Universities must seize the opportunity to improve their online teaching


Universities have rightly won praise for moving their teaching online during the coronavirus lockdown.

Switching from face-to-face lectures and seminars to classes delivered via Skype or Zoom meant that teaching staff had to acquire new technical skills in a very short period of time, while many spent long hours dealing with student concerns about completing their coursework and final exams remotely. It highlighted the dedication, commitment and high degree of adaptability of university staff across the world.

But the apparent success of this episode should not blind institutions to some of its shortcomings. Universities did move their teaching online, but in general, staff have not been doing what most educational experts consider ”online teaching”. Understanding this difference is critical if universities want to learn from this lockdown experience.

Effective online teaching uses technology to create learning situations that are more student-centred, encouraging more collaboration, active learning and formative assessment. It requires the development of new instructional skills; the teacher-student interaction and communication is entirely different to conventional teaching, while the format of teaching and learning materials differs from to that found in tutorials.

Successful online learning also requires students to develop new learning skills. Most importantly, those taking an online course must have a high degree of self-discipline and dedication – qualities not always evident in those taking traditional in-person courses. In short, online teaching requires courses to be specifically designed for that mode of delivery.

Even if much of the teaching that took place during the Covid-19 lockdown could not be regarded as online teaching as described above, the experience and skills acquired can be extremely valuable to enhance university teaching and learning in the near and long term. During these months in lockdown, most lecturers will have improved their technological skills and possibly explored different ways of delivering content, assessing and providing feedback. Significant, enduring changes in teaching could follow if universities encourage staff to continue to reflect on how their courses are delivered.

Addressing the question of technology in teaching from a pedagogical perspective is a good way to continue this conversation. If staff are asked how they used technology to facilitate the learning outcomes of a course – how it encouraged engagement, collaboration or self-reflection – this may help lecturers to think about the amazing possibilities of technology-mediated teaching.

Listening to the experiences of teaching staff and students is another good way to identify the opportunities for using technology within university teaching in the future. Lecturers will have probably gained a better understanding of what students value most in their face-to-face interactions with them and what elements of a course they prefer to follow online. Students will also have useful information to provide to their institutions and their insight will be valuable to prepare better for any further online or blended learning.

Apart from the input of lecturers and students, universities should also learn from the institutions that have been providing high-quality online education for a very long time. Those with experience in the design and delivery of online courses can help others to make the most of their newly acquired knowledge and skills.

With the coronavirus still present, blended learning will be the preferred delivery model for many institutions in the near future. Now that there is more time, some effort must be put into redesigning courses and reflecting on what works.

Of course, universities are dealing with other pressing issues. How much of the student population can be safely accommodated on campus, for instance? How much teaching can be delivered in classrooms? Will enrolments of both domestic and international students will drop substantially?

Teaching and learning will have to compete with all these matters for managerial attention, but it is important to address the risk that stilted and unengaging Zoom lectures become the new normal until classes revert to the pre-coronavirus old normal.

For that reason, this is really a now-or-never moment. Will universities seize the opportunity to reflect on teaching and learning after the Covid-19 lockdown? Let’s hope they do.

Author Bio: Nuria López is a research assistant for blended learning at the Copenhagen Business School.