What went wrong and how to fix digital learning for the future

Photograph of seated man showing frustration working at a laptop.
Image Credit: Tim Gouw Unsplash. Remix by Joe Arton

In this post, Angus Cheung a MSc Developmental Linguistics programme representative in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, outlines some of the common challenges students faced with the pivot to digital learning and offers some straightforward solutions around assessment, engagement and study-life balance…

In view of COVID-19, the school announced the decision of moving to remote teaching and assessment in March. While this measure ensured the physical well-being of staff and students, the learning needs of the students were compromised.

To begin with, online teaching made collaboration and group work less possible. Although the school has been using Blackboard Collaborate for lectures and meetings, its nature and settings discouraged an interactive learning environment. The default operation of the software favours unidirectional teacher-led teaching activities as participants are not allowed to share their screen during the session. In order to make it possible, the host has to change the role of the participants to moderators manually before the session commenced. This adds burden and workload to teaching and administrative staff.

Moreover, the online platform greatly reduces the degree of interaction. The discussion in an online lecture is less dynamic than that in a face-to-face lecture as open-class discussions usually turn out to be either a babel of voices or an awkward silence. Undoubtedly, students could use the chat function to answer questions. But would the teacher be able to read all the responses while juggling teaching and technology at the same time?

As a programme representative, I received students’ concerns over the assessments as group projects were suspended while they were mid-way through the assignment. They struggled a lot before the announcement and their efforts went down the drain when they realised that the light-touch approach would be implemented. On the one hand, they were relieved that they no longer had to figure out ways to collaborate. On the other hand, they were disappointed that their hard work was unnoticed. In the future, it is suggested that assignments should be individual by default. However, students have the possibility to work with their peers if preferred. This grants students flexibility without sacrificing the interests of those who find group work impractical due to personal reasons.

Another concern is the study-life balance of students. When there were face-to-face lectures, students would have to leave their accommodation and be physically present in a lecture theatre. The state of being in a learning facility boosts students’ concentration and makes learning more effective. However, when the lectures are delivered online, students are no longer required to assemble at a designated venue and they can attend lectures in the comfort of their own home. This blurs the distinction between “work time” and “spare time” as you are literally in the same space 24/7, especially during the lockdown. For me, it’s not an insurmountable problem as I have a rule: never work past 5pm. Whenever it’s 5 pm, I wrap up and save my work. I believe it’s essential to take a break as it’s very likely to overlook errors when you are overly engaged. Yet, for some of my friends, they found it really hard to cope with as they were not used to this – they always wanted to finish the task in one go. Due to the lack of distinction between work and rest, they were constantly under tremendous pressure. For those who will be learning remotely in the future, take my advice and see if it works for you!

In summary, the shift to online teaching is something unanticipated and its shortcomings pose limitations to the effectiveness of learning. However, it is a measure that has to be adopted as it safeguards the safety of the Edinburgh community. If the above issues are addressed, online teaching will be as successful as face-to-face teaching.

Photograph of the authorAngus Cheung 

Angus Cheung is the MSc Developmental Linguistics programme representative in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. With his experience in teaching English as a foreign language, he is an advocate of student-centred learning.

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