The Future of Online Education: Advancements in Learning and Instruction
By Stephen Paul McKenzie, Lilani Arulkadacham, Jennifer Chung, and Zahra Aziz, Editors
Nova Science Publishers
In the tail end of the pandemic, online learning has become familiar to many learners the world over. Web conferencing tools have come to the fore as a way for people to collaborate. New pedagogical methods have been explored and applied. At this juncture, where is online education headed in the near-term, the mid-term, and the long-term?
What are the gaps that may be constructively exploited? What are some technologies that are forthcoming? How can online education continue to be relevant for the world? How can online learning become more accessible? More egalitarian? How will the online learning “use cases” change? Who are the learners of the future, and what will they bring to the experience, and what will their needs be (and why)? Even as the future is unpredictable, given complexity, perhaps some insights may be acquired.
The Future of Online Education: Advancements in Learning and Instruction, a collection co-edited by Stephen Paul McKenzie, Lilani Arulkadacham, Jennifer Chung, and Zahra Aziz, explores where online education is headed. The co-editors emphasize the importance of understanding how to “enter our brave new online education world” (p. 1), given the accelerant of the global pandemic. [This book was published prior to the broad popularization of generative AI, which has the potential to be fairly disruptive.]
Figure 1. Colorful Future
From Great Challenges -> Great Opportunities
Stephen P. McKenzie and Filia Garivaldis’s “The Future of Online Education: Transforming Great Challenges into Great Opportunities” (Ch. 2) opens with a perennial concern that seems to not have been put to rest, namely, that online learning is not somehow less than face-to-face learning. Even after the “no significant difference” research (circa 2004) and the running database, the long-running debate continues apace. The quality of online learning during the pandemic may have been harmed with the “onlification” (online + ification) of face-to-face courses in a context of mass-scale duress (p. 13) versus purpose-built online learning. Many had to enter the field in the deep end, with little warning.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, many institutions of higher education lost revenue from international students given lockdowns. The challenges of the present moment include how to help “our online education expansion story end happily, by creating an optimal online education future, now” (McKenzie & Garivaldis, 2022, p. 10), given a scarcity framework.
Essentially, the co-authors suggest the importance of having “clear and optimal online education aims, plans and models, that allow genuine, sustainable and student centred online education success” (McKenzie & Garivaldis, 2022, p. 14). They share a light review of selected academic research works to “onboard” those new to offering online teaching and learning and those who may have engaged with “emergency online learning” but without the benefit of much prior preparation. They suggest developing high functioning online courses and using those as course prototypes (templates) for other courses. They emphasize consistency between courses to enable “optimal ease of use” by students (p. 17). They suggest conducting research to collect evidence of teaching and learning efficacy and going with the data for design. They also suggest the need to meet the various needs of “whole” learners (p. 18) vs. just focusing on learning alone.
Figure 2. Cyber Future
Correcting for Wrong Directions
The next chapter asks a critical question about where online learning is headed. Christopher J. Holt’s “Is Online Education Mutating into Something it Shouldn’t?” (Ch. 3) suggests the importance of reflecting on what “good online education” requires and to keep these in mind and practice (p. 23). Certainly, the sudden shift to online learning given the global pandemic was not without teacher and learner resistance. That time period was typified by low student motivation and major learning loss. Indeed, the pandemic had “a negative impact on online education” (p. 27).
Holt cites a global study that found that “59.4% of institutions transitioned to an online synchronous delivery through real-time video conferencing and a smaller number resorted to asynchronous formats such as providing students with presentations (15.2%), video recordings (11.6%), written formats (9.1%, digital forums and chats), and audio recordings (4.7%) (Aristovnik et al., 2020, as cited in Holt, 2022, p. 25). In the emergency context, the transition to online learning was often about directly moving from real-space to virtual, without further consideration. Indeed, many institutions lacked the online cyber infrastructure, experienced teachers, and necessary resources (Holt, 2022, p. 25). Ideally, online education requires “rigorous planning and design and use evidence-based approaches” (p. 27). Teachers teaching online require sufficient training, and student equity itself should be supported (p. 27).
Looking Ahead to Needs, Opportunities, and Examples…in Online Education
Stephen P. McKenzie, Margaret Osborne, Carol Johnson, Grace Nixon, Kelley Graydon, Dani Tomlin, Sarah Van Dam, and Michelle I. Jongenelis’s “Expanding Online Education Frontiers—Needs, Opportunities and Examples” (Ch. 4) considers how to expand online education, particularly to courses that have “real or perceived barriers to their successful online implementation include performance based and creative courses, clinical courses, and courses with substantial research components” (p. 33). This work explores the research literature to consider ways that courses in the three categories have been taught online in order to change the erroneous ideas that such courses are not teachable online. They focus on “transferable examples of the successful development and implementation of each of these course types and associated online resources” (p. 33).
