A black swan effect in teaching

By Dr Khalfan Hamed al Harrasi

With COVID-19 aggressively trying to colonise every part of our environment, teaching and learning have gone mostly online. How ready are we for this black swan effect? What is the impact of this sudden, forced, and experimental shift from residential learning to emergency remote teaching (ERT) on the quality of teaching, quality of learning, and on the attitudes of students and teachers towards online education?

“Every faculty member is going to be delivering education online. Every student is going to be receiving education online. And the resistance to online education is going to go away as a practical matter,” said James Bradley at Texas’s Trinity University. We could argue that the insufficient and compressed time may result in substandard and flawed outcomes, triggering resentment, skepticism, distrust, and negative attitudes towards online education. The matter then boils down to whether the experience was horrendously boring and painful or it was intellectually engaging and rewarding.

For many institutions, the abrupt migration to online teaching and the unprecedented mandatory immersion required massive preparations and arrangements for education to maintain high quality virtual courses than simple upload of learning materials that learners can view until they slip into a comma (pun intended).

In an interview with Professor Ahmed al Rawahi, Chancellor of University of Nizwa, he assured that “at University of Nizwa (UofN), we have provided the orientation and offered daily training and support to faculty, staff, and students to ensure and maximize the quality of ERT by meaningfully integrating various types of content (discussions, debates, forums), interaction platforms (the university’s online learning systems such as Eduwave and Moodle, supplemented by the free online available applications), and modes of delivery (synchronous, asynchronous, blended), continuous monitoring and evaluation, fair assessment of learning. Thus, ERT at UofN has materialised in a rewarding and efficacious educational experience for students and faculty”.

Attempting to seal the misconception and low quality, Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) should address both the cognitive and socio-psychological aspect of the teaching-learning process, characterised by interactive and collaborative learning. Variety and flexibility do not equate with leniency and suboptimal standards. Teachers will have to make sure that learners have options of similar validity and reliability in terms of content, interaction modes and platforms, and assessment instruments.

The most controversial part of the ERT, and online education in general, is the reliability of assessment of learning. Has the learner answered the task themselves or has someone helped? Without going into details about the possibility of synchronous online and live quizzes and exams, with online remote technology-enabled invigilation mechanisms, ERT could implement other more flexible types of assessment, such as open-book exam, comprehensive assignments, and open-ended quizzes.

Clear task description, expected performance outcomes and indicators, and scoring criteria and specifications should be shared with the learner, highlighting the principles and regulations of intellectual property, plagiarism, and originality of product. Learners should be informed that they may be required to attend a live video-conferencing session, or over the phone, to orally explain some of their responses in the submitted task, and that their final mark for the task could be negatively or positively affected by the results of the follow up live session.

As coronavirus shakes up conventional teaching and learning, ERT will emerge as a catalyst for future robust online education.

The author is Assistant Professor – Head of Essential Skills Unit at University of Nizwa