The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to educational institutions worldwide shutting down in-person teaching and quickly moving classes online. These have highlighted both the possibilities for transforming online learning, and the lack of preparation and resources facing faculty, students, institutions and communities.
Institutions in the Arctic have engaged in teaching and learning activities across distances and in remote and rural places for decades, and yet, the sudden rush to put everyone online or in distance-delivered programs has proved challenging.
In Alaska, we have students who not only lack internet access at home or have limited bandwidth in their community, but who also live without running water and rely on propane or wood to heat their homes. They face challenges in staying safe as they “hunker down” that are far more pressing than keeping on top of homework. Some faculty have responded by using teleconferences rather than online software to teach, so students only need access to their phones. However, to submit assignments and take tests, students still need to find a way to go online. Some have resorted to sitting in their cars to access campus Wi-Fi, even in sub-zero temperatures.
We know that a class switched from in-person to distance delivery in just a few days will not be the same quality or experience. We should be accommodating, accepting and forgiving of mistakes as we muddle through. Our goal should be to share as best we can the intended content and understandings, and not to overburden faculty and students as we contend with an exceptionally stressful situation. There is much we can learn from what is happening, and we also need to remember what we knew before the current crisis: teaching and learning via distance is feasible, but it is not easy, and to do it well requires significant thought and planning.
Some issues to consider:
Synchronous, asynchronous and blended courses: Synchronous e-learning courses (i.e. taught live using web-based software or teleconferencing) allow for real-time interaction between faculty and students, and can be effective for building interpersonal relationships that enhance learning experiences. They can also be easier to teach when you need to shift at the last minute in response to current events or changes in conditions. That said, technology can fail, and students can disengage or be distracted. Moreover, scheduling synchronous online learning can be difficult, particularly if you are trying to teach across time zones as we do in UArctic courses, or if you serve working adults who need to schedule their studies around job and family obligations.
Asynchronous classes bring their own challenges. Putting together a really effective and engaging asynchronous course is hard and requires a lot of planning. Many people tape lectures to replicate in-person classroom-based experiences, but that is based on old ways of thinking about how people acquire knowledge. Hands-on inquiry-based approaches, where students are active participants in co-constructing knowledge, are often more engaging experiences. In addition, it is much harder to foster collaboration and interaction among students in asynchronous courses. Peer learning is an important and valuable tool and should not be forgotten in the push for e-learning. There are many different tools for creating active participation and collaborative projects in online courses, but faculty need support to learn how to use these.
Bandwidth, equipment and software limitations: One of the most significant issues for distance education in the North is bandwidth limitations. While some Arctic regions have strong broadband access, others have far less, especially in the Russian Arctic. The cost can also be quite high even in urban areas. In Alaska, some students complain that watching a 30-minute video lecture can take several hours due to low bandwidth. Moreover, the sudden move to online learning has exacerbated inequities. Not all students have access to laptops, printers and other equipment that facilitate online learning. Schools and universities have been loaning out gear to help students temporarily, but this issue will not disappear after the current crisis ends. Finally, not every piece of software used for online learning is compatible across all devices and platforms.
Professional development and support for instructors: Postsecondary instructors need extensive and ongoing professional development to be successful in teaching online for the long haul. They need training in designing effective courses, ongoing support that is available within a reasonable amount of time, and access to immediate troubleshooting assistance when a platform is not working. To do online learning right, there needs to be a significant investment in time and resources including assistance for faculty as they transition their courses.
Support for students: Students need both academic and technical support around learning in online settings. There are a lot of assumptions about students being “digital natives” who grew up with technology, but talent with smartphones or online gaming does not necessarily translate to success in online learning environments. This is particularly true for first generation students served by many Arctic universities. Online learning environments are often least successful for the most vulnerable students, so we need to find new ways in order to not lose them. Finally, we should not assume we know best the needs of students – we need to ask students how we can best help them.
We all are uncertain about when we will to return to “business as usual”. Also, this is likely not the last pandemic we will face. E-learning and distance education offer many opportunities to students in the Arctic regardless of global crises. Now is the time to learn from the problems, failures and successes we have seen in working online, and put ourselves on the road to strengthening online learning into the future.