As to the teaching of art and music and other art-based fields, there has been resistance:
Receptivity to online education in the creative arts has been restricted due to inherent difficulties in replicating the social, emotional and kinesthetic aspects of artistic studios, loss of nuanced interpersonal communication in artistic critique, and diminished scope of visual properties of visual works across online media. Despite the challenges, educators are becoming increasingly aware of the affordances of the online creative arts studio as new dynamic properties of the digital medium as a creative element are being revealed, as is an embrace of the value of online education as a means to engage with, and support, students in their creative practice. (McKenzie, Osborne, Johnson, Nixon, Graydon, Tomlin, Van Dam, & Jongenelis, 2022, p. 35)
Others have lamented the transience of digital materials as transient and insufficiently present, especially for new learners who would benefit from creative practice. Remote social interchanges are seen as less physically present and so less humanly intimate. Dialogues and social interchanges tend to be more remote. Still, the precipitous transition to teaching music online in the pandemic has led to a rise in research in online music pedagogy.
The researchers also mention the need for standards in “Hyflex” (high-flexibility) teaching, including the need to ensure that learners in both the physical and virtual contexts have their learning needs met. Both groups should have access to effective teaching. They should be properly resourced. The learners should be socially integrated:
One of the current vogue teaching approaches includes a dual delivery mode. This is when the instructor is synchronously teaching students both in the class and in the online environment. One of the key considerations for this mode is that a purposeful teaching design addresses how community between both the online and on-location students is not only a priority but is exemplified during the teaching itself. This mode allows students to perform together when in their allocated environments. Specifically, this means students in dyads within breakout rooms, and students in class playing together In a regular ensemble. (McKenzie, Osborne, Johnson, Nixon, Graydon, Tomlin, Van Dam, & Jongenelis, 2022, pp. 37-38)
For learners in the performing arts, they should be able to experience performance anxiety in the way that face-to-face learners train.
Also, students should be included in the design of the teaching and learning (McKenzie, Osborne, Johnson, Nixon, Graydon, Tomlin, Van Dam, & Jongenelis, 2022, p. 40). Student participatory design empowers learners and emphasizes their sense of agency.
Electronic portfolios (e-portfolios) may be harnessed to help learners develop their learning and skills and self-awareness.
In terms of clinical education, virtual clinics and other forms of telemedicine set up in the pandemic may serve as models for online teaching and learning (McKenzie, Osborne, Johnson, Nixon, Graydon, Tomlin, Van Dam, & Jongenelis, 2022, pp. 42-43). Virtual patients may be used to simulate patient interactions, patient care, patient exams, learner confidence building, learner practice, and others.
Finally, in terms of research learning, a research portal was built out at Monash University to meet online learner needs in a learning progression. The portal enables various endeavors: access to “research knowledge and information related resources” (McKenzie, Osborne, Johnson, Nixon, Graydon, Tomlin, Van Dam, & Jongenelis, 2022, p. 47) “research participant selection and recruitment,” “supervision and communication tools,” a “virtual lab” (p. 48), and other enablements.
The researchers suggest the importance of supporting learner goal-setting and study skills for the online ecosystem.
Figure 3. Humanity and Technologies
Harnessing Online Modalities for Professional Development and Training
At the same time that higher education was taking on online learning, many in industry were also harnessing online modalities for professional development and training. Zahra Aziz, Isobel Bandurek, and Morven Roberts’ “Breaking New Grounds Beyond Tertiary Education: Adapting Professional Development and Training for Online Delivery” (Ch. 5) describes a two-week Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases (GACD) Implementation Science School (ISS) delivered Nov. – Dec. 2020, a year into the global pandemic. The training was targeted towards “capacity-strengthening activities for early- and mid-career researchers, GACD staff, in collaboration with an international faculty drawn from the GACD Research Network” (p. 60). The focus was on “implementation science” and methods. While there was high satisfaction with the course, the participants also suggested “more opportunities to interact with other trainees, more engagement with the faculty, and more time for pre-reading and group assignments” (p. 65). This chapter describes the logistics of setting up the course, its offerings, and learning from the work.
Academic Governance and Online Learning
Judith Gullifer and John Russo’s “Academic Governance and Online Pedagogy” (Ch. 6) argues for the importance of leadership, standards setting, and the provisioning of resources in order to ensure successful transition to online teaching and learning. The work introduces the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA)’s Higher Education Standards Framework from 2021 as a context for effective online learning.
The researchers set the context by summarizing the government’s assumptions and policy structures around learners arriving at higher education. There are varying levels of academic preparation for learners prior to their starting higher education. Prior experiential learning is recognized in Australia’s higher education system (p. 74). Institutions of higher education are expected to “provide information that will prepare them to be successful learners” and to orientate to online learning (p. 75). They offer an online course map design, informed foundationally by course learning objectives. Then, units of study are built to help learners achieve those objectives, followed by assessment, grading, moderation, and “resources & activities” (p. 77). There are quality standards for the various elements and the online courses.
