Distance Learning, the Keeper of Higher Education during a World Wide Pandemic
The challenges facing institutions of Higher Learning in the present climate have left many with no option but to turn to online learning to avoid disruptions to learning and teaching programmes across the globe. Fortunately the IMM Graduate School has not been caught off guard nor has been left scrambling to keep Learning and Teaching going. For the most part it is business as usual.
Having spent the past several years, implementing cutting edge online learning principles, saw minimal disruption in our learning environment designed and built to encourage optimal student engagement for critical thinking and problem solving. Embracing what technology has to offer education, has been used to prepare students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution work space and to provide opportunities for students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to study.
During the past number of years various aspects impacting learning and teaching in the online environment have been considered, monitored and reviewed. Fine tuning the online learning and teaching environment is an ongoing process requiring time and monitoring the responses of all role players to the digital learning and teaching environment and what works best for distance students to ensure that they achieve their aspirations.
Institutions of Higher Learning, Industry and the student population, need to reflect on their own attitudes to learning and teaching in the digital space. An attitude of learning and teaching as a ‘watered down’ version of ‘real’ education couldn’t be further from the truth and such attitudes have the potential to compromise quality.
Digital learning and teaching comes with many added advantages as well as some challenges and provide a valuable alternative in the face of significant and unexpected new challenges in higher education. These challenges are bound to recur albeit in various forms as society marches on. Institutions, students and teaching staff will be forced to become familiar with the digital education space sooner rather than later. Just as with every other industry in 2020, education can never go back to what it was just a few short weeks ago.
For students who are not used to the distance environment, social distance could be a challenge which hampers their progress during their studies. Distance institutions are acutely aware of this obstacle to students and any distance institution worth their salt will build mechanisms into their courses to reduce the sense of distance and isolation and to create a sense of community among students who are geographically far removed from each other. For those students at residential universities catapulted into the digital distance education space during extraordinary times, the sense of distance and isolation may be more acute.
It is not only a matter of designing a course, uploading the ‘paper version’ onto a learner management system and continuing with learning and teaching activities as would be the case in a contact environment. The point to consider, is how technology can best facilitate and enhance quality learning and teaching, whether in a distance learning environment or a contact learning environment.
There are a number of important points of consideration in digital learning and teaching.
How is the rapport between lecturer or tutor and student initiated and maintained? In a distance learning environment, there is not the luxury of sitting in a group, discussing challenges. Several mechanisms to create a sense of community need to be built into an online course, especially if students have little experience of online learning and teaching and are geographically far removed from each other. Creating an online social presence of the lecturer goes a long way to making students feel more secure.
Many are turning to webinars as an alternative to the contact class. But to be considered is, how does one adapt learning and teaching in webinars to ensure that students are meaningfully engaged with their study material and their teachers? In the classroom, teaching staff tend to use lecturing as the method of teaching. Transfer of those skills into an online environment reduces the effectiveness of learning significantly.
What digital teaching skills do teaching staff have to learn in a hurry in order to ensure that students are continually exposed to higher order thinking? How does one handle synchronized and asynchronous digital teaching for higher order thinking among students?
How will study material need to be adapted to make sure students are fully engaged in the absence of a regular contact class? Is learning material designed to encourage active learning? Technology provides diverse opportunities to design learning resources which are almost 3D in nature. It makes providing opportunities for authentic learning, so much easier.
The digital space has opened up a whole world of opportunity for authentic real world learning and teaching, with the potential to produce 4th Industrial Revolution work ready graduates whether the world is in crisis or not. The IMM Graduate School has embraced these opportunities, which has stood the institution in good stead during these unexpected, unpredictable times in Education.