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Academics or content creators? Changing roles in the online learning environment

06 Apr Rebecca Low 0 Blog

Digital content has played a valuable part in supporting universities’ teaching and learning for several years now. From supporting students to catch up after an absence, to improving access through distance learning, online learning has become an asset for higher education institutions. Across the board, students and academic staff have had to adapt to the increasing prevalence of the online learning environment.

This proliferation of digital educational content has accelerated thanks to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Academic staff saw their traditional methods of teaching and supporting students change, quite literally, overnight. Rather than being able to teach from the front of a lecture theatre or round a table with their students, academic staff were relegated to the small screen, delivering their lectures via video calls and online learning platforms. Some argue that this change was both inevitable and a positive development within teaching and learning. But is it the best course for higher education to take in the long term?

Is the focus on online learning “regressive”?

“Academics aren’t content creators, and it’s regressive to make them so.” So says, Dr. David Kellerman of the University of New South Wales, Sydney in a recent article. Dr. Kellerman charts the evolution of online learning in higher education. From a way to better manage data, to a way of supporting students through absence, it becomes a shortcut to learning for Gen Z students who apparently “can’t concentrate for longer than that (they certainly can).”

Dr. Kellerman sees the competition from other sources of information, such as Google and YouTube, and argues that universities can’t – and shouldn’t – attempt to turn themselves into glorified search engines.

“Suddenly academics became video editors – mostly bad ones – and our students turned to YouTube, because on YouTube you can get a better explanation of the same thing (for free I might add). Universities turned from communities of learning and collaboration into B-grade content providers.”

It’s not that Dr. Kellerman doesn’t believe there isn’t a place for an online learning environment. “Content can enable learning, but it cannot provide an education” he states, asserting that digital learning doesn’t create the conditions for a “community of inquiry”. He believes that too much emphasis is placed on consuming information efficiently as possible. “When we go online, when those classes are recorded then transformed into 15-minute snacks, the soul of education begins to die.”

Academics should be “content aggregators and creators”

On the other side of the argument, Louise McElvogue of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and founder of upskilling course provider With Fluency, believes that this aversion to improving academics’ digital teaching skillset is precisely what will ultimately endanger the future of higher education.

“In a world where we have become accustomed to beautiful, frictionless, personalized digital experiences, most online education I sampled looked closer to the websites we were building in the 1990s,” she says of her experience both teaching and studying in online learning environments in the past year.

Writing in response to Dr. Kellerman’s article, McElvogue highlights the risk universities run in failing to meet the changing needs its student communities. McElvogue agrees with Kellerman that academics shouldn’t be spending all their time creating and editing educational content – particularly if video editing is not their forte. Instead, universities need to seek out professional collaborators from the digital sector to support their content creation. Collaboration is key to McElvogue’s vision for successful online learning environments. She believes academics have an important and defined role in this creation process:

“Academics, though, should be expertly guiding the translation of teaching into online standalone content (this does not mean editing or repurposing lectures), overseeing the aggregation of third-party content, leading collaborative learning, and provoking discussions and debate.”

McElvogue recognizes that teaching staff can’t (and shouldn’t) have to ‘do it all’. However, she believes that online teaching can (and should) offer students so much more than Dr. Kellerman’s “15-minute snack”.

Lack of personalization?

As much it changes the way in which students interact with course content, the online learning environment also changes students’ interaction with their peers and professors. For Dr. David Kellerman, this is a serious concern.

“A video made by a professor for only their class is akin to the single-copy, handwritten book disseminated to just one room of people,” he says. “It is regression, not progress.”

For Dr. Kellerman, online learning removes any sense of the larger student community, as well as any sense of personal connection between students and professors. Students don’t make and maintain relationships with classmates and staff in the same way, he argues. This in turn makes for a passive educational experience, again without active inquiry, debate or discussion. Kellerman makes a strong case for greater emphasis on personal connection, guidance, and leadership whilst in the digital space. However, he doesn’t offer concrete solutions for how to achieve this.

Deliberating curating community in the online learning environment

Conversely, Louise McElvogue found that there were universities already achieving this sense of community through online learning. As part of her own work creating the Masters in Digital Marketing at UTS, McElvogue looked at 50 online courses from universities around the world. The course that impressed her the most in terms of its digital teaching stood out because it ‘looked most like the future’.

As well as investment in high-quality digital materials with great sound and visuals, McElvogue determined this course’s success on its deliberate efforts to create community through the teaching and learning content.

The course materials were designed with those specific students in mind. In this case, it was ‘a business audience that wants to upskill in tech, innovation and strategy but is time poor’. Speaking about her own digital course design, McElvogue says that “[s]ometimes, an article from The Economist or a TED talk was a better asset than a citation of academic research − not surprising in such a dynamic topic.”

In addition, the course had built-in access to professors. For example, the professors and other facilitators held weekly live Q&A sessions for students. This allowed for greater exploration of certain topics, as well as space and time to offer additional support.

A deliberate course of action

Moving to an online learning environment or hybrid teaching format will present challenges for academic staff and their institutions. University staff and students who are already pressed by high workloads are likely to continue to feel the stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. Can the rise of digital educational content avoid becoming yet another stressor?

The answer is yes, according to Louise McElvogue, but universities must be deliberate about it. There needs to be greater investment in improving staff digital literacy. Institutions should focus on collaboration when it comes to creating online content. Most importantly, there must be a deliberate effort on retaining a feeling of connection to the wider student community. That might be through organizing study groups by geography, or grouping project teams together by their sector interest for example. Teaching assistants could facilitate work prior to the course starting. That way students could have a chance to engage and meet their peers beforehand.

These are all successful approaches outlined by McElvogue in her research as both a student and professor of online courses. While the tide may have turned irrevocably towards the online learning environment, universities still have the agency – and responsibility – to create and curate an impactful, inclusive and student-focused academic experience.