Online pivot & the absence of a magic button

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Now we’re getting into the online pivot more substantially, higher education institutions are coming to terms that it may not be a short-term emergency shift. It looks like the first semester of the 2020-21 year may be online, and if Covid-19 flares up again, who knows how long it may continue. While you could get away with “sticking classes on Zoom” for the immediate emergency, that won’t cut it in the medium term.

More long-term, the pandemic will make many HEIs review the overall robustness of their offering, and seek to move portions online as a possible response to any future crisis. In a lot of senior management this induces something akin to panic. They have spent their careers advocating the superiority of the campus experience over distance and online versions. They have a lot of personal capacity invested in this, and a lot of construction projects based upon it. Shifting online, partially or wholly is not a problem they want to have.

In addition, time frames are short and financial pressures are heavy. This leads to something I’ve seen online and in personal communication – the desire for the magic button solution. An overly simplified version is something like “How do we push the Go Online button? Can you push it for us?” I’m sorry to tell you – there is no Go Online button. The good news is that it is entirely possible to create good, online courses in just about any subject, and students will do well in them and their performance and long term understanding of the topics will be as good, if not better, than those taught face to face. So that’s the good news, higher education isn’t going to die.

But I have some bad news too. In order to create the types of courses that achieve this the following is true:

  • It is not cheap
  • It is not quick
  • You need to invest in building up your own staff expertise
  • It will bring additional problems that you didn’t have before
  • Students will need different types of support

What this means is, once the absence of the Go Online button has been realised, the temptation will be to outsource this headache to companies that offer, nay guarantee, a really fine, but expensive, Go Online button. See Durham’s alleged approach for example. The leaked accounts of this sound like Magic-Buttonism, although the actual plans may be more nuanced – they are right to review their strategy and conclude that some courses will be online. Like many institutions that have not invested in this hitherto however, this can result in a desire to turn to an external provider, thus failing to develop the expertise they need. Disappointingly some of the backlash against the Durham proposals has been along the lines of online isn’t as good quality as f2f. That false binary is not helpful – the main issue here the outsourcing of expertise. Invest in your staff.

These OPM solutions are going to be pitched hard. There may be some use in them in the short term, but a better solution is to invest in staff (and here institutions might want to get expertise in to help), use OER for content, and make strategic decisions that have as their basis the belief that online, distance ed is a useful, valid form of education.

[Updated – I changed some of the references to Durham as a lot of that is based on presumption about the proposal, and we’d need to see the detail to be fair to them]

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