Skip to main content
Centre for Online and Distance Education

What we have learned so far from COVID-19 and what we should do next?


Written by
Stephen Brown

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused most teaching institutions to move their activities online very quickly. Reactions to this have been mixed. So can online learning now be reliably confirmed as (a not very good) second best alternative to the “real thing”? And can we look forward confidently to getting back to business as usual next Autumn? Well, no…..and no.  

Globe with "stay home" label

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused most teaching institutions to move their activities online very quickly. Reactions to this have been mixed.  The Guardian for example has reported on the unpreparedness of many UK universities for this sudden and massive shift.  Durham university in particular has been a focus for opposition from staff and students to plans to move all their courses online.

But they are not alone. In a survey of US and Canadian institutions nearly half of respondents said they lowered their expectations for the amount of work students would be able to do (48 percent), made it easier for students to take their courses pass/fail (47 percent), and “dropped some assignments or exams” (46 percent). Their open ended comments revealed the “level of anxiety and scrambling” many instructors felt during this pivot to remote learning.

So can online learning now be reliably confirmed as (a not very good) second best alternative to the “real thing”? And can we look forward confidently to getting back to business as usual next Autumn?

Well, no…..and no.

Why online learning does not have to be second best

No doubt a lot of the teaching that has been rushed online on a matter of weeks has been less than ideal.

Distance learning can be awful, but so can face to face teaching. Equally both can be excellent, if done properly, see for example this report on around 150 successful distance learning programmes in Africa. So the arbiter of quality is not the mode of delivery, it is pedagogy that makes the difference. See again this report on early data from the emergency shift to online learning in the USA and Canada: instructors with previous online experience were 15 percentage points less likely than their peers to lower their expectations for how much work students could do, and somewhat less likely to change the nature of their assignments to students. The implication of this finding is that experienced online teachers understand the delivery mode well enough to be able to exploit its affordances to get the best out of it.

Why we cannot go back to business as usual

Business as usual was changing anyway.

Universities have been moving increasingly in the direction of online learning for the last 30 years, since the introduction of so-called virtual learning environments. Until Covid-19 struck, most courses were a blend of online and face-to-face, but even before Covid-19, decision makers in many universities were exploring ways to generate a better return on investment from campus-based digital technologies, and to expand beyond the physical limitations of university campuses, in order to increase revenue from student fees (especially from high fee-paying international students). Increasingly the distinction between traditional face-to-face and online, distance learning has become blurred. Covid-19 has accelerated the process, but not fundamentally changed the direction of travel.

It isn’t going to be over that soon

Lockdown restrictions are unlikely to be completely relaxed by September 2020, making it hard to imagine how to fit all those students into lecture theatres, laboratories, classrooms and libraries while still maintaining safe social distancing (not to mention student bars, sporting activities, society functions, etc.)

We need to be ready for next time

Covid-19 is only the latest in a series of disruptive virus-based pandemics. SARS and MERS were recent precursors and there will be others. If we return to mostly face to face teaching then when the next pandemic comes along we shall have to go through the same massive exercise to get everything back on line. It makes more sense to build on what has been achieved over the last month and learn from the experience than to throw it all away now.

Money is going to be tight

Responses to the Covid-19 pandemic are draining economies dry world-wide.  When this particular pandemic passes there will be massive national deficits, corporate debt and unemployment. Public and private funding for universities is likely to be in short supply. On top of that the lucrative market for international students is likely to contract significantly, partly because of funding issues and partly because of reluctance on the part of potential students to travel. (At the time of writing the UK is edging towards becoming the worst hit state in Europe in terms of Covid-19 related deaths….not an attractive destination for international students.)

But it isn’t all bad news

New market opportunities

Huge unemployment in the wake of Covid-19 is likely to create new market opportunities for educational institutions as individuals seek to develop new skills and acquire new qualifications in pursuit of new jobs. Studying from home as learners juggle with the demands of part time jobs, family care and job seeking is well suited to the model of distance learning in which learning is typically carried out in smaller, structured activities. Many of these new learners will be more mature, experienced adults with better self-organising skills, communication skills, research skills and more focused motivation than traditional undergraduates, again well suited to the demands of distance learning. So there is a lot of potential to revisit current programmes and restructure them for this more mature and vocationally oriented market: short courses, micro-credentials, portfolio learning, bundles of free learning activities combined with pay-as-you-go assessment and accreditation.

We have all made a start

The massive investment of time and money made by universities in response to Covid-19 has created the foundations for an extensive and more permanent shift to online learning. A great many front line teaching staff (and back end systems operations such as IT support, registry, etc.) and students now have direct experience of what it is like and, while not all experiences have been positive, important lessons are being learned about how to do it better, and it is always easier to improve something than it is to build something new completely from scratch.
This blog post sums up some of those lessons :

  1. Technology cannot replace the work of a teacher.
  2. Engagement is as important as content.
  3. Design matters.
  4. What the learner does between classes is as important as what they do in class.
  5. We have to rethink assessment.

And it can be done, and done well.

Covid-19 support

The Centre for Distance Education has compiled a set of guidance and resources to assist with putting teaching and assessment online fast, and with planning and implementing a distance learning strategy in the longer term.