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A crash course in online learning


Authors: David Youngmeyer
Posted: Fri, May 22, 2020 - 4:58:53

As in many countries, when New Zealand went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in late March, tertiary education providers had to suddenly move from face-to-face teaching to online learning. Although providers already offered some online courses and had considered the need to expand online learning, the requirement for an immediate about face while a trimester was in progress was a jolt for both teachers and students alike. 

In New Zealand, universities and other tertiary providers responded by halting face-to-face classes for a short period before resuming teaching activities completely online. 

The limited response time frame, along with differing levels of expertise in online teaching, varying expectations among learners, and the shared context of a pandemic lockdown created a unique learning environment. This has required adaptation and flexibility from both teachers and students. Participating in online learning during the pandemic has provided a window into our interaction with technology and each other in a unique social setting. 

While not without issues [1], the online video platform Zoom has shown itself to be a helpful tool that can effectively re-create multiple educational activities, including lectures, tutorials, and lecturer office hours. While Zoom has been used particularly in the business world pre-pandemic, many of today’s users have been either introduced to it recently or required to use the tool in new ways and in a different context [2]. As such, new social behaviors are being produced.

A tutorial via Zoom, for example, mimics an in-person tutorial by allowing for real-time interaction, along with visual, auditory, and written communication. Physical proximity is missing, but users gain the ability to see all other participants on their screen (or at least their names when their video is turned off or unavailable). 

Talking to a classmate while the tutor is addressing the class is mimicked via the private chat function. This is less disruptive when done online but it is a distraction. When added to other distractions, such as managing a mobile phone and dealing with people in the same physical space, it has the potential to be a kind of “phubbing” [3] on steroids. It may be that multitasking while participating in an online tutorial is as disruptive and unwelcome as researchers have found the use or mere presence of mobile phones to be during face-to-face interactions [4,5]. 

The ability of users to control their video input—when that functionality is available—adds a new dimension to the traditional tutorial, where a student is either definitively present or absent. Online, a student may be able to see and hear other users yet keep their own appearance private. Why would they do this? Possibly for security reasons, but also because of appearance-related issues (no haircuts under lockdown) or because they want to maintain the privacy of the home environment. Some users add a still photo instead of video, while others seek to control their physical background with a virtual background. Turning off the video creates a new social situation with communication issues related to a lack of visual cues. It is akin to a student joining an in-person tutorial by telephone, while being able to see the other participants.

The online tutorial can also support the sharing of work—such as visual arts projects— where feedback can be given by the tutor and other students. This is achieved by a student sharing their screen and the tutor pointing digitally to elements of the work on-screen. This scenario effectively replicates its counterpart in a physical classroom, with a good amount of real-time interactivity.   

It is important to acknowledge that online learning may not be best suited for certain types of courses, such as those requiring hands-on activities and access to specialized equipment. Additionally, it may be problematic for those on the other side of the digital divide [6]. The sudden move online in response to the pandemic, however, has allowed a good deal of learning to continue, as opposed to the alternative of closing shop completely. At the same time, new user behaviors and online social situations have been created that are deserving of further study. 

Endnotes

1. Doyle, P., Mortensen, J., and Clifford, D. The trouble with Zoom. Australian Financial Review. Mar. 24, 2020. 

2. Neate, R. Zoom booms as demand for video-conferencing tech grows. The Guardian. Mar. 31, 2020.

3. Chotpitayasunondh, V. and Douglas, K.M. How “phubbing” becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of snubbing via smartphone. Computers in Human Behaviour 63 (2016), 9–18. 

4. Kadylak, T., Makki, T.W., Francis, J., Cotton, S.R., Rikard, R.V., and Sah, Y.J. Disrupted copresence: Older adults’ views on mobile phone use during face-to-face interactions. Mobile Media & Communication 6, 3 (2018), 331–349.

5. Przybylski, A.K. and Weinstein, N. Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 30, 3 (2012), 237–246.

6. Vishkaie, R. Hit by the pandemic, war, and sanctions: Building resilience to face the digital divide in education. ACM Interactions ‘Covid-19 blog’, Apr. 10, 2020.



Posted in: Covid-19 on Fri, May 22, 2020 - 4:58:53

David Youngmeyer

David Youngmeyer studies design at the University of Waikato. He plans to start Ph.D. research in 2021 in the field of human-computer interaction. He holds an M.A. in communication from the University of Maryland. davidyoungmeyer@gmail.com
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