Experience doesn’t always help: online teaching during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the pivot to online learning for many business schools. Teaching staff have had to adapt almost instantaneously, a challenging undertaking under pressure. A team at Henley Business School have undertaken research on the effects of the pandemic on academic staff and have garnered opinions from a number of lecturers.

 “The switch to technology enabled teaching did not bother me much, but I found the level of disengagement frustrating. Most of the time, I felt I was speaking to my screen. There was almost zero interaction with the students. We received a lot of complaints …. My student evaluations dropped, and my head of school treated the outcome as if it was entirely my fault. Really not sure how this is going to work”. (Lecturer, female)

 “Online teaching is ok, and I am capable of using the technologies available to us. However, I am living with my sister and her family {to save costs}. It is extremely challenging to find a quiet space to deliver those lectures. The kids are running around, and it is always noisy. I hope my students are not too annoyed by my living conditions … I do everything possible in order not to lose my job (Lecturer, female).

These quotes encapsulate the problems that the pandemic, and online delivery, has created for universities. The research was based on a unique representative sample of academics working in business schools and economics, with 17% of staff having experience of online delivery prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, and more than 70% having experience of online assessment. The evidence shows that experience in this form of delivery doesn’t reduce the problems it creates.

This matters because the pandemic has had a profound effect not just on locked-down students but on academics’ working lives. Universities remained ‘open for business’ throughout but that meant that academics went, practically overnight, from working face-to-face in their offices and classrooms one week to grappling with new technology and on-line teaching platforms which were new to many of them.

There have been arguments that virtual delivery is ‘the future’ for Higher Education, even if most academics had not expected that future to arrive quite so immediately. But, as our previous quotes show, there are positive and negatives to online delivery, and they will not be overcome with experience.

However, 78% of the academics surveyed agreed that teaching online ‘makes it difficult to understand whether the students understand what is being taught’. And this is not only down to the experience being a ‘novel’ one: the majority of experienced online instructors also agreed with the statement.

Worse, the vast majority agree that online teaching ‘is a lot more time consuming to prepare’. The bad news is that instructors who were engaged in online delivery prior to the crisis were much more likely to argue that online teaching preparation was more time consuming than for those for whom online teaching was a novel experience. This is not an issue that will ‘go away’ as lecturers get used to it.

Online marking too was generally agreed to be ‘more tiring’ and ‘more time consuming’ than traditional methods, even though such systems were relatively well-used.

There is a feeling in some quarters that online teaching and marking may be a more efficient and cost-effective option than previous systems. This research questions both ends of the cost-effective equation. The amount of work involved is being underestimated, even by the majority of instructors. Online teaching delivery may require more resources rather than less. And there is plenty of evidence, including some in this survey, that the effectiveness of such systems for most students is considerably less than face-to-face teaching.

This raises concerns for academics, especially those already under pressure at home, about their ability to continue to deliver a valuable teaching experience. The fact that these concerns are increased amongst staff with more experience of online delivery and marking may raise alarm bells for universities who are already taking steps to tighten their belts at a time when there is going to be, for most, more work to be done with less resource to do it.

Professor Walker at Henley pointed out that “the fact that the most experienced staff are the ones who are most likely to argue that online delivery is going to be taxing suggests that lecturers who are new to virtual delivery, or who have not been getting the support from their university that they need, are increasingly going to be under enormous pressure. There is a potentially vicious spiral where lecturers discover there is ever more pressure to provide more compelling teaching materials, and that the work just keeps piling up as the academic year progresses. Universities that are well prepared for online delivery may be able to match the learning outcomes, but that this may not be universally the case. Certainly, many lecturers with limited experience of teaching online are going to have a tough time and will need resources and support.”

  • The findings come from a recent working paper ‘The effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on teaching and engagement in UK business schools’ are part of an on-going project being run by James Walker, Rita Fontinha, Chris Brewster and Washika Haak-Saheem at Henley Business School, examining the on-going effects of the pandemic on staff working in business schools and economics departments.

Read The effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on teaching and engagement in UK business schools: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3717423

Professor James Walker is Director of Research, Head of International of Business and Strategy at Henley Business School.