Covid-19 A New World in Education

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, everything was as it usually was i.e. we were continuing on with our roles as educators in our respective jurisdictions and never considered that there was a world-wide, unprecedented event about to change our lives and those of our students. Covid-19 has changed us. It has changed our assumptions, changed our perspectives, changed our interactions and from the perspective of education, changed how we consider teaching and how we apply our teaching in this new virtual on-line world.

Initial Change

On Friday, March 13th 2020 (…some would say an omen…), the Republic of Ireland took the decision to close all public and civil offices, along with numerous private sector establishments and businesses. Schools, colleges and universities were shut by 5pm, with unchartered territory being undertaken, and applied, on Monday, 16th March 2020. Although I was already established with an on-line presence with my student groups, and I have taught blended and distance learning programmes outside of the traditional Institute of Technology Tralee (ITT) catchment area, I was only utilising the e-classroom software as a back-up for notes, papers, links, e-debates, e-discussions and generally administrative information and collation. While I would have considered myself quite progressive when it comes to technology and its usefulness as part of the contemporary learning environment, I rarely taught exclusively on-line. A self-imposed crash course on the e-learning / on-line environment, specifically e-teaching, was initialised over the weekend between that Friday and the Monday, and was, to say the least, hectic. A chance to familiarise myself with the unending e-pedagogical research, e-best-practice and e-application of teaching was available, and consumed with vigour, regardless of the hectic nature. While this self-imposed crash course was very useful, it was ‘amateur night at the theatre’ in actual practice! Nonetheless, classes recommenced on Monday, March 16th 2020 – a new world in ‘lock-down’ education, both the students and mine, had begun.

Traversing the Change

Dr. Tom Farrally, Senior Lecturer and Educational Technologist at ITT, highlighted the need for all of us to try to understand that we are only capable of doing what we can during the initial phase of the new form of delivery. It is new to everyone, and most importantly, it was imposed dramatically and rapidly, thus negating informed training and experiential practice. Dr. Farrally and the Educational Development Support Unit (EDSU) worked tirelessly to ensure, where possible and practicable, that we as lecturers / teachers / tutors / mentors had skills-sets and tools in place to deliver virtually / on-line. However, actual application of these new skills-sets and tools by ourselves was often haphazard and confusing for both us and our students. Elongated emergencies require emergent skills, and unfortunately, emergent skills require time. This luxury was not available. While most of us ‘plodded’ through it, and in fairness delivered successfully overall, it was definitively different and unusual. But only because it was new and not our traditional format for delivery. Improving skills-sets throughout the ‘lock-down’ did eventually emerge, and delivery did become more proficient and effective.

Student reactions varied throughout, and as I can only speak from my own teaching / delivery experience, I felt that the student population found the whole event traumatic and very strange. That is not to say that they were not successful in their studies, they were; it is highlighting the non-traditional environment from a learning point of view. Learning from home / e-learning is a discipline that very few of us have, thus having this imposed upon students, while necessary, was certainly traumatic.  Students, to give them credit and encouragement, are very adaptable and flexible to change (…younger people traditionally are…), however, learning and educational undertakings require definitive support and direction, which is generally engendered through face-to-face contact, and in particular via tutorials / one-to-one sessions. This was obviously lost throughout the ‘lock-down’. It can be said that virtual learning environments allow for this through one-to-one sessions via video-link, however, this assumes that the student is disciplined enough to engage and undertake these forms of e-contact. The missing component throughout was the facial expressions – they tell you everything.

As mentioned, the students were successful, which is the ultimate goal, but, this has to have a caveat attached. Feedback from the students was enlightening – the greatest loss they felt from not being able to attend classes physically was the peer-to-peer / social contact. It cannot be underestimated how much students actually rely on each other for support and insights via peer-to-peer / social contact. E-mailing or ringing someone is just not quite the same thing. In saying that, the vast majority of our students connected very well overall, and while there was physical separation, the students’ academic needs were fully met as well as their general well-being. An open line of communication was available throughout the ‘lock-down’ and the majority of students did utilise and / or avail of these communication options.

Continuing Change?

With the new semester commencing in approximately six weeks, 21st September 2020, how we manage our new teaching environment is going to be of critical importance as it relates to a student’s outcome(s). At the end of the day, the purpose of our teaching is to try to enhance an individual and give them the skills-sets, tools and knowledge to become successful in their chosen career.

While my own 2020/2021 modules can be said to be applicable to a continuation of the on-line delivery approach, they are, nonetheless, often very complex and require personalised tuition / mentoring via face-to-face contact in labs as well as the classroom e.g. Applied Research Methodologies, Strategic Operations Management and Food Product Innovation with Enterprise. I can certainly deliver all the theoretical components via the e-tools at our disposal, but when it comes to the practical application of these components, then the theory is potentially redundant. Exceptions to this are always going to occur – as they do at present. The top 10% of students will probably be fine and just require direction, the bottom 10% will always struggle for a variety of reasons, but the vast majority of students are in the 80% category, and therefore they require a more nuanced approach that comprises of a mix of delivery options. This is what a blended learning approach can achieve, and must be the future of the continuing change as forecast. As mentioned earlier, very few of us can apply theory into practical application without undergoing some form of mentorship and / or tutorship previously. Let us not forget Benjamin Franklin’s (1706-1790) statement “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Remote Emergency Teaching (RET) is an apt acronym, and should be remembered by all who work within our educational establishments and systems, wherever that may be – Basque Region, Estonia, Finland or the Republic of Ireland. It is an emergency, thus needed an emergency response that was deliverable under exceptional circumstances. E-learning / on-line learning in isolation must not mean a ‘new normal’ response. RET, as the very contemporary term specifies, can, no doubt, improve and enhance verisimilitude, but cannot replace physical actuality, particularly for practically based subjects / programmes where engagement via close contact is vital for our students’ success.

By Maurice J. O’Brien, ITT Tralee