The COVID-19 pandemic is a significant challenge to educational institutions, and it has imposed huge restrictions on traditional ways of teaching and assessing students.
While some institutions have been offering online education for the past few years, many others, driven by the COVID-19 crisis, have been forced to transform into online education institutions overnight.
The process can be a rocky one, according to Sudhaman Parthasarathy, an IEEE member who is a professor of data science and head of the Department of Computer Applications at the Thiagarajar College of Engineering, in Madurai, India.
He, along with a few researchers from several other universities across India, conducted a case study during March and April with a 30-year-old institution in India that had switched to online instruction testing. They interviewed 32 academics at the institution about their online teaching experience, which was conducted via video conferencing channels such as Google Meet.
The researchers found that to avoid downtime, this institution quickly started offering courses ad hoc that they had previously taught on campus and without much guided preparatory exercises for the instructors.
“Many were either new to online teaching or possessed meager knowledge about the learning management system their school used,” Parthasarathy says. “Hence, most of them found it difficult to adapt to the rapid transition to online education.”
However, he says, the instructors admitted they have now learned a lot about launching courses and more effectively using online education. They noted that there are benefits to this new approach. They include not only cost savings but assessments such as online quizzes, video and audio presentations, and poster presentations can all be conducted in new ways by either offering them online completely or through blended modes. In addition, difficult concepts can be explained through videos and graphics.
At the same time, the teachers noted key challenges, including the absence of requisite IT infrastructure, the inability of stakeholders (faculty/students) to adopt to the new online system, lack of training on how to use the learning management software system, and lack of funds to purchase a new online education software system.
The teachers had several recommendations for institutions, Parthasarathy says. In particular, schools should review their IT infrastructure as well as their choice of software products or learning management systems. They should also check with faculty members to see how much experience they have in online instruction, provide training to faculty and students on how to use online tools, and make sure the tools are user-friendly.
Based on the case study, Parthasarathy suggests these best practices for institutions to follow in their transition to online education.
- Institutions should use software they’re familiar with: there is no need to rush to new technology or new online platforms. It would be wise to suggest all faculty use the same online software product. This will help them and their students exploit all the relevant features by sharing their experience with each other.
- If students have problems using the platform due to a poor network (Internet) connection, the school should consider an alternate model for online education services such as blended learning (also referred to as the “flipped class” model). In this model, audio and video lectures or e-course contents are shared with students prior to the online interaction.
- Provide periodic training to faculty and students on how to use the online education tools. Institutions should also teach them how to manage small software bugs that may arise from the online tool.
- Be prepared to leverage the features of existing products (if any) or procure a new one. Institutions need to do their research to ensure their online education tool is compatible with all the latest operating systems and technologies.
In addition to its accessibility and flexibility, online education can be a revenue booster, with its ability to attract more students across the globe, Parthasarathy says. But the top administrators should understand that the benefits of online education cannot be fully realized if they are hesitant to invest in people, IT resources, and online learning platforms.