By Dr Samer Skaik

With the unprecedented outbreak of the coronavirus across the globe, many universities and schools have been initiating projects to transform their operations from ‘face to face’ to virtual environments aided by various technologies. This call seems to be inevitable since the outbreak will continue to evolve for at least another six months. In this context, three demanding questions come into play:

1) What are the available technological tools that can be fit for this purpose?

2) How to use the tools more effectively in order to provide the same level of quality education and maintain student engagement?

3) What are the success factors of a seamless transformation project?

This article is timely as it addresses the three questions and demonstrates practical tips to help educators transform ‘face to face’ operations into a more swift, effective and integrated online education. The tips can also be applicable to businesses planning for work-from-home arrangement.

There are many tools available to facilitate online education. In this article, five reliable tools are selected to serve this purpose: Zoom, Mentimeter, Asana, Google Drive and Microsoft Team. Many other tools with similar functions are also available. The following section demonstrates how each of the selected tools should be used by educators for effective online delivery that has the potential to mimic the traditional face to face setting:

1-     Main classes:

One of the main sources of learning comes from the scheduled ‘face to face’ classes or meetings where the content is taught via a lecture style. Zoom is a great reliable platform to gather all students in a similar space, yet virtual. Zoom offers various plans to suit specific requirements such as large classes but the free version would be enough for many educators. The recording of the presentation can then be made available to students to access online. In addition, Zoom has a few engagement tools such as polls and chatrooms which makes it a bit tricky if the student engagement is a priority for educators. Therefore, a student response system such as Mentimeter can overcome this limitation and boost the engagement of students to its maximum potential.

Mentimeter is an interactive presentation tool that helps an educator upload the static PowerPoint slides into an online platform and add interactive questions in the form of a bar chart, Likert scale, word cloud, quiz format, etc. Students can then connect to the slides using a six-digit code from any device connected to the internet and engage with the content. The tool provides students with the opportunity of posing anonymous questions at any point of time during the live presentation. The tool can also be used to develop forms to collect certain information such as taking attendance.

2-     Tutorials and group activities

Regular tutorials or workshops are usually offered as additional support to reinforce learning and encourage collaboration among students. As such, group activities are the most common pedagogical strategy to serve that purpose. In an online environment, Zoom’s Breakout Rooms can help organise those sessions. The educator, who will be the host of the Zoom session, can provide a brief about the activity at the beginning then split the attendees into random or customised groups. Each group will be assigned a separate session. Then, the host can join each group in their private sessions upon request to provide them with assistance. At the end of the group sessions, attendees will automatically go back to the main session.

3-     Assessment tasks

It is challenging to stimulate students to genuinely undertake coursework assessments in an online setting unless measures are put in place to mimic the on-campus learning experience. Online tutorials, as explained above, are a good avenue to engage and support students in undertaking assessments. Many assessments are devised as group-based assessments to foster collaboration and polish interpersonal skills. Therefore, Asana can be used as an effective online platform for group management. The free version of the tool is enough to engage basic project management processes. The tool helps the team plan work, assign activities, manage progress and hit deadlines. Educators can be invited to join each group within Asana platform to monitor progress and provide feedback if needed. Google Drive can also be used to develop the collaborative assignment whereas a folder can be created and shared amongst group members so they can contribute their parts in one space. An educator may request a group to join the collaborative folder if there are concerns about academic integrity.

Other forms of summative assessments, such as exams, would attract more rigorous and expensive measures to move online in order to maintain academic integrity. Face recognition technology may be suitable to serve this purpose.

4-     Learning content

Many learning management systems such as Moodle and Blackboard include course learning materials and discussion forums but none of them provides real-time communications and dynamic content that would be a basic feature in an online setting. Therefore, Microsoft Team can keep students informed of all ongoing activities in a certain course and support real-time conversations with their educators and peers in a friendly and informal environment. This tool boosts up collaboration and communication that are key success factors for effective pedagogy.

Success factors

All those tools are user-friendly, affordable and fit for purpose. Students can access and use them via their mobile phones. They can also receive instant notifications of updates if applicable. The tools can significantly help educators mimic the ‘face to face’ learning environment and overcome the traditional challenges of online delivery such as student disengagement, poor communication and compromised attainment of learning outcomes. That being said, the tools may experience temporary glitches, especially with the unprecedented demand in the wake of the coronavirus. This would require a contingency plan in place.

Before moving online, the digital literacy skills of both educators and students remain as a critical success factor. Therefore, a mandatory induction would be needed. Afterwards, tailored training for educators should be scheduled to provide continual professional development to improve their digital literacy. For an average user, it may take one hour of self-training online to get started with each tool. The learning curve can then rise exponentially after the first few hours of using any of those tools.

Transformation into an online operation may be a hectic and overwhelming project which may require a pilot testing before mass implementation. However, engaging project management tools and techniques will foster effective and seamless transformation whereas most uncertainties can be eliminated as early as possible. This will of-course require adequate scoping and preparation time. Therefore, it is important to make a start now and it is never too late to be agile and responsive to the ongoing devastating impact of the coronavirus.

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