The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the face of distance education with schools and universities having to adapt quickly to a new learning environment. Dr Helen Lentell, Honorary Fellow at the School of Media, Communications and Sociology, highlights the importance of online learning and its impact on accessibility.

Who would have imagined it back at the end of 2019 that so many schools and universities who had once seen distance education as the scourge of ‘real’ education would be clamouring to go on line and literally commanding their staff to move everything on-line. Who can blame senior managers and teaching staff for doing this? What else were they to do in the face of the Covid-19 crisis that closed down schools and universities across the world? Is this good for the future of distance education? Will it at last come into its own and be recognised for what it can achieve?

“We are well placed”, said one university colleague of mine. His department had long offered distance education programmes – with little help it must be said from the senior management. Management did not understand the requirements of distance education. Or that it was a different teaching model to face to face. My colleagues’s department is on a campus university and they had built a significant distance education presence over the years, and nimble as they are, navigated the vicissitudes of the ever changing higher education environment with considerable success. They used their expertise in distance education to transform their campus provision. Offering what has come to be known as a blended (mixed) approach or the flipped classroom. Other departments sadly had neither the time or the expertise or the specialist support staff to do this.

Across educational provision the best teachers have struggled, and became exhausted, creating exercises and activities for their students trying e.g. to simulate what they did in a classroom into a Zoom experience with exercises for their learners to do on their own. Or in the case of very young learners with parental help. (Of course many parents were unable to help to the continuing disadvantage of their children.) Valiant efforts were and are no doubt continuing to be made.

One positive outcome of the changes made to our lives in the wake of Covid is the recognition by many that there is great potential in the technologies of distance education. Before Covid who had heard of Zoom? Now families chat and play games on conferencing apps. Workers work from home and meet their fellow workers in virtual meetings. Even the arts have done well with Zoom festivals. We have learned that so much we thought had to be done face to face can now take place virtually. Indeed Covid may have made more people open to learning at a distance.

It is unlikely that schools and universities are going to go back to operating as they did any time soon. It is probable they will be working in a very restricted way for at least nine months and/or until a vaccine is produced and readily available. For adults too, with a changed economy, their jobs may well have disappeared and there will be a desperate need to retrain and re-skill for a changed world of work.

So this may be very promising context for distance learning. But if it is going to be a positive one the lessons from years of distance education experience have to be learned and understood.

  • Implementing distance education methods requires leadership from senior management who have to know about and resource different pedagogical models. And, support staff learning and developing their teaching.
  • Courses have to be redesigned and teachers need ongoing encouragement and training in educational design, as well as using educational technologies appropriately. There is no one right format for all courses and subjects.
  • Teachers need help in how to support their students in this blended or online form.

If all of these lessons are learned distance education may well become more mainstream. But in all of this it is worth remembering that distance education came into its own to enable and facilitate access to education. Even in so called advanced countries there are huge discrepancies in access to the internet and appropriate places to study. Covid has shown us how vast the division between rich and poor has become. In rethinking educational provision in a post Covid world we have to be ever cognisant that our developments don’t restrict access.

Dr Helen Lentell has worked in many distance education provisions throughout the world including the National Extension College where she was Director of Higher Education and Professional Studies. She is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Media, Communications and Sociology at the University of Leicester.

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