I am due to teach an MBA module in June and a PhD workshop in August, both online. Then, from September, I have undergraduate teaching, which is supposed to be delivered face-to-face, with an online layer for those that can’t be on campus, and ready to continue 100% online in the case of another lockdown (i.e., bells and whistles on a shoestring).
Mind you, I am not alone. Many other academics are grappling with the same challenge, in the UK and elsewhere. And students are not exactly thrilled, either. We think of this generation of students as digital natives, who conduct all aspects of their lives online, and who can’t go more than a few minutes without checking their smartphones. In theory, they should love – or, at least, be indifferent about – the move online. Yet, it seems that students struggle to adjust to online learning.
In the paper “Information resource orchestration during the COVID-19 pandemic: A study of community lockdowns in China”, researchers Shan L. Pan, Miao Cui and Jinfang Qian report on their investigation of “how elderly, young and middle-aged individuals and children resourced information and how they adapted their information behavior to emerging online technologies”, during lockdown in China.
The paper examines how 6 families used various information technology platforms to access information. It looks at a broad range of users and, as a result, the descriptions for each group are very short and quite generic; and we miss out on the richness that usually comes from case study data. Despite this limitation, the paper offers some interesting ideas as to why young people may struggle with online education.
Before I look at the findings from this paper, a note: the researchers looked at the challenges and adaptive behaviours of three groups of users: the elderly, young professionals and school-aged children. Here, I look at the findings for the two latter groups, only.
Regarding the challenges faced, Pan and colleagues found that even though people might be “familiar with using technologies in their work, having to set up and manage their work entirely online was a struggle felt by many”, because:
- They had to learn how to use new tools;
- Online discussions require more time and effort, and it is difficult to brainstorm productively in group meetings;
- They faced many distractions at home, meaning that they often ended up working longer hours (than before) to get the work done;
- When they got bored of work, it was too easy to access entertainment (chat, games, videos…), because both activities (work and leisure) were accessed via the same platforms (namely, tablets and laptops);
- The abundance of information (e.g., breaking news, official alerts and social media messages) about the progression of the pandemic caused anxiety.
The paper also discussed how citizens tried to cope with these problems, which included:
- Learning to ignore fake news and rumours;
- Short lessons (10 minutes, in the case mentioned in the paper), followed by practice;
- Doing tasks away from the computer – e.g., handwriting, or accessing hard-copies of resources.
I found some interesting ideas in this paper, worth considering in terms of structuring my teaching activities. For instance, I should limit the amount of information provided at any one time, and interspace short delivery of content with hands-on activities, ideally using paper.
However, I am still struggling with how to break the fourth wall. I.e., how do I get students attending the class face to face to interact with their colleagues who are online, without wasting a lot of everybody’s time, in ways that everyone can contribute effectively, and without losing them to digital distractions? Suggestions (and tips on mistakes to avoid) warmly accepted.