explanation of the approach and how she experienced the day might be very useful for others experimenting with blending virtual participation into real meetings.

They used Zoom, a video service like Skype or Google Hangouts, to connect Carrie in San Francisco to an iPad mounted on a portable stand, and to a laptop, both present in the retreat room. Essentially, the laptop on the stand became Carrie’s virtual presence in the room.

As Carrie wrote, when the retreat moved into about 6 breakout groups, someone in Carrie’s group ‘agreed to “take care of” Carrie’.  As Carrie put it: ‘When Jeremy [Bond] took care of me, he actively turned the iPad to face whoever was speaking. It was amazing. It felt like I was right there at the table, but also weird to not be turning my physical head, while I was virtually looking all around. I also felt bad that he was working so hard thinking about what I was seeing.’

They planned to use a Mini-jam box speaker/microphone to enable Carrie to be heard by the larger group, but it did not work on the day. So it was hard to hear Carrie speaking when we were assembled as the whole group. However, she could hear others very well, even in the big group. Carrie notes: ‘we used the Zoom chat and I would type, then my caretaker would speak for me. A few times I wrote on a piece of paper and held it up to the camera. When I went to lunch I used the share screen function of Zoom to show a word document with big letters saying GONE TO LUNCH BE BACK SOON. I also occasionally Texted room participants. … I used the spotlight function of Zoom to control which of the three window’s was the main one on the iPad.’

Professor Robby Ratan took the table and stand to the flip chart in discussing the notes from his breakout group. Carrie noted: ‘When Robby took notes for our breakout session; he went to Share My Screen mode, which meant I couldn’t use my computer. But I could see really well.’

Carrie joined the retreat at 6am California time, and was “at the retreat” for 7 hours.

The departmental secretary, Heather Brown, carried the portable stand and tablet downstairs and outdoors for a photo of the retreat participants. I’ll post the photo here. As Carrie describes it: ‘When Heather carried me down the stairs and out onto the lawn, there was a visceral feeling of being carried.’ You can see Professor Heeter on the tablet in the front row of the photo, but in another use of virtualization, Carrie had to Photoshop her picture onto the tablet’s screen. Nevertheless, the WiFi was quite good at the retreat center, and even out onto the grass, letting Carrie virtually participate in the photo session, even if invisible [due to the bright sun] in the photo without the touchup on Photoshop.

Photo of Retreat Participants and the Virtual Professor
Photo of Retreat Participants and the Virtual Professor

Carrie’s evaluation of the experience is also useful. She argued: ‘That it “worked” is due in part to the good will, tolerance, and helpfulness of physically present folks, and to the resolve of all of us to make it work. The iPad on the stand was much better than being on someone’s laptop. It was more like having my own place at the table and in the room.

Connecting through both the laptop and the iPad provided continuity (when the iPad turned off or needed to be recharged) as well as providing a second window on the meeting.’

Carrie concludes with a fascinating observation: ‘I was very much in people’s hands — they would raise and lower me to choose the height.’

Professor Carrie Heeter
Professor Carrie Heeter