For course learning outcomes, for example, course developers have to ensure the following (at the unit level):
• Develop a clear rationale which subset of course level learning outcomes each unit of study will address.
• Ensure that all the course learning outcomes are being assessed across the combined set of units of study.
• Ensure that there is no duplication between units.
• Ensure that there is a consistent assessment load across units.
• Consider if there will be ‘scaffolding’ of related areas/units of study between earlier and later years of the program. (Gullifer & Russo, 2022, p. 80)
Online assessments have to prepare students for their future work. They need to be accessible, to ensure “equal opportunity for success of all students” (p. 81). In terms of grading, there has to be some mix of automation and manual grading “to deliver maximum benefit to students” (p. 81). Academic integrity has to be ensured with “biometric authentication” and “remote proctoring” among other methods (p. 81). The researchers emphasize the importance of “currency with scholarly activity…to ensure that students are engaging with academic staff that remain current with new developments in the discipline that they teach” (p. 87). The concepts in the work align with the research literature in terms of best practices.
Figure 4. Silver Linings and Sun
More Digital Skills to be Had for Digital Natives
Eleanor J. Dommett’s “Optimizing the University Experience through Digital Skills Training: Beyond Digital Nativity” (Ch. 7) calls into question the supposed sophistication of digital natives. For learners to optimize their learning, they need access to digital skills as poorer skills in this area may result in “poorer outcomes, widening of attainment gaps, and reduced wellbeing” (p. 93). Even so, institutions of higher education may have a hard time “situating digital skills training” in the bureaucracy (p. 93). While many arriving learners to higher education own some complex technical devices, their ownership does not necessarily mean that they are adept in their usage (p. 95).
Having in-depth technical skills in some areas does not mean that individuals have such skills in other areas. Also, technical sophistication using some tools may not mean the ability to conduct research and to analyze the results of their research. In terms of “digital skills,” a large swath of technologies and capabilities are included in that designation. The author suggests using an effective digital skills framework: “These frameworks typically include a range of areas such as digital communication, ICT proficiency and digital creation” (JISC, 2015, as cited in Dommitt, 2022, p. 97). For fair access, the researcher suggests offering such training from central campus instead of within particular learning disciplines:
Training could be embedded or integrated within the students’ core curriculum, but this is likely to be less cost effective than university wide approaches which can draw on expertise from across the institution to deliver fundamental skills training. Delivery of university wide training will also allow robust evaluation of such training and consideration of individual differences and attainment gaps, therefore, feeding into strategic initiatives of universities. (Dommitt, 2022, p. 101)
In a ubiquitous digital world, perhaps all individuals would stand to benefit from extending their digital knowledge, skills, and abilities / attitudes (KSAs).
Assessing Theory in Indigenous Health Online
Karen Adams, Mandy Truong, and Colleen Kelly’s “The Role of Theory in Indigenous Health Online Learning Pedagogy” (Ch. 8) suggest a social context of “rising social and structural inequity” (p. 107). This cultural context results in continuing biases against indigenous peoples. They write:
Indigenous peoples globally experience great inequities predominantly driven by ongoing colonialization and racism. This extends into education where a predominant colonial paradigm exists, continually reinforcing active and complicit roles in legitimizing and reproducing multiple forms of structural inequity. (p. 107)
What they see as a healthy and ethical “retrospective and contemporary interrogation of the memorialization of oppression leaders, their paradigms, and the continuing harms these evoke” (p. 108) and the rising of new pedagogies that are more socially equitable and sustainably more future-proofed. They write:
In Australia, educators and students are constantly exposed to ongoing colonial racism. Some high-profile examples are dissensions surrounding colonial memorialization, such as Australia Day and monuments celebrating colonial figures who contributed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (herein Aboriginal) people’s genocide. (Adams, Truong, & Kelly, 2022, p. 108)
In the health sciences, historical figures with marred histories are still venerated in curriculums. The move to online teaching and learning may offer an opportunity to “dismantle” the colonial racism that results in bias against Aboriginal peoples and their present-day exclusion and marginalization. The researchers suggest that present-day clashes of different world views with different “cosmological, epistemological and ontological grounds” (p. 109) does a disservice to the society as its peoples are treated differently. This work advocates for the centering of Indigenous ways of knowing and the promotion of Native studies in the health professions for a more effective cultural interface with Indigenous and other learners.
