How apropos. In last week’s post, I commented on how the chapter I was reading could do with an update to reflect educational changes as a result of the pandemic, and this week there’s a journal article that covers exactly that.
Last summer, Curt Bonk wrote an article titled “Pandemic ponderings, 30 years to today: synchronous signals, saviors, or survivors?” in the journal Distance Education. In the article he writes how many educators who viewed distance education as somehow inferior to Face-to-Face (F2F) education, were forced to quickly learn the methods and mechanics of distance education as a result of the pandemic. He notes that many of these technologies have been around for decades, but adds, “Unfortunately, most instructors did not have opportunities to teach with such tools before the onset of the current pandemic; as a result, synchronous conferencing teaching methods have remained relatively new territory in K-12 and higher education settings.”
Dr Bonk then covers some of the technologies used in distance education over the past three decades. As an early example, he writes about how a class would be discussing a journal article, then using videoconference systems to allow the students to discuss the article with the author. This was back in 1995. Technologies like this served as signals for technologies that were yet to come.
Regarding technological saviors, he writes about Zoom, “Though Zoom has been around for nearly a decade, the majority of its users were added in just the past 6 months in a literal ‘Zoom Boom’.” Writing further about videoconferencing, he adds, “it is amazing that a technology that continued to evolve over the past 3 decades with limited pick-up was so extensively and quickly deployed and utilized during the pandemic. Its societal role as a temporary ‘savior’ came unexpectedly and swiftly for many.” He doesn’t use the term “savior” lightly, because the availability of Zoom saved the careers of many educators and staff members. It even saved schools and universities from going bust, and saved students from what would have been a catastrophic interruption in their education if it weren’t available. Put another way, if Zoom and similar technologies weren’t available, or if they were too difficult or costly to use, schools would have been closed, educators and staff members would have lost their jobs, and students would have faced uncertain educational futures.
As a slight aside, in one section of the article he writes about the experiences of another educator “…attempting to identify struggling students early in the course…” From the context of the paragraph it’s apparent she was trying to identify students who were struggling academically, but the wording made me wonder if it was possible to identify students who are struggling physically or emotionally. In F2F classes, an instructor might be able to judge these by simply observing students, or speaking to them briefly between classes. Is it possible to do that in online classes? In the other class I’m taking this semester, the professor said he wanted to meet each of us in a one-on-one Zoom video conference to discuss our projects. Over one week at midterm, he scheduled meetings with each of the students in the class. He said most meetings lasted 15 – 30 minutes. At a meeting like this, it seems like it would be an ideal time to check on students physical and emotional well-being. This was just a thought that occurred to me while reading this article.
The author writes about how many resources were made available to educators, students and families about how to teach and learn online, but that many people didn’t know about them because they were too busy dealing with other pandemic related panics. Based on my personal experience in computer support, I remember fielding lots of calls related to using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, web cameras, speakers, microphones, monitors, laptops docks, and printers as people pivoted to working from home. Due to the disruption of their schedules, it’s not surprising that many educators, families, and students missed the information that might have helped them.
Near the end of the article, he points out that many of these technologies aren’t available to everyone everywhere. Much of the world lacks the bandwidth or even the devices capable of synchronous online education. He writes, “…for those with limited technology access, synchronous technology has not been a signal to powerful global education opportunities. It also has not been a savior for the various educational predicaments produced by the pandemic around the world.” Equitable access to technology will continue to be a problem around the world.
In the conclusion, he argues that educators should allow this experience of pandemic education to change their views of online education. It should no longer be viewed as something that needed to be done in an emergency, and should be accepted as a rigorous and robust form of teaching and learning. He also anticipates that some will use education during the pandemic as a research opportunity, which indicates we may see more book and journal articles on the topic in the future. I look forward to reading them.