Emergency Remote Teaching May Not Be Online Learning

online student
  Image: Marc Thele

Though they get lumped together, there is a difference between emergency remote teaching (ERT) and online learning. Prior to the COVID pandemic, I knew of some isolated examples of emergency remote learning (ERL). It might have happened because of a natural disaster, such as when Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area in 2005. Tulane University was forced to send students to other schools. Going online wasn't an option. In 2009, the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic hit and few schools used online learning as one way to compensate. In that pandemic, schools often kept students isolated on campus and used more traditional learning options. It was the rare school that was able to go online for all or a large percentage of classes. 

I co-wrote two journal articles in 2021 (AJES, 80:1) about the COVID pandemic and higher education. The first article, "Online Education in a Pandemic: Stress Test or Fortuitous Disruption?" examined some of that history. One observation is that there were few lessons learned between the prior event and the COVID pandemic despite gains in using online learning in normal situations. The COVID-19  pandemic brought on more emergency remote learning than a switch to online learning. Switching from face-to-face (F2F) education to a virtual environment was forced and unplanned in the vast majority of cases. The second article, "Choosing Transformation Over Tradition" considers how advancements in online education did not have the effect of preparing all teachers and all courses to move online easily and asked whether lessons learned in 2020 and 2021 would be temporary or transformative. At that time, there were teachers, students and courses that were online - and there were those that were not. (both articles are available via academia.com).

Well-planned online learning experiences are significantly different from courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster. I believe that most of the criticisms of K-12 and high education schools trying to maintain instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic stem from emergency remote teaching. Unfortunately, in the public perception and for some in academia, the experience of ERL is their perception of online learning overall.

Emergency remote teaching is defined as "a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances." Though the teaching solutions used will certainly overlap those used for online instruction, ERT or ERL should not be considered the same as what we know to be planned and designed "online learning." 

An EDUCAUSE article considers how we might cautiously evaluate emergency online learning and though some criteria for evaluating online learning would certainly be in that rubric, it would be invalid to use the same criteria.

It reminds me of my earliest experiences teaching online 20 years ago. Not only did I need to change how I designed lessons and how I presented them pedagogically, but I also needed to reevaluate how I would evaluate student work. For example, could I use the same rubric for a student who did a presentation or demonstration in my physical classroom as I did for a student submitting a slide presentation with audio that had been carefully designed, revised and edited?

When I ran a university department that was the campus support of online courses, we worked with a small percentage of faculty and courses that were fully online. In emergency situations when all classes needed to be online and faculty and students needed support, my department and I believe most school's support teams will not be able to offer the same level of support to all faculty who need it.

If you are in a teaching position, are you, your students, and your institution in a better place now to move quickly online than you were in January of 2020?

In writing that second journal article, I and my co-author were somewhat pessimistic about where we would be in 2022 based on the lesson not learned in past instances of emergency shifts to online. However, since those articles were published in early 2021, we feel some optimism. We have seen positive changes in preparedness. Anecdotally, I know of K-12 schools that have smoothly moved to online modes because of snowstorms or other short-term situations because of what they experienced in 2020-21. I know higher education faculty who are now more comfortable taking on an online course section (though they still prefer to teach in a physical classroom). At all levels, there is more use of online delivery platforms and more hybrid teaching than before. 

Like other emergency situations, we often hear that it is not if we will ever have to go fully online again; it is when we will have to do it.

Professional Development's Future Online

Education has been moving online since online became an option. The move took a leap in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced education online in a much bigger way. Perhaps not as publically, professional learning for educators and also in the corporate world has been following the same timeline. It had been moving online for more than 20 years, but it also took a leap due to the pandemic.

Forbes magazine has said that online learning is the future of professional development. Degree-based programs and learning and development initiatives are expensive. Some employers were surprised at how well employees worked virtually after some ramping up of equipment and skills. Professional learning took a short break at the start of working from home but then moved online along with almost everything else.

The Forbes article points to a number of online learning advantages that make it something that will remain in place when things get "normal" again - which after 18 months hasn't arrived yet. These advantages for professional learning are not unlike the advantages of traditional classroom learning.

woman on laptop
 Image: Pixabay

Learners/employees discovered that web-based solutions offered flexibility and that they could learn at their own pace (though deadlines and scheduling may still exist). The article states that online requires 40% to 60% less time to complete the same material. 

But self-paced learning also requires a lot of reading and time management and not all learners can adapt.

Overall, online learning is more cost-effective for learners, trainers, and employers. You can save on facilities, transportation, printed materials, travel and lodging in some cases, and even catering costs.

However, some of that saving needs to be invested in web-based platforms for learning to reside and that is a sustained investment. Instructional designers and support personnel remain in place but shift their duties to online.

One advantage that departs from traditional online courses is that corporate training often offers more options. Since some of the learner goals are career advancement and some are required skills training, offerings might include "courses" offered outside the employer (such as MOOCs). Employees may want to improve their coding skills. Their employer may want them to do HR training. Topics that are beyond the capabilities of a training department can be outsourced. Accreditations can be tracked across programs.

For a global company, online allows employees from different locations across the globe to access the same training. Asynchronous learning eliminates issues with different time zones.

Flexibility was a quality that companies and learners discovered was more critical than ever during the pandemic. That has always been a key quality for online learning. Many lessons have been learned. More will be learned in the years to come.


Remote Learning Is Not Necessarily Online Learning

remote learnersThe COVID-19 pandemic forced schools and corporate trainers to move their content online. Teaching and training went remote. But are remote and online learning the same thing? I see the terms used almost interchangeably.

Remote teaching, training, or learning has been done before there was an Internet to get online. Correspondence models and instructional TV/video predate the Internet. Today, we are using Skype and Zoom lectures, apps and tools but remote learning is still considered different from online learning.

I have taken classes and done training remotely that don't have many of the elements of a classroom experience. Things like reading assignments and writing assignments, assessments, collaboration on work, or full discussion boards are not used. For example, I have watched a series of history lectures that were mostly one-way experiences. I watched and although there was an opportunity to ask questions in chat or a Q&A time if you were watching live, this is not online learning.

Online learning should be more robust. It resembles more of what we consider to be "education" and would include interactive modules, assessments based on real-world scenarios, discussion forums designed to discuss and solve problems, synchronous learning sessions that involve discussions and problem-solving. There may still be live or recorded lectures, but that is not the only component.

Remote learning certainly has a place, especially in corporate and training situations. This can be pre-recorded content that can be used as needed, has a shelf life, and can be viewed again by users if necessary. Training on using software is a good example of content that works as remote learning. "But it's all online," you might say, "Why isn't it online learning?" Well, it is and it isn't.

Educators have long been trying to elevate engagement in online learning. It is not training. It requires a teacher or facilitator. Some elements are synchronous. Progress is monitored.

I hedged on my title for this post - "Remote Learning Is Not Necessarily Online Learning" - because fortunately, some training uses the elements that we consider to be integral to online learning. And, unfortunately, some online learning seems to be more like just remote training. And training and education have both been experimenting with hybrid models where learners and instructors can be in the same classroom working together but be extending the classroom online.

Remote learning is not inferior to online learning. It has its place in the broader "learning" experience. Remote learners sitting on their couch at home with a laptop may look the same as students taking an online course, but what is being provided to them, what they are expected to do with that content and what is the final expectations for that learning should be different. Putting a label on learning platforms is tricky, but it is important to know the differences.