Other approaches are also seen as relevant, such as “decolonizing curriculum” to shed light on “the ways that health professions and academic institutions perpetuate harm on Indigenous people and communities in education, research, and practice” (Adams, Truong, & Kelly, 2022, p. 111). Peoples are seen to gain if they can hold their own cultural values and beliefs but also make room for those of others. Critical Race Theory enables better understanding “differential racialization” and to strive for racial equity through enlightened awareness and practice (p. 112). “Transformative learning theory” explores the ability to “transform problematic frames of reference (mindsets, habits of mind, meaning perspectives)” to enable positive social change (p. 113). This work also refers to reflection and Freire’s critical consciousness building as important approaches (p. 114). Perhaps Indigenous academics and community members may work with healthcare educators for decolonizing the curriculum and teaching praxis, informed by dominant culture (pp. 118 – 119). This work concludes with a table with “post knowledge activities to scaffold learning” to help online healthcare educators get started (p. 122). This advocacy chapter reads well and provides practical ways to get started and to find allies for the hard work of change.
Equity, Human Rights, and Learner Wellbeing in Online Learning
Ebba Ossiannilsson’s “The Future of Online Education Includes Equity, Human Rights and Wellbeing” (Ch. 9) works to reframe online education to be more socially inclusive of peoples around the world. The future of online learning has to be values-based and socially bettering. This work describes a new pedagogical paradigm for “new or next normal learning and education” (p. 130) that supports learner “wellbeing, health, empathy, equity, equality, social justice, and lifelong learning” (p. 130). This addresses how education should be built out in “a world of increasing complexity, uncertainty, and precarity” (p. 130), based on a systematic review of the research literature and reflective analysis.
The author captures a sense of the magnitude of the pandemic’s effects: “Many academic institutions were forced to immediately switch to emergency remote teaching (ERT), which is different from quality planned, open, online, flexible and distance learning (OFDL). According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), at the height of the crisis, more than 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries were out of school More than 100 million teachers and school staff were affected by the sudden closure of educational institutions” (Ossiannilsson, 2022, p. 129).
Worse yet, as with global-scale stressors, the pandemic “exposed and deepened preexisting inequalities in education” leaving those “most vulnerable and marginalized…affected the most” (Ossiannilsson, 2022, p. 129), with many with “long COVID” implications including permanent harms. Beyond the pandemic, advances in technologies—biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), quantum computing, and others—has been socially disruptive, empowering particular individuals and groups over others. One question is how to ensure skills for unknown futures. Should the learning be about fundamentals, learner adaptability and resilience, and lifelong learning? This work explores the insights from global entities like the United Nations (UN), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), European Union (EU), European Association of Universities (EAU), and others. This draws from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the OECD’s Education 2030 and Learning Framework 2030 and Skills Outlook 2030, the EU’s Digital Education Action Plan, and others to firmly situate education as an important social contract for human wellbeing. Throughout, leadership is critical “because it is about empowerment, encouragement, incentives, and the courage to take the lead and shape the future of education” (p. 142).
Online Collaboration Tools to Bridge School and Work
Nikolai Alksnis and Yogita Ahuja’s “From Workplace to Classroom and Back Again: Integrating Online Collaboration Tools in Higher Education” (Ch. 10) touches on core elements in online learning: the social, collaborative, teaming, and other interactive aspects, enabled by online collaborative tools (OCTs). Such tools, when used appropriately, enable “knowledge sharing, transparency and accountability” on team projects; they enable “online communication, interactive problem solving, assigning workload and clear lines of accountability” (p. 151). To explore some OCT capabilities, the researchers engage use cases in engineering in higher education.
OCTs instantiate in many technological forms, but at core, they include applications that enable multiple people to collaborate and create around a learning or work task. OCTs can be used for “planning, prioritizing, allocating and tracking the project tasks, as well as establishing protocols for communication and reporting of project progress” (Alksnis & Ahuja, 2022, pp. 155-156). One group found that “OCTs significantly reduced the number of supervisor interventions required for issues associated with group and workload management” and that the group engaged in more “cordial” and constructive ways (p. 156). OCT usage also benefitted non-technical competencies for work including “effective communication within group settings, project reporting and time management” (p. 157).
This work includes discussions of work boards, social docs applications, wikis, and other technologies. It also includes descriptions of various internal features of collaborative technologies that enhance the work.
Promoting Student Agency in Higher Ed
Edwin Creeley and Danah Henriksen’s “Redesigning for Student Agency in University Learning, A Flipped Approach” (Ch. 11) opens with a challenge in online learning, specifically, a deficit of “student satisfaction or feelings of connectedness” (p. 165). What may work better than the status quo for many online learning experiences is “a more fluid, flipped approach to teaching and learning designed for online environments, with a stronger emphasis on student participation and agency and the co-creation of knowledge” (p. 165), for synchronous online learning.
The work proposes social constructivism as a core theoretical underpinning. Online learning may result in a feeling of social and psychological isolation and disengagement and distance between the instructor and learners. Based on a practice example, the researchers describe how closer social ties may be achieved:
Students become the centre of the learning space when they are able to first engage with course materials (from readings, discussion, videos, and other materials) and class activities and then apply and extend the ideas through group engagement, purposeful discussion, new design thinking and creative output. (Creeley & Henriksen, 2022, p. 168)
The concept of a flipped classrooms is defined generally as changing up “traditional structures and assumptions” (p. 169). The concept of flipped classrooms has advanced since the original reference in which “formal class time is utilized to critically engage with and apply ideas, rather than for the main delivery of the disciplinary content” (Bergmann & Sams, 2012, as cited in Creeley & Henriksen, 2022, p. 169). The three phases of flipped learning are described as first “engaging with content prior to in-class time,” then “in-class active learning and engagement,” and third, “additional communication” and “accessing online resources” (p. 170). The order of the phases 2 and 3 may be switched around in some cases.
