Online Education: How can we get the next phase right? | Daily News

Online Education: How can we get the next phase right?

In an interview with Daily News Dr. Gamini Padmaperuma, IESL Fellow Member and a former Senior Lecturer at OUSL, highlights that Online Learning has now become a household term in Sri Lanka.

According to Dr. Padmaperuma Sri Lankan school children, students in universities and other higher educational institutions, their teachers and lecturers have started online teaching and learning during the last several months, especially after the pandemic situation.

He said although online teaching and learning existed in a limited scale before, a rapid transition to online teaching and learning occurred following the closure of educational institutions owing to the spread of virus.

“As we know the educational institutions adapted to and faced the challenges of shifting to online learning. This is commendable. Currently almost all higher educational institutions in Sri Lanka have implemented online teaching and learning and as a result the general satisfaction level among the students and teachers about online learning appears to be satisfactory. There are certain shortcomings such as internet connection issues and associated costs, lack of suitable digital devices to practise online learning and learning material etc.,” he said.

Definitions and contexts

According to Dr. Padmaperuma, Online learning can be defined as learning that takes place over the Internet. However, online learning is just one type of distance learning. Online learning can be used in both distance learning and in face-to-face context. Blended learning uses a mix of online and traditional face-to-face approaches. This however, makes it necessary for the online learning material to be prepared with appropriate design features and it is not effective to use teaching material prepared for face-to-face context in online teaching without modifications as the two contexts are quite different.

The common approaches to online teaching have been to use free video conferencing software such as zoom to organise online lecture sessions where the lecturer explains the subject matter using power point slides or white boards. Lecture notes are sent to students electronically in advance to read and prepare for the zoom session on a specified date.

He said during zoom sessions the lecturer explains material, solves problems, questions, student answers, student queries, etc. and in some sessions video and audio clips are played or sent them to students as preparing for face-to-face teaching may not be attractive to all the online learners.

He said four primary types of learners are Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing preference and Kinaesthetic and designed online lessons shall meet most of these learner types. When particular learning material cannot meet all types of learner styles there shall be other complementary material which can satisfy the unmet styles. There shall also be different learning material which caters for different types of learners. Attention also needs to be given to learners who have visual, auditory and other impairments.

Some institutions have structured online courses which are designed and built using Learning Management Systems (LMS) which also enable effective course and programme administration. In some institutions LMS are used for routine course administration purposes only and also uploading assignments, receiving answer scripts, project submissions, conducting surveys, recording online presence, etc.

The above emphasises the importance of appropriate design of instructions to suit online learning. In order to achieve desired learning objectives, the lessons need to be designed using appropriate instructional design strategies and models. Instructions need to be developed with high visual appeal, clearly stated learning outcomes, means for close engagement, availability of feedback on student performance, summaries of core content, appropriate media components, all delivered in small chunks to sustain student attention during the lesson.

While the access to many institutional web servers has been made free by many educational institutions in collaboration with telecom providers, poor internet connections in rural areas, costs associated with general internet access, heavy dependence on mobile phones (with attendant limitations) for online learning due to lack of better devices such as tabs or laptops have not made online learning a pleasant experience to a significant portion of learners.

Further actions

Now that the first phase of online learning has passed, the following are a few specific actions that universities and other educational institutions could take to help improve student learning, engagement and experience while operating remotely.

These moves may inspire institutions to pilot new initiatives, learn what works, iterate and position themselves to create capabilities that will enhance instruction permanently. However, the educational institutions may not be able to handle all of them alone. Due organisational, professional and financial support need to be provided by the government, public and private sector corporations, non-governmental organisations, professional institutions, philanthropists, specialists, consultants, alumni, etc.

Focus on access and equity: Moving from on-campus to remote learning raises issues related to access and equity. There are the immediate logistical challenges of ensuring students have the basic technology they need to learn remotely. Some possible actions include: offer stipends for internet access and laptop rentals or purchases; Provision of loaned equipment and hot spots for internet access to under-resourced students.

Consideration also needs to be given to effects on mental health and stress created by the pandemic, and also to mitigate the additional difficulties encountered by physically impaired learners due to shifting to online education, e.g. provision of recorded lessons with captions, etc.

Support faculty: Most academics are working hard to respond creatively to teach their students to the same standards. What methods work best in a remote environment will differ by discipline and the technology available. There are a few broad ways that institutions can help.

l Offer more teaching support. Many institutions have centres that offer support to faculty in their teaching; these should be scaled up and shift their orientation to support the academics in design and development of online learning material and learning environments.

l Use social media and online forums to share best practices. Highlighting and explaining successful remote-teaching practices during faculty meetings can cultivate a sense of camaraderie as well as a culture of sharing and improving.

l Set up a structure for the faculty to get regular feedback on their teaching. Two sources are: student surveys and engagement data derived from LMS. These surveys should be used not to judge professors, but to give them information on how students are responding and where they can improve. Survey results can also give administrators a sense of where they might need to intervene to support student learning.

l Create online ‘student centres’. As institutions move to remote learning, they can think about how to use existing tools to move in-person gatherings online and open up spaces for discussions, events, wellness classes, study groups and online tutoring. This is to offer virtual spaces in lieu of physical ones to enable the university community to continue to connect.

l Activate stakeholders. One way to start is by identifying and activating tech-savvy students and staff to coach faculty and other students to use online tools. Another possibility is to ask alumni and community members to provide remote mentorship and coaching to support students with remote learning, career discussions, and virtual internships.

l Invest in cyber security to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning. This is to ensure security and data privacy while enabling teaching and learning to go on.

Often with limited experience and training, our educational institutions have hurriedly shifted to online learning and teaching. Many have done so in an exemplary manner; others have not been as successful. This can provide institutions with an opportunity to experiment and innovate. Universities may find that they have a new remote-learning capability that can be integrated with on-campus instruction, to everyone’s benefit, when this crisis has passed. This added online education capability can directly assist the government in meeting its commitment to increase the intakes to universities and provide access to higher education to all who qualify.