At a time when education has been thrust into disarray due to the instability of contemporary living, the questions many teachers are asking are – “How can I adapt to teach online? Will the education of my students suffer?”. However, issues we need to (re)consider are; ‘what is an education? who is it for?’ and ‘what can it do for my child?’. At the moment, digital education has been forced to become the dominant ‘normal’ in place of analogue teaching. Teachers are adapting as fast as possible to upload lessons and teach from home. Students are logging on and trying to pivot old learning methods in new learning time and space. Understandably, student engagement (that is – student commitment and effort to learning) has dipped dramatically.
However, there are many reasons for this, and enduring a pandemic is just one of many. According to research on student engagement in online courses, Kahn et al. (2017) highlight that previous studies have found that retention for online courses are significantly lower when compared to courses that require physical contact. The most popular reasons for this are due to increased flexibility and self-regulation. Online learning is not as easily monitored and therefore allows for opportunities for other priorities to take more focus, leaving online learning secondary. It is also important to note that online learning environments also place challenges on the self-regulatory capacities of students. This means that students who already have difficulty in engaging, will have even greater difficulty in engaging in lessons online due to the greater self-regulatory skills required (Kahn et al. 2017). This is an interesting point as it highlights a way forward to improve online engagement in learning through increasing levels of reflexivity in students. It would seem that this requires a greater level of importance if online learning is to become more successful in teaching and learning. The issues in this are that reflexive traits are not easily addressed and that the reflexive nature of students differs greatly.
Many students try to establish concrete courses of action and sustained practices in the face of uncertainty and complexity. Yet this is very difficult to do when uncertainty is the main feature of the foreseeable future. This further highlights a clear need for some kind of concrete structure when the instability and uncertainty of digital space (and contemporary living) dominates. The production of a concrete structure provides students with the ability to anchor themselves in order to analyse and better comprehend otherwise abstract intentions such as learning processes. Of course, metacognitive awareness adds further attention to the process, but it is the intent that drives the student’s engagement which can be better understood when a student manages to recognise and later embody reflexive practice. Another factor in relation to reflexivity is social interaction, which itself takes on a different form in online spaces. As teachers, it is also important to remember that our own social presence is still very important in relation to teaching and learning. The pastoral elements of our role may provide some stability and comfort to those who may be finding things particularly difficult.
As educators it is important for us to help enable our students to focus attention on the reflexivity that underpins learning practices, allowing them to gain stability in comprehending the relationship they have with their own learning. This also has further implications for better comprehension of wellbeing and self, which can help provide some form of comfort and structure in pivoting less tactile learning environments and future instability.
These are areas that I am personally researching at the moment and am looking forward to integrating this research into the PGCE and Masters courses in my new role of Head of Secondary at the School of Education. Given the urgency of this area I will be integrating this into the induction of our new PGCE cohort from August 2020 onwards.
By Laura Barritt
Head of Secondary School Teacher Training, University of Buckingham
Bergdahl, N., Nouri, J. & Fors, U.(2020) Disengagement, engagement and digital skills in technology-enhanced learning. Educ Inf Technol 25, 957–983. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-019-09998-w
Kahn, P., Everington, L., Kelm, K. et al. (2017) Understanding student engagement in online learning environments: the role of reflexivity. Education Tech Research Dev 65, 203–218 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-016-9484-z