The practice example involves a two-hour workshop given to second year teacher education students as “part of a unit on creativity and critical thinking in teaching and learning” (Creeley & Henriksen, 2022, p. 173). From the experiences here, transitioning to a student-centered pedagogy that involves more active learning and learner supports reads as highly doable.
Supporting Students in Research
Zahra Aziz, Lilani Arulkadacham, and Jennifer Chung’s “Supervising Research Students in an Online Mode” (Ch. 12) is based on an online research support setup for “fully online 4th year (Honours equivalent) program” in the Graduate Diploma of Psychology Advanced (GDPA) course at Monash University in Australia (p. 181). This piece showcases the importance of research supervisors for learners, involving “academic guidance (providing feedback and direction in the specific research area or field of study) and providing pastoral care (offering support, motivation, and encouragement)” (p. 181). When such supervisors and new researchers are separated by distance, such as during the pandemic, how can such services still be effectively provided? This work emphasizes the importance of human-to-human connections. They emphasize that learners are diverse, with diverse needs on their respective research journeys. An online program to support early-career researchers benefit from particular events and resources and supports.
Professional Development for Online Teaching
Leah Braganza, Eloise Perini, Dragan Ilic, and Matthew E. Mundy’s “Exploring Approaches to Professional Development for Online Teaching in Higher Education: A Case Study of the Graduate Diploma in Psychology” (Ch. 13) suggests the importance of professional development (PD) for online educators and staff to ensure quality education and advances to the scholarship of teaching. This is especially so in a time of “increasingly varied course structures that differ from the traditional 12-week semester format” (p. 191). Online teachers need to know their content knowledge, but they also need to know how to structure an effective online course, make online learning interactive and engaging, how to create an inclusive online community, and how to be telepresent and personable online. They use as a case in point a 6-week course that runs six times annually in the Graduate Diploma in Psychology (GDP) at Monash University. This course is designed as professional development for a heterogeneous group of staff. The researchers suggest that transformational learning theory and adult learning theories are relevant for the context. Also, the support for such an endeavor needs to come from the organization’s leadership on down. Even as detailed insights are shared, the researchers note that local conditions are important to PD program designs.
Making Online Education More Effective for the Neurodiverse
In the accessibility space, practitioners have become more sophisticated in their knowledge. They have been learning of ways to accommodate the neurodiverse with cognitive adaptations. Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Eleanor Dommett, and Vincent Giampietro’s “Supporting Neurodiversity in Online Education: A Systematic Review” (Ch. 14) collects their findings from the academic research literature into three areas: “cognitive factors, instructional factors, and social factors that challenge or support neurodiversity in online education” (p. 213). They note that learning challenges from neurodiversity is often invisible, with many learners unwilling to share their status for fear of stigma, which makes addressing such issues more challenging. “Neurodiversity” was used initially in relation to autism in the 1990s but now includes “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and Tourette syndrome” among others (p. 215). Learners who are neurodivergent have “high levels of inattention, lower self-awareness of inattention, and struggle to stay focused”; they “face difficulties with online communication” such as with chat tools which may move too quickly and include the uses of confusing abbreviations and jargon (pp. 223-224).
What follows is a methodical review of the literature about how online educators strive to meet the needs of learners who are neurodiverse. They limit the presentation of “irrelevant information” (p. 224) to avoid the sense of information overload. They design events, assignments, and assessments in ways that do not distract neurodiverse learners. They engage work arounds in socio-technical systems that do not enable learning customizations.
Ensuring Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity
Leela Cejnar and Melanie Aley’s “Delivering Equitable, Diverse and Inclusive Experiential Learning Online” (Ch. 15) opens with observations of educators working to enable both authentic experiential learning online while also being as inclusive as possible for healthcare students in Australia. This work explores “how the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion were applied to create supportive, inclusive and collaborative ‘emergency’ online experiential learning for international students (who suddenly found themselves either far from home, or, back at home but far from the university campus), students living in areas where access to the internet or to technology is limited, and students coping with difficult personal circumstances, or with learning difficulties” (p. 236). The work is based on lived experiences and reflection by educators at a major Australian university, as an ethnography combined with critical reflection (p. 239).
