'Face-to-face teaching has no effective substitute' has been a long-held belief within academia. However, the COVID-enforced transition to online delivery in early 2020 has cast doubt on the belief. This article contributes to the discussion by describing direct experience gained during the transition period. Because only a year has passed since the transition began, it is too early to be precise about the effectiveness of online versus onsite teaching. However, the experience so far is quite encouraging.
Online teaching: introduction
COVID-19 disrupted nearly everything that, for ages, the academic world took for granted. Time will tell whether history will judge this pandemic as a 'Black Swan' event (Taleb, 2007). However, there is no doubt that it has played a catalytic role in the widespread acceptance of online delivery as a viable substitute for face-to-face (F2F) teaching. Necessity paved the way for the world-wide emergence of online teaching, so it should not be considered as a 'disruptive innovation' event (Bower & Christensen, 1995).
Most providers of higher education were unprepared for the sudden move to online teaching. Hence, the speed at which many providers devised paths, established protocols and built capacities to stay afloat during the public health emergency is simply astounding. For some, this capacity building was designed, not only to remain relevant, but also to take full advantage of the opportunity for process innovation provided by the pandemic and to expand their business.
The UBSS case
The relatively young and exceptionally confident higher education provider, Universal Business School Sydney (UBSS), navigated through the 'choppy waters' very well. In fact, it adapted successfully to the changed environment within days. This might sound implausible to an external observer but was clearly apparent and understandable to those who watched it unfold in real-time and from a close range.
The success of UBSS was due to many factors including: the farsightedness, strong leadership and agility of the senior management and academic teams; appropriate earlier investment in online resources; a hardworking and talented technical and support staff; a knowledgeable, loyal and dedicated teaching team (staff turnover at UBSS is exceptionally low); and excited and willing learners.
Challenges and mitigating strategies: personal
Fear of the unknown. Being a cautious person, going online over-night was, for me, a daunting challenge. However, I had no choice but to meet the challenge head on and I had to muster the inner strength and courage to do so. I knew well that if 'I move beyond my fear, I shall feel free' (Johnson, 1998). Within weeks I realised that the change was actually working in my favour.
Home office capacity. Following the advent of COVID-19, F2F sessions at all higher education providers in NSW ceased. I was working from home, but my home-office equipment was not designed to handle the heavy traffic associated with online classes, and delivery was initially unsatisfactory. However, the problem disappeared very quickly as UBSS had already been developing purpose-built, on-campus lecture studios and these were up and running within days. All UBSS lecturers were then able to return to campus to deliver their lectures. The decision by management to install state-of-the-art studios proved to be a masterstroke.
Travelling to and from the campus. When the NSW government placed a temporary ban on F2F teaching, it also advised persons aged 60 and above to avoid travel as much as possible. This created an extra layer of worry for those UBSS academics who were above the age threshold and were required to be onsite to deliver classes to students who were offsite. Seeing this as a potential 'blind spot', the UBSS academic leadership immediately drafted a letter explaining the reason for academic travel and advised the lecturing staff to carry the letter with them while commuting between home and campus. This was a simple step, but one that delivered much-needed peace of mind to lecturers.
Risk of contracting the virus on campus. UBSS management wasted no time in transforming the campus to an official COVID-safe workplace, reducing to a minimum the risk of contracting the virus while being on campus.
Challenges and mitigating strategies: pedagogical
Student engagement. Engaging with students in online classes has posed difficulties since the students are not physically in the same room as the lecturer. I have been able to overcome these difficulties with a range of measures including careful selection of learning materials, flipping the classes and allowing / frequently inviting students at random to initiate discussion, organising students into break-out sessions, showing short videos, using humour and anecdotes, asking students for feedback, devising exciting and unpredictable beginnings for sessions, addressing students by their first name, and inviting students to connect the topic in hand with those of previous sessions.
Eye-contact and body language. The absence of these subtle but powerful cues in a digital teaching environment is challenging. I have been meeting the challenge by keeping my cameras live for the entire teaching period and frequently asking students to show their faces on screen while talking. I address students directly. I do not sit down while delivering lectures and I walk around the room as if I am getting closer to students in front of me.
Sustaining students’ interest. The temptation for students to be distracted in a home environment is always present. I have been looking for clues from the presence or absence of sounds and I often make observations or frame questions like - 'How old is the baby'? 'It's nice music- what genre is it'? 'Is everything OK at home'? 'What is the weather like at your place'? I provide content-based quizzes in every session and give the students their scores immediately after the quiz. These tactics have been quite effective.
Academic integrity issues. Pre-emptive measures like nominating tight timeframes for completion of assignments, setting different questions for different students, and pairing students to work together have helped minimise integrity issues. For group assignments, I use confidential peer evaluation as part of the assessment of every student's contribution. In addition to these, the use of a clear and well-publicised plagiarism policy, Turnitin software and one-on-one support for referencing, have been delivering favourable results.
Student accomplishment. There is concern that student outcomes associated with online delivery might be inferior to those from F2F learning. Interestingly, the performance of my students in the present digitalized environment has been the same as in the earlier sessions delivered F2F.
A careful selection and application of the approaches described above along with adoption of the strategies highlighted in the REMOTE framework (Israeli, 2020) can facilitate a win-win outcome with online delivery.
Online teaching is neither a pure innovation nor a new direction. For several decades there has been a trend toward online teaching, and COVID-19 has simply accelerated this trend. Whether the present approach will be a short-lived circumstantial necessity or a serendipity, time alone will tell. However, it is implausible that when the pandemic is over, online teaching will again be sidelined.
I boarded the transition to online learning vehicle with apprehensions and I struggled with the approach during the first 2-3 weeks of implementation. However, I then become comfortable with online delivery and ended up winning the Dean's award for 'Outstanding Commitment to Teaching and Learning'. This is powerful testimony that in a conducive environment and with the right KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) a desired outcome is possible irrespective of the mode of delivery.
- Bower, J. L., & Christensen, C. M. (1995). Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave. Harvard Business Review. 73(1), 43-53.
- Israeli, A. (2020). Digital learning REMOTE a framework for teaching online. Harvard Business Publishing accessed on 28 February 2021 from https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/remote-a-framework-for-teaching-online.
- Johnson, S. (1998). Who Moved My Cheese. Putnam and Sons. New York: USA
- Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable. Penguin Books. London: UK.
Assistant Professor Dr. Syed Uddin lectures in Business Management, Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour at UBSS.
Formerly, he was a Research Fellow at the Loughborough University Business School in the United Kingdom.
He has written many refereed articles that have been published in prestigious academic journals.
Syed is a six-time winner of the UBSS Executive Dean's award for 'Outstanding Commitment to Teaching and Learning' and is a recipient of the Vice Chancellor’s Citation Award for outstanding contributions to student learning.