Opinion: the pandemic has highlighted the advantages and disadvantages of digital technologies to deliver classes and lectures

The coronavirus crisis has not spared the third level education sector. In Ireland, almost all universities have switched to online mode to help the people involved adhere to social distancing, something which puts a demand on digital literacy practices of both lecturers and students.

It is certainly the time to examine and tease out the real impact of digital technologies as a contingency option to engage students virtually. If proven effective at this point, this practice of online delivery might also impact how courses are run in the future. We may see many modules delivered in a blended way, by running courses virtually and using face-to-face mode by maintaining balance as per a course requirement. This present context is a circumstance-driven opportunity for many academics to become familiar with different web tools that can be effective to deliver courses online.

The use of digital technologies in higher education institutions to deliver courses online is a perfect match to achieve social distancing by engaging students virtually in a teaching and learning process. The possible models that instructors can follow are: (i) synchronous learning, in which the delivery of lessons will be in a real time in a form of live sessions, and (ii) asynchronous learning in which the lesson delivery will not be in a real time and the responses will be delayed.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, report on Trinity College's plans to delver online lectures for the rest of the term

An instructor can equally mix both models as per the course requirement and run the online course effectively. Every university has its own learning management system, such as Moodle, Canvas and so on which serve primarily for asynchronous learning. The instructors can put sufficient and relevant reading materials in a learning management system and engage students. In the meantime, some live classes in a weekly basis, using ZoomAdobe Connect or ezTalk,  can be a good option to make students feel the presence of the instructors in the teaching process.

The role of learning technologists seems very pivotal in the present context. There has to be a dedicated team of learning technologists in the institutions to support instructors to comfortably deliver their modules online. It is true that all teachers are not at the same pace in delivering modules online and there are several challenges to delivering a course virtually. For instance, the machines that are used to run a course might stop working or there might be the network issue due to signal strength at home.

The teachers teaching at higher education institutions are experts in their own fields, but delivering courses at this level might be an issue for some. Suman Laudari from the University of Technology Sydney argues that some academics who join universities to teach have not got a formal teacher training. Moreover, delivering any course online needs additional planning or preparation. It requires certain knowledge, skills and competence, such as  knowledge on digital literacies, skills to set a classroom online to have effective participation of students and capacities to systematically organise the teaching learning materials online.

The coronavirus crisis has made all academics realise the value and potential of digital technologies 

Feedback has an important role in virtual classes. At times, the delayed feedback in an online mode of instruction might disengage the students. When delivering courses virtually, the instructors need to consider the nature of feedback and the appropriate time they provide it to students.

In addition, tutors providing too many links and resources in the learning management system to students may impact negatively in the delivery of content and will show the poor filtering literacy of course instructors. Since face-to-face interaction is absent in an online mode, the feedback given to students or any suggestions given during online discussions will have equally important role. As a result, teachers need to be patient and extra careful while providing feedback during online instruction.

There is a chance of coming across a student who might feel left out if the course is run relatively faster given that the teachers have a good digital competence. It might also be the case that some teachers will struggle quite a lot as they have less experience of running course online.

From RTÉ One's Prime Time, third level fees and finances explained

In the former case, teachers need to consider the online classroom dynamics in relation to student's digital literacy and maintain the balance in speed of course delivery. In the latter case, the instructors need to have an understanding of some web tools. They should also explore tutorials about how to run those tools, examine all possible functions of those tools before using and think why and how they are a fit for the courses they are going to deliver.

It's clear that the coronavirus crisis is set to run for quite some time yet. What it has done already is made all academics realise the value of digital technologies and its pedagogical potential in both normal and crisis periods.  

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