In the pandemic, given public health orders in Australia, health professionals “were redeployed to areas of need, such as contact tracing teams and COVID-19 wards. As such, many health departments experienced stress and could not prioritize student learning. While this was an issue for all health professional students, there was a notable impact on our first-year students, who fell to the bottom of the priority list for the limited number of placement experiences” (Cejnar & Aley, 2022, p. 240). Some students were outside of Australia when the pandemic hit and could not re-enter due to border closings.
The researchers were tasked with setting up online occupational therapy learning. They initially went with the fundamentals, such as focusing first on learning objectives to ensure that what is designed for their online learning meets standards and learner requirements (Cejnar & Aley, 2022, p. 241).
They used a “relational learning-based pedagogy” to develop “critical thinking, cross-cultural learning and communication skills” and used various learning activities to enable practice “interviewing a client, interviewing a co-worker, and peer-mentoring activities” (Cejnar & Aley, 2022, p. 242). Zoom videoconferencing came in handy in this approach and enabled the collaboration with “guest lecturers, OT’s (sic) (note: occupational therapists), mentors and clients” (p. 242). The group used Zoom breakout rooms for collaboration. Google documents and slides were brought to bear for group learning, too. The collaborations encourage empathic engagement and heightened inclusivity.
Interestingly, the concept of authentic experiential learning (and learning by doing) is often thought of as a challenge in online learning. There is much to be said for building learning to high standards and including “diversity, equity and inclusion” considerations simultaneously…in a time of mass-scale emergency.
Going Online with Sensitive and Triggering Content
An important aspect of education is the openness to engage difficult issues, including potentially triggering ones that address controversial social issues, including in health-related online courses. What are learners to do if they experience triggering contents in online learning when they are alone to handle the difficulty? Lilani Arulkadacham’s “Virtually Alone: How to Address Wellbeing in Online Courses Teaching Sensitive and Triggering Learning Content” (Ch. 16) involves focus group research and identified some best practices for this issue:
Students reported the need for 1. Explicit acknowledgement of the nature of the learning content, 2. Easy access to and more importantly, promotion of general wellbeing support services, 3. Various debriefing opportunities and / or offloading of emotions and 4. Real-time wellbeing activities. (p. 249)
The researcher suggests the importance of both university-led supports for learner wellbeing (such as through encouragement of learner help seeking and mental health support services) as well as those in various disciplines and programs. Another suggestion was to have “virtual self-care and wellbeing and activities dispersed throughout the course to assist students to essentially decompress and / or settle following exposure to sensitive and/or triggering online learning content” (Arulkadacham, 2022, p. 256).
Ensuring Student Wellbeing and Success in Higher Ed
Jennifer Chung, Stephen P. McKenzie, and Matthew E. Mundy’s “Recommendations for Student Success and Student Wellbeing in Modern Higher Education” (Ch. 17) is a Ph.D. research study (for the first author) that proposes mindfulness interventions to support learner wellbeing and by extension positive academic performance in tertiary education.
The pilot study “demonstrated the effectiveness of a pilot, brief (1-2 minute sessions) and low intensity (six sessions), self-guided, online, mindfulness-based intervention over one semester. The pilot stud (n = 427) found that the intervention condition accounted for up to 12% of the variability in positive change across the semester in all three self-reported measures of student wellbeing, perceived stress and mindful attention” (Chung et al., 2021, as cited in Chung, McKenzie, & Mundy, 2022, p. 271).
This chapter is a follow-on study that provides “an ecological evaluation of a real-world implementation of a self-managed online mindfulness program in a university-wide learning management system orientation site” during the first year of COVID-19 (Chung, McKenzie, & Mundy, 2022, p. 271). Their learning analytics found that “almost two thirds (58.7%) of the whole sample did not log in at all, 31.0% logged in 1 – 2 weeks of the 12-week semester, and 10.2% logged in at least three weeks of the semester” to this online mindfulness activity (p. 271). Their findings: All participants improved in their wellbeing at the end of the semester, but “only participants who engaged with the mindfulness program for 3 or more weeks in the 12-week semester…showed significant improvements in all three outcome measures of wellbeing, perceived stress and mindfulness” (p. 271).
Next steps in the intervention should include student voices, as participatory designers and testers, the researchers suggest. Regardless, it is impressive that a university is so supportive of a doctoral student so as to enable this level of cross-university research…during a pandemic, no less.
“Real Life Skills” in the Online Format
Ashleigh Schweinsberg’s “Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Teaching Real Life Skills in the Online Format” (Ch. 18) focuses on using online modalities to teach applied workforce-based skills and to ensure work readiness. The researcher notes that skill development has not traditionally been known to be part of higher education learning but have become much more important for students and graduates, and the companies and organizations that would employ them. The author writes: “Defining skill sets allows for a baseline for skill development and comparison between traditional and novel modes of learning” (p. 289). Certainly, the inclusion of skills development in tertiary education may be part of the value argument for those pursuing university learning.
