Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Going Mobile. Are you Muted?

It is his first year of law school and Danny Levin is disappointed. He believes that the constant exchange of ideas, philosophical arguments and law school politics died when Harvard told students to pack up, go home and check their fast internet service. Harvard, like all colleges and universities in the US, has gone online only for the rest of the academic year. It goes without saying that not everyone is going to be prepared. And in all likelihood, as this forced migration extends through the summer, we may be witnessing a fundamental change in academics. Sure, we have online schools and certainly traditional 'brick and mortar' institutions offer online courses to complement or replace in-class learning. But the impact of Covid-19 on the delivery of educational materials and the relationships between faculty and students will produce radical change.

Many faculty have resisted the adoption or transformation of their course materials to online delivery. Why change? Their materials and the supporting text content represent years of work and are fine-tuned to deliver the best outcomes possible. No matter that better materials are available and new teaching methods (like assessment-based products) are changing education; change is hard, and if it can be avoided, that's easier. Being unprepared makes today's events difficult to manage for faculty and students.

Without generalizing, just the technological hurdles challenge even the most adept of us who - especially in the commercial world - work with technology every day. Who among us hasn't wanted to throw the laptop across the room when Zoom or Skype won't connect? If you've never convened an online meeting then there is a steep learning curve. At Harvard, Danny is excited to go to class because of the direct interaction with his fellow students and the professor. The professor works the room, calling on verbose or non attentive students, asking deeper and more probing questions. This interactivity is the value. Replicating that on-line takes artistry and practice and unfortunately converting mid-semester is the worst of all possible scenarios. As one professor said, perhaps the best that can be managed is to avoid mediocrity and the worst mistakes.

Most mistakes will probably stem from poor use or adoption of technology. And, to address this, faculty should be ready to engage with their students and departmental colleagues to educate and support. After each on-line session, faculty should open up the floor for feedback with the proviso that 'we are all in this together' and are all learning from the process. It is almost certain that, as students progress through their careers, on-line course delivery and other professional communication will become the norm no matter what their discipline. Therefore, from a practical standpoint, this experience and opportunity will not be wasted. Online depositions and legal proceedings are already used frequently in the wild.

Stories about the kind of technology issues students are facing today aren't hard to find. As one student lamented, "I've been faced with screen-sharing problems, poor connections, a platform user limitation and general time wasted trying to address the problems". More amusing was this from "Javi":
our professor was 20 minutes into lecture before realizing 1. he wasn’t sharing his slides 2. he wasn’t recording the lecture 3. he had his computer muted so he couldn’t hear us 4. wasn’t checking the chat and 5. had his phone on silent so the TAs couldn’t get a hold of him hahaha
One student noticed that when their professor hit screen share they had a file folder prominently labeled DIVORCE on their desktop.  So, practice safe sharing.

The more fundamental issue will be the preparation and delivery of the content itself. Faculty will not become proficient at this in the short term, but they will gain insight and valuable experience through this exercise, especially if they involve their students in the adventure. Perhaps faculty will accelerate their experimentation with online and adaptive learning products already available from education publishers. Some faculty with more experience will share their skills and experience to others.   (I am currently working with a publisher on this currently).  Online course development takes time (just like it does in the old model), but I hope we will see a faster adoption of online course materials in succeeding years because of this experience, once COVID-19 is behind us. For now, however, students and faculty will have to make the best of it

Michael Cairns is a publishing and media executive with over 25 years experience in business strategy, operations and technology implementation.  He has served on several boards and advisory groups including the Association of American Publishers, Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN organization.   Additionally, he has public and private company board experience.   He can be reached at michael.cairns@infomediapartners.com

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