"In those tumultuous and kinetic times, the time of actualised desire, I myself had only one desire. And that was, for everything to stop.”
Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
Angela Carter’s fin de siècle science fiction novel presages an approximation of where we now find ourselves. The COVID-19 crisis has led to physical distancing and isolation from social context, with a concomitant social media “exercise in status display” taking hold in some quarters.
For postsecondary education we are told that “Universities, colleges face potential budget crunch as they assess impact of COVID-19 on international student enrolment.” This is an important reminder to the fragility of the economic basis in which we operate, namely the reliance on international student recruitment to fund the enterprise.
There is some hope: “time spent in an online course would count toward the time in Canada required to earn a work permit.” This is an important development that will aid our modelling of how we emerge from the current constraints, and into the mesocosm--an experimental enclosure--that will mediate and mitigate physical distancing in the time it takes to create a COVID-19 vaccine.
Scenario modelling could use a 50% probability basis for unpacking how we will return to in situ work. That is: we have a 50% chance of returning to face-to-face learning in September. And within this, that we will have to accommodate 50% less students on campus. This latter could be because of declining enrolments or physical distancing rules.
Basically this means we don’t know, but this should not stop us from modelling out the differing types of scenarios. We should do this while standing up the learning supports to enact a more flexible, distributed learning. Because either way, more remote learning is in our collective future.
Government and health leaders are advising that the current physical distancing practices will last months. This uncertainty, coupled with the COVID-19 experience of other jurisdictions, suggests that universities and colleges need to prepare not just for the long-term impact of the current physical distancing practices, but also for shorter-term approaches to address the continued need for physical distancing and isolation. Responsible, responsive curricula development necessitates significant changes to and adaptations of curriculum delivery, such as this is feasible within our programs, and which ensures that we collectively continue to provide positive teaching and learning experiences. This can be done while supporting and protecting faculty autonomy and prioritizing effective pedagogy.
Flexible learning is an approach that blends online (synchronous; asynchronous) teaching and learning with face to face (F2F) or in situ learning. While F2F learning will not be feasible in the short to medium term, we can start to anticipate a gradual return to this as it is imperative to reifying skill and competency development.
Alex Usher offers a good take on a post-pandemic collective effort in which the sector has an opportunity to collaborate on wider online learning development. This is smart--and optimistic--thinking. More and effective cooperation will help us build a system in Canada that can ensure students are provided with the appropriate scaffolding for learning now coupled with the ongoing iteration and development of a more robust realm of learning across sectors and levels. (As an aside, the National Research Council once had a whole research unit dedicated to e-learning, including the development of technologies, metadata standards; it was disbanded in 2006 or so).
Think of this as a way to offer a seamless student experience and a single point of entry into learning capable of bridging initial engagement to learning to employment to community building through alumni. Effective online learning as a core component of the larger pedagogical support structure will help us teach the skills and competencies that our learners will put into practice. This is the essence of “extensible online learning, where the goals of skills transference are made explicit in relation to online learning, and these skills are in fact transferred into practice” (Luke et al 2009).
There are various components to consider in the migration or transition into flexible learning:
1. Determining courses and course components that can be accommodated online
This will highlight curricula strengths, and it provides an opportunity to disaggregate programs and courses into microcredentials that can be stacked in potentially creative ways to achieve learning outcomes. This disaggregation will be important for our 50-50 scenario modelling.
2. Sequencing / Flexibility to continue delivering small–group f2f learning
A modular, flexible learning approach will not only support new modes of teaching and learning but also allow us to continue to deliver core curricula. Online components of courses can be staged or sequenced to work in conjunction with in situ learning. This extensible online learning will help us achieve learning outcomes in a staged way, and also help us stage in situ learning with less people in one place at one time as need be.
3. Matching just-in-time remedial detours to support in situ learning
Having online content readily available and accessible and shareable via a robust learning object repository will enable learners to access content when and as needed to support in situ learning.
4. Exploring integration with other curricular models and systems provincially, nationally and even internationally
By supporting an expanded set of learning approaches and curricular options for students, there is significant opportunity to explore integration of other systems, learning objects, courses, media etc, as per Usher’s point about collaborating to compete together. eCampus Ontario's Extend is one good example of this.
5. Ensuring iterative, agile development and evaluation
Develop and deploy evaluation instruments within courses that conduct formative and summative assessment on learning outcomes, in addition to faculty and student satisfaction, for continuous quality improvement. Online learning has been around for three decades at least. This is an unprecedented opportunity to not only leverage the research and insights gained through this time, but also to conduct ongoing research and evaluation of how best to stand up flexible learning.
Doug Saunders, writing in the Globe and Mail, reminds us of another science fiction writer, William Gibson, and the premise of “The Jackpot” that underwrites Gibson’s stories: “It’s not a big bang, but rather a lethal spiral of preventable disasters abetted by incompetent leadership and economic contraction.” “But there is hope” Saunders reminds us, in that “During this crisis, and in its long recovery, it would be a terrible waste if we did not spend in ways that also make the world a cleaner and more resilient place. If we have these higher goals in mind, though, we can turn a fatal spiral into a hopeful one.”