A “Job Outlook Psychological Skill-sets” include the following (in descending order): “Social perceptiveness, active listening, reading comprehension, speaking, active learning, serving others, writing, complex problem solving, critical thinking, monitoring, persuasion, judgment & decision…, learning strategies, science, instructing, time management, coordination with others, negotiation, management of personnel…, (and) systems analysis” (Schweinsberg, 2022, p. 290). Different areas of study may have different skills of interest. These may be mapped across the curriculum.
Learners benefit from skills literacy and being able to identify the skills that they need for their respective fields. Badging has come to the fore as a way of “increasing skill visibility to both students and employers” (p. 295). Most critically, work readiness is important to better integrate in institutions of higher education.
Online Learning in Alternate Futures?
Punya Mishra, Melissa Warr, and Benjamin Scragg’s “Two Possible Futures of Online Learning” (Ch. 19) poses a simple binary for the future: either a dystopian vs. a utopian one. The focus that may be determinative of what future emerges is not based on technologies but rather “the broader processes, systems, and culture embedded in online learning” (p. 303). They suggest that the focus should be values-based, with a focus on “human-centric, pedagogical values that include access, equity, student agency, creativity, and engagement” (p. 305).
For a dystopian world, they suggest an overfocus on “learning loss” during the pandemic with the shift to online learning (Mishra, Warr, & Scragg, 2022, p. 306). They focus on learners doing their work in isolation at home for biosafety as a negative. They show the “food insecurity and child abuse” in the absence of “social safety nets” during the pandemic as a negative. The focus of teachers trying to raise student performances on standardized tests as part of a negative future.
A utopian future is more accommodative of the various differences among learners:
In our ideal world, rather than focus on standards, we consider the importance of curiosity, play, and the role of social engagement in learning. We realize that when learning is genuinely humanized, it is authentically engaging. In this context, teachers are individuals who work collectively to support, encourage, and guide learning. They are allowed to focus on what they do best: guiding and mentoring, diagnosing misunderstandings, and inspiring curiosity…With high-quality teachers leading the way, technologies become a tool for expanding teachers’ ability to support diverse students and reach traditionally underserved learners. (Mishra, Warr, & Scragg, 2022, p. 308)
Learning should be abundantly available and integrated as part of the human lifespan, available in various contexts. This work benefits the debate on what desirable futures may look like and how to achieve those.
Deploying Curriculum that Engages Learners
Azra Ladha’s “Creating Engaging Curriculum Using Innovative Technology in Education” (Ch. 20) broadens the lens of online learning to include more innovative technologies, such as extended reality (including mixed reality, virtual reality, augmented reality, and other mixes); adaptive learning technologies (for learning customizations); learning system data dashboards; and others. (This work was published prior to the mass public access to artificial intelligence systems.) This work explores learning affordances of various technologies and practical considerations in their deployment, in this time of digital transformation.
Going Virtual Reality (VR) for Education
Cyan DeVeaux, Eugy Han, and Jeremy N. Bailenson’s “Expanding Education through Virtual Reality” (Ch. 21) introduces a course taught at Stanford University mostly in virtual reality (VR) or the metaverse. This case of Virtual People sheds light on the pros and cons of harnessing this technology for teaching and learning. They write:
The course explores VR’s contributions to various disciplines, including popular culture, engineering, behavioral science, and communication. Previous iterations of this course have accomplished this through a combination of readings, lectures, invited guests, and in-class demonstrations by graduate students and student volunteers. But in 2021, advancements in VR technology and the pandemic’s remote learning landscape inspired us to rethink our approach to the class. We decided to give each student an Oculus Quest 2 headset, instructed them to create an avatar, and enabled them to finally experience the course in the very medium it revolved around. (p. 326)
Over the summer and fall quarters when this course was taught, during the pandemic, some 200,000 shared minutes occurred in VR, and some 250 students took part. Learners engaged in “embodied cognition” through the avatars (De Veaux, Han, & Bailenson, 2022, p. 327) and experienced different VR contexts. They engaged in social learning via avatar selves / identity (p. 328). They consume VR contents to develop their sense of empathy for others. Even as the VR enabled immersions, the researchers found “a lack of data showing the advantages of learning in VR over traditional methods” (p. 329). This work offers details of how the course curriculum was designed. Discussion sections were held outside of VR.
VR was used in the extreme context of a global pandemic with a deadly pathogen that was transmitted in human-to-human ways through airborne means. The researchers conclude with the observation that VR “works best for experiences that would be too dangerous, impossible, counterintuitive, or expensive to try in real life” (De Veaux, Han, & Bailenson, 2022, p. 334).
Companionable Chatbots for Collaborative Study
Sylvie Studente’s “’Hello, my Name is Differ!’ The Use of Chatbots for Providing Collaborative Study Support to University Students” (Ch. 22) describes the use of AI-based chatbots to help lessen the sense of isolation and lack of engagement in online learning. This work is based on a use of Differ, the chatbot, at a university in London with a large international student base. The artificial agent is used as a form of socio-psychological support for learners by facilitating conversations as a way to replace “social media applications such as Facebook groups, WhatsApp, email etc. into one integrated environment” (p. 342). This AI matches students to each other. It is used to host learning communities. This description reads more like a virtual social communications tool supported by artificial agents.
