Repost from OpenForum ‘Arvanitakis on Education: Covid, technology and the importance of face-to-face teaching’ by James Arvanitakis.

In this blog post, Arvanitakis discusses the impact of Covid on higher learning education. Discussing the importance of face-to-face teaching and the ways online learning has affected student experiences of ‘on-campus’ learning.

Arvanitakis on Education: Covid, technology and the importance of face-to-face teaching

Ever since I entered higher education two decades ago, the sector has been in a state of flux and subject to disruption. This disruption includes technological changes that many argued would result in the end of face-to-face instruction. The impact of technology has been both overwhelming and underwhelming. For example, many predicted that the emergence of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) would spell the end of higher education as we know it but over the years, they have had little impact. In contrast, the rise of mobile technologies has empowered educators with the opportunity to engage their student cohort both within the classroom setting and in accessing educational materials ‘on the go.’ Some argued that technology would allow students to wake up at 8.50am for a 9am lecture, and while still in their pyjamas, jump on their laptop to attend class. This was spoken about like it was a good thing.

Strangely, it was not technology that brought on this scenario but a global pandemic. And what we have found is that students not only prefer face to face instruction but are craving connections on campus. Even the Federal Government knows this in a recent presentation, Australia’s Education Minister, Alan Tudge, listed a positive ‘on campus’ experience as one of the government’s key priority areas when the sector recovers from Covid. Minister Tudge’s priorities are worth noting because they capture something that we as educators have always known: a university education is not simply about the discipline knowledge that we impart, but the many social experiences that accompany time on campus. It is a pity then that the government has ceased funding both the Office of Learning and Teaching and the Teaching Awards.

It is difficult to outline all the benefits of a positive on campus experience, but these include the skills that develop through discussion, debate, and collaboration. There are also the networks built that are likely to prove invaluable into the future and the socialisation of the many ideals of higher education: the pursuit of knowledge and scholarship as well as understanding the obligations we as citizens owe to both our community as well as broader society. While these somewhat lofty ideals are not always met, we as educators continue to strive to make the higher education experience greater than the sum of its parts. This is because if education was simply the distribution of knowledge, we could all save time by writing textbooks.

The on campus experience I am discussing here includes face-to-face instruction. This is the opportunity to share a physical location with our students to converse, deliberate and disagree. It is an opportunity to create safe spaces where we can investigate challenging ideas as well as ‘brave spaces’ that draw on the educational power of discomfort.

What we Learnt during Covid

Part of the technological discussion has focused on the flexibility of students to undertake ‘just in time learning’ whereby students can attend class without leaving their homes. As noted, this was seen as a good thing until Covid came along and we learnt that this is not an ideal learning experience. While the sentiment is that ‘Covid changed everything’, I would argue that this misrepresents the learning experience that students have always desired. Rather than ‘change everything’, the Covid experience has confirmed three important insights. The first is that students can learn online if required but prefer a face-to-face experience and crave personal connections.

The second is that regardless of preferences, online engagement and collaborations are fundamental skills that must be part of the learning experience. Understanding and employing engagement tools, be they Zoom, Skype or Teams, are important tools that will be utilised into the future even when (hopefully) Covid becomes a distant memory. Even if we could instantly return to a pre-Covid world, the abilities to utilise such tools should be seen as being part of the important suite of skills.

Thirdly, students want good teaching. That is, be it online or in-person, the experience of students is driven by the pedagogy employed and the resources available. In other words, Covid has not altered the way we learn – just confirmed that they want a well-designed experience.

But it must be done right
Over the years I have worked to ensure that face to face instruction is engaging and empowering. Here are three strategies that I have employed. The first is to ensure we take advantage of the time we spend in classes by undertaking specific challenges that make the experience valuable. For example, in one class on unconscious bias, I ask all students to write down five stereotypes about themselves: these do not have to be true, just stereotypes about their own cultural background. I then ask them to circle how many of these are true. The students are then asked to stand, and I ask those to stay standing if two or more stereotypes are true. In the many times I have undertaken this exercise, invariably about 80 percent of students sit-down. This highlights how the perceived stereotypes about us are not true – and as such, neither can they be true of others. Such an exercise is only powerful in physical setting.

The second strategy is that face to face classes must be interactive to ensure that they are engaging. That is, they should not be a one-way form of communication but include questions, quizzes, small group discussions and knowledge sharing.

Thirdly, classes can be used to draw out the valuable experiences of the student body. Students are not empty vessels to be ‘filled’ with his expert knowledge. They have insights from their own lives that they should draw on and apply to theory – and challenge theories in the process. Be it experiences of toxic masculinity or the challenges of studying with a severe disability – we should draw on the knowledge of the students themselves.

An education must be an empowering process and we need to work hard to get it right. Technology can act as a vehicle to deliver this – but technology on its own does not make a good experience. We need good educators – and this requires as much of an investment as does technology.

This piece is based on a recently published article by Pedagogy for Higher Education Large Classes.