The story of two holidays: How to embrace online delivery and its opportunities

Close up of canoe in river surrounded by mountains
Photo credit: Luca Bravo, Unsplash CC0

In this post, Thomas Bak and Brittany Blankinship, from the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, summarise the findings from a study they conducted on comparing face to face and online teaching, addressing how expectations influence satisfaction…


Imagine that you are booked on a very nice-looking beach holiday, sunshine, warm sea, cool drinks in the shade; and all this in an attractive historic town. And then, suddenly, the booking is cancelled. Disappointed and frustrated, you manage at short notice to book another holiday, to a lake in the mountains. The water is equally warm, the drinks equally cool, the historic town equally inviting. And in addition, you can climb the local hills enjoying unforgettable views. And yet, you are likely to feel disappointed: yes, it is nice, but not quite what you were looking forward to when you initially booked a holiday.

And now imagine a different scenario: a friend convinced you to go on a holiday to a beautiful historic town on a mountain lake. You are looking forward to it, go there and have an absolutely wonderful time. The place in these two stories is the same one, and yet it is highly likely that the experience will be different.

Huntington Beach, California, photo by Brittany Blankinship
Villa Monastero, Lago di Como, Italy photo by Thomas Bak

In February, when we started our study on learning written and spoken Chinese separately, it would have never occurred to us to do it in any other way than through traditional face-to-face classroom teaching. Teaching the course in a different format was not an idea we ever entertained, let alone discussed. And then, CoViD-19 arrived. The closing of campus on 13 March 2020 came, ironically, at the best possible time from the point of view of our experimental design: just one day after we finished Block One of our study, with a two weeks break between the blocks allowing us to transfer both the teaching and the cognitive assessment, which formed an important part of our study, to an online format.

The students, who enjoyed enormously the first part of the course were anxious whether it would continue and were very grateful when we assured them that we could offer the second teaching block in an online format. And yet, when it came to the final evaluation, although they liked the second, digital part of the course, they perceived it as an inferior substitute for the “real” in person teaching and learning experience. If given a choice, they would have loved to, and indeed preferred to, go back to the face-to-face format.

Interestingly, the situation was very different for students in the second round of our experiment. Starting in May, the only way we could do it was through online delivery and the option of face-to-face teaching didn’t even enter our considerations. But when we were looking at the feedback from this course, after it finished in July, we were stunned. The students were not only extremely positive about their learning experience, but also pointed out advantages of an online course (e.g. the fact that participants could join from different locations from all around the world). The students had a similar feeling of “connectedness” to their teachers and a higher feeling of connectedness to other students than those in the previous round of the course.

To come back to the metaphor we used at the beginning of this blog: the students in the second round of the experiment were not measuring their new learning experience on something else they were looking for and didn’t get. They treated it with an open mind as a new experience, not necessarily worse (or better) than the other one, just different.

It is unlikely that any of us would have chosen at the beginning of this year the teaching and learning experience we are having at the moment. It is easy to treat it as an unavoidable evil, or at least as an inferior substitute. But by doing so, we rob ourselves of the positive aspects of this new experience. Maybe if we treat online teaching and learning with an open mind, as suggested by our University’s approach of “Adaptation and Renewal” in front of the CoViD-19 pandemics, we might discover an unexpected satisfaction and opportunities we would have never thought about before.


photograph of the authorThomas Bak

Dr Thomas Bak is reader in Psychology, clinical research fellow in the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences and Deputy Director of Bilingualism Matters. Over the last few years, his work has focused on the cognitive effects of bilingualism and language learning across the lifespan, in healthy ageing and in stroke and dementia. He has spoken about this topic in press, radio and TV interviews, at Edinburgh Science Festival, Edinburgh Fringe (Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas) and other public events. Dr Bak teaches undergraduate and graduate students in psychology, linguistics, medicine and neuroscience.

Twitter: @thbaketal


photograph of the authorBrittany Blankinship

Brittany Blankinship is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD is entitled, “Multilingualism in Later Life: Natural History and Effects of Language Learning”. Her work is interdisciplinary, combining neuroscience with linguistics and quantitative with qualitative methods. She holds a Masters of Science in Human Cognitive Neuropsychology from the University of Edinburgh and received a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley.

Twitter: @BrittNeuroPsych

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