COVID-19 restrictions required universities to move their classes online. It was a tremendous – although difficult – learning experience for all involved in this shift. As restrictions have been lifted, universities are moving back to in-person teaching. With campuses getting busy again, it may look like nothing has changed. Universities would be wise, though, to reflect on lessons learned during the pandemic. They should capitalise on knowledge gained from their online learning experience.
At the beginning of the pandemic in particular, the learning curve for adapting teaching was steep. Lecturers learned to record lecture videos, create learning resources, organise online classrooms, and set up live sessions. Many moved their classes online in a matter of a week or two. They learned to teach online by actively doing so.
After the initial chaos, universities started to offer more systematic support. Digital learning support teams were set up, training programmes on online learning were provided, and online learning technologies and resources were made available. Lecturers’ confidence in teaching online grew quickly and their perception of online learning improved substantially.
This support for change should remain as part of the culture of higher education. Universities should continue to encourage and help lecturers to be creative and flexible in how they design their courses and interact with their students.
Teaching and learning may have continued online when campuses closed due to lockdowns, but both lecturers and students experienced isolation and disconnection. The absence of classroom interactions and instant feedback made the importance of the social elements of university teaching clear.
Lecturers put additional time and effort into connecting and communicating with their students, creating more personal and caring relationships with them than ever. They may have organised informal Zoom sessions to check in on students, and kept communication channels such as Chat on Teams open for questions. Solidarity and sympathy emerged between lecturers and students as they experienced the global crisis together.
At the same time, lecturers reported increased teaching hours and feelings of stress. As classroom interactions return, the same level of commitment from lecturers towards online interaction will not be needed. Nevertheless, this compassionate approach to teaching as well as solidarity between lecturers and students should be continuously valued and nurtured in university teaching, whether online or offline.
Flexibility with online learning
During the pandemic, lecturers quickly realised that it is difficult to keep students focused online. They tried different strategies to improve student engagement and motivation. One way they did this was to divide teaching into multiple small learning activities, such as mini-lectures, group discussions, class polls and pop-up quizzes.
This can also be applied to in-person teaching. Students still find it challenging to remain focused during two-hour-long lectures when lecturers fail to engage them throughout.
Before the pandemic, it was rare to find lecturers teaching without any technology – most lectures included PowerPoint slides at least. However, the new skills learned during the pandemic mean that lecturers are now much better equipped to offer learning enhanced by the use of technology. Lecture theatres can be seen as “hybrid” learning spaces where offline and online activities can be interwoven. Students can move in and out of offline and online spaces, remaining focused on the lecture.
Lecturers can also preserve other elements that worked well in their pandemic teaching practice. Courses can be designed in a blended learning format that provides students with online learning activities for before and after lectures. Certain elements of the module, such as tutorials, could be moved online to increase the flexibility of student learning.
However, it is critical to remember that blended-learning design often increases lecturers’ workloads. Lecturers should therefore have the autonomy to change their module design to some extent. The worst possible scenario would be for universities to introduce an institution-wide blended learning format or template – increasing workload but not quality.
The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that students and their learning and living conditions outside lecture theatres are diverse and unequal, prompting many conversations about educational and digital inequality. This increased sensitivity about students’ different needs should be retained after the pandemic.
Making learning accessible to all students needs to be an essential principle in university teaching. Online learning can help with this by removing a range of physical restrictions that may stop students from participating in face-to-face teaching.
Although the pandemic has been traumatic and some may think that online learning during COVID-19 was not good enough, universities have undoubtedly learned invaluable lessons. It would be a pity to lose them and simply step backwards to pre-pandemic practice.