The new academic year is starting around now; most higher education institutions have made decisions on how to organize classes, while some of them still wait for last minute recommendations from their Ministries of Education and Health to make final decisions.
Although the pandemic is still ongoing, there are a large number of those who have been vaccinated as well as those who have survived COVID-19, restrictions in most countries are being reduced, and in some have been completely removed. Therefore, many universities announced the return to classrooms and campuses, which was welcomed by most teachers and students, as well as parents.
After so much time living with disruption and additional burdens on teachers and students teaching and learning in an online environment, everyone is looking forward to returning to the comfortable and well-known classroom environment. We are social beings and it is normal that we look for social contact, a sense of belonging… Time at faculty, in classrooms, communication with teachers, being with colleagues, discussing lectures and courses with them, drinking coffee and gathering around campus, which have been taken for granted before, now have gained new value. After a long time spent at home, following online classes, the ability to return to the way we used to teach and learn is extremely important. Especially for students who spent their first year of study online and did not have the opportunity to get to know academic life.
Another reason why many higher education institutions have decided to return to classrooms is that majority of study programs are accredited mainly for fact-to-face teaching, so with the end of the state of emergency, teaching returns to its original and intended form.
Higher education institutions that were advanced in the use of digital technologies even before the pandemic, and institutions that were challenged by the pandemic to start with the process of digital transformation, carried out a series of activities in order to provide well-designed online teaching and learning. Since they have provided quality teaching in an online format, a number of these institutions have decided to continue teaching online in the new academic year.
Furthermore, the experience gained in the use of digital technologies and online teaching and learning will not be lost. It is simply not possible to return to the situation that existed before pandemic. Although some might take the social component or accreditation of study programs as an excuse to discard all experience and stick to classroom teaching.
It has been said by some that “classroom” is a synonym for teaching and learning, and that online education is just a poor substitute. General conclusions that online learning resulted with unmotivated, students, lacking concentration, who cheat more often in online environments then they would in a classroom, should be taken with care. Online learning environments were completely new to great number of teachers and students before the pandemic. Different situations and experiences have arisen and there has been some negative feedback generated. After the first shock in March 2020, the academic year 2020-21 has also received positive feedback about online learning from students and teachers. I talked to a number of teachers and students, and they have expressed interest in having online teaching and learning represented equally as well as classroom study. However, some students do not want return to campus and are very happy with the flexibility of online education they have experienced, especially part-time students and seniors. This only shows that our students are very diversified and we need to think about it when designing study programs and their learning environment.
Another important issue now is the vaccination status of students, as some higher education institutions segregate those students who have been vaccinated from those who haven’t. Those not vaccinated only being able to attend online classes, or they would need a PCR test every time they approach the premises of the institution. This situation needs to be dealt with in another way, as dividing students, between those who will be able to study in a full capacity and those who will not, is never good solution.
We need to think about how to further support those teachers who wish to continue to use digital technologies and to move from emergency remote teaching to blended and hybrid teaching and learning. We need to consider how to provide support and training for teachers to ensure that experience gained by them is used for progress and not perceived as a one-time experience,
Beside institutional and national level support for teacher’s needs, professional learning communities, such as EDEN, are equality important in supporting teachers and educators in their personal and professional development. At such times, it is important to look around, to communicate with others, to search for different practices, and know how they can be modified and added to existing efforts to shape new ideas and possibilities… Networking and collaboration is of huge importance. Little can be gained from repeating existing practices over and over again, we need to move forward, to progress.
Therefore, the initiatives and activities offered by EDEN provide a platform where everyone can find useful information related to online, distance and e-learning, whether this takes the form of research or practice, so that ideas can be discussed, shared, and added to existing efforts.
Let me remind you here of the EDEN Annual Conference, held this year online and hosted by UNED (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, based in Madrid), and titled Lessons from the pandemic for the Future of Education. It was a great success again. With 400 delegates from 57 countries, there were 53 full papers, a number of workshops, synergy session, posters and demonstrations… and 13 distinguished keynotes… Please take some time to watch the recordings of the plenary sessions.
What have we prepared for you for the autumn and new academic year?
We already restarted the EDEN NAP webinars, the first one was on the September 1st, titled Digital skills and training practices in disruptive industries: a European perspective, be sure to watch the recording and the next one will be on October 13th on the topic of Asynchronous approaches to teaching and learning.
There are also the series of webinars #onlinetogether, in its 3rd edition, titled Time for Action in Shaping HE 4.0, which continues in the autumn. The first one scheduled on October 11 on the topic of online exams titled How to examine or how not to examine; that is the question in the post pandemic era and second on the October 25th on the topic of micro credentials titled A Primer for Developing and Managing University Micro-Credentials.
Such important and timely topics including a number of international experts is a real highlight in our activities! Be sure not to miss any of them and to join in the discussions or watch the recordings afterwards. For further details, look at the EDEN web site.
We will soon be announcing the EDEN Online and Distance Learning Week, taking place from 3rd to 10th November, running for the 6th year in the row.
These are just some of our activities.
In the year when EDEN is celebrating its 30th anniversary, we have finalized some steps that we were forced to take as a result of Brexit, since EDEN was originally registered in the UK. Being a UK-based legal entity, the continuation of EDEN’s Europe-wide mission became a problem after Brexit. In the interest of sustaining EDEN’s legacy and ensuring the continuation of its mission, the Executive Committee decided that it should re-locate and continue its activities in a EU country. We have established the new company EDEN Digital Europe in Estonia to ensure its continuity and have taken all the necessary steps to make the transition as transparent and simple as possible for all concerned. EDEN Europe will continue with the mission, activities, and functions that EDEN UK had before.
I wish you all lots of enthusiasm, motivation, creativity, and courage, but also patience and reflection, to make the best of teaching and learning in this new academic year with the challenges it will bring!