I’m the principal partner of Education Design in Boston, focusing on STEM program evaluation. I first engaged in online instruction and design in 1994 with CU-SeeMe, a very early desktop videoconferencing app (without audio… that came in 1995!). While I’m certainly no expert in online learning, I’ve observed this newly accelerated shift toward virtual learning for several decades.
During 2020 we’ve seen nearly all of our personal and professional meetings converted to online interactions. In education this has been both challenging and illuminating. For decades, many in our field have planned and designed for the benefits online and digital learning might offer, often with predictive optimism. Clearly the future we anticipated is upon us.
Here, I want to identify some of the key assets and benefits of online and remote learning. I don’t intend to diminish the value of in-person human contact, but rather to help projects thrive in the current environment.
More Embrace than Rejection of Virtual
In nearly all our STEM learning projects, I’ve noticed far more embrace than rejection of virtual learning and socializing spaces.
In one project with partner colleges located in different states, online meetings and remote professional training were part of the original design. Funded in early 2020, the work has begun seamlessly, pandemic notwithstanding, owing to the colleges’ commitment to remote sharing and learning. These partners, leaders from a previous ATE project, will now become mentors for technical college partners, and that work will most likely be done remotely as well.
While forced to change approaches and learning modes, these partners haven’t just accepted remote interactions. Rather than focus on what is missing (site visits will not occur at this time), they’re actively seeking to understand the benefits and assets of connecting remotely.
“Your Zoom face is your presence”
Opportunities of the Online Context
- Videoconferencing presents some useful benefits: facial communication enables trust and human contact. Conversations flow more easily. Chat text boxes provide a platform for comments and freeform notes, and most platforms allow recording of sessions for later review. In larger meetings, group breakout functionality helps facilitate smaller sub-sessions.
- Online, sharing and retaining documents and artifacts becomes part of the conversation without depending on the in-person promise to “email it later.”
- There is an inherent scalability to online models, whether for instructional activities, such as complete courses or teaching examples, or for materials.
- It’s part of tomorrow’s landscape, pandemic or not. Online working, learning, and sharing has leapt forward out of necessity. It’s highly likely that when we return to a post-virus environment, many of the online shifts that have shown value and efficiency will remain in schools and the workforce, leading toward newer hybrid models. If you’re part of the development now, you’re better positioned for those changes.
As an evaluator, my single most helpful action has been to attend more meetings and events than originally planned, engaging with the team more, building the trust necessary to collect quality data. Your Zoom face is your presence.
Less Change than You’d Think
In most projects, re-calibration has been necessary, but you’d be surprised at how few changes may be required to continue your project work successfully in this new context simply through a change of perspective.