This tool was created by Edtech Foundry, a Norwegian company. This chapter is based on a research study in Autumn 2020.
Global Health for Multicultural Learners
Gulzar Malik and Jacqueline Johnston’s “Learning Global Health: An Online Collaborative Multicultural Learning Experience” (Ch. 23) describes an effort at a school of nursing and midwifery at a university in Australia to provide a global learning experience. The researchers write:
Traditionally, undergraduate health science students have been offered opportunities to participate in study abroad programs as a way of meeting their curriculum requirements for global learning. As Covid-19 has disrupted international travel worldwide, educational institutions continue to offer students an internationalization experience and ensure that all curriculum requirements can be met, (p. 351)
Their approach is based on the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) pedagogy, with a focus on supporting students in intercommunicating, learning together, and working together in multicultural environments. This chapter describes the setup of the program (including video-based simulations), its process, and learning from this case. They did encounter some challenges: “Feedback from students revealed that cultural diversity, language barrier, time zone differences and group dynamics created some challenges for students in achieving the desired outcomes of the COIL experiences” (Malik & Johnston, 2022, p. 362).
Remote Simulations in the Health Professions
Debra Nestel, Samanta Syms, Filia Garivaldis, and Ram Nataraja’s “Distance Simulation in Health Professions Education: Moving beyond Adaptation” (Ch. 24) focuses on the uses of simulations for the learning of safe clinical practice. Some modalities of simulations in healthcare involve “task or part-task trainers, manikins, virtual patients, simulated patients (actors) and many others” (pp. 367 – 368). A general sequence involves (pre-)briefing, observation and engagement during the simulation, and debriefing (as a general sequence). Simulations have to be built with psychological safety of all involved in mind, whether in person or via distance. This chapter describes three main simulation-based education (SBE) case studies achieved remotely. The researchers write:
The case studies include medical students in high-stakes clinical skills assessments; surgical trainees learning laparoscopic (keyhole) surgical skills via home-based simulator kits with online facilitation; and, final year psychology students supported in embodying professional values and skills. (Nestel, Syms, Garivaldis, & Nataraja, 2022, p. 368)
SBE is applied to “psychomotor, communication, clinical decision-making, professionalism” and other knowledge, skills, and abilities / attitudes (KSAs) (p. 368), related to complex skillsets in healthcare. A national program for simulation educators in Australia suggests six phases for simulation design: preparing, briefing, simulating, debriefing/feedback, reflecting, and evaluating, in a cyclical design (pp. 369-371).
The first described case involves Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) involving “individual candidates moving through a series of timed ‘stations’ in which they are asked to complete a clinical task” such as “inserting an intravenous infusion, obtaining a medical history, explaining a procedure to a patient etc.” (Nestel, Syms, Garivaldis, & Nataraja, 2022, p. 371). This was created for third-year medical students. The distance aspect enabling learners to complete their course during a pandemic with required social distancing and also being able to “complete the assessment activity even though some were traveling for residency interviews” and also saving on costs (p. 373).
There were challenges, such as having staff and learners balance multiple technologies on different platforms and finding faculty to “rate post-encounter notes”( Nestel, Syms, Garivaldis, & Nataraja, 2022, p. 374). Tech support had to be present during the remote simulations for smooth experiences. Learners benefitted from learning how to communicate effectively from a distance, such as for turn-taking. Such high-stakes assessments do have implications for the learners’ education and careers. Another simulation involved laparoscopic skills, involving webinars and learners with their simulators at home. And the last involves Work Integrated Learning in Psychology through Simulation to orient learners to work life as a psychologist in practice (p. 380).
In Lilani Arulkadacham, Stephen P. McKenzie, Jennifer Chung, and Zahra Aziz’s “Conclusion—What Now?” (Ch. 25), they summarize the main ideas from the respective chapters in the collection.
The timing of Stephen Paul McKenzie, Lilani Arulkadacham, Jennifer Chung, and Zahra Aziz’s The Future of Online Education: Advancements in Learning and Instruction (2022) is auspicious. This seems like an optimal time for a massive global debrief around where online learning should go, now that the emergency mode has passed in most locales. Perhaps this period has been one of major changes to online learning, in a punctuated equilibrium sense.
This work emphasizes the importance of aligning teaching and learning philosophy, curricular design, activity designs, assessment development, and aligned technologies to enable effective online teaching and learning. There is also the importance of assessing the online learning experience and efficacy of the teaching and learning.
The challenges involve how to position well for the future and to make that future together, for all levels of formal learning, informal and nonformal learning. Meanwhile, the world is changing quickly.
About the Author
Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer / researcher at Kansas State University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.