Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 4 April 2020

What are the chances Covid-19 gives rise to the next superstar professor – teaching from home?

To keep people meaningfully occupied in the time of social distancing, eight Ivy League institutions have joined forces to offer more than 450 online classes free of charge

Online classes and distance learning have caught on during the coronavirus epidemic. Pawan Singh / The National
Online classes and distance learning have caught on during the coronavirus epidemic. Pawan Singh / The National

In the 14th century the bubonic plague killed as many as 200 million people worldwide. Originating in the Far East, it spread to Europe, where the first country to be ravaged by “King Death” – as the bacteria Yersinia pestis came to be known – was Italy.

Through interpersonal contact, the disease spread rapidly, taking the oldest and youngest first.

In the wake of this unprecedented public health crisis, society was irreversibly altered. The social order and the way things were done changed forever.

Covid-19 is no King Death. At worst it is a junior baron. Left untreated, the bubonic plague had a fatality rate of between 30 and 60 per cent. The current best estimates for Covid-19 are generally between 1 and 3 per cent. Comparisons aside, this novel virus represents a life-threatening public health crisis and may also lead to lasting social change.

I spent last week making psychology videos to share with my online class. My teenage daughter taught me how and has repeatedly assured me that my output is basic at best

This is a new world for many educational professionals. As a college professor, I will be teaching my courses online starting this week. Some of us have doggedly clung to the same chalk-and-talk techniques that we have used for centuries. But education, along with health care, has been relatively resistant to transformation by information technology.

Universities and hospitals are places where resident experts enjoy a lot of professional autonomy. Learning how to use new systems might not always be high on our list of priorities.

I have known academics and doctors who proudly wear their lack of IT savvy as a badge of honour. I suspect, however, that our current response to Covid-19 will reverse such sentiments.

I spent much of last week making YouTube-style psychology videos to share with my online class. My teenage daughter taught me how to use iMovie and in my imagination I became the educational equivalent of Martin Scorsese. My daughter, however, has repeatedly assured me that my output is basic at best.

However, the necessity of the current situation is forcing many educators out of routine comfort zones. The response to the pandemic is urging us to be creative and find new ways online of engaging, informing and shaping young minds.

I suspect that several social media stars will be born in the coming months. Perhaps in the way house music gave birth to the superstar DJ, our educational response to Covid-19 will give the world the superstar professor.

Several large universities are offering online courses open to the public for free. These classes have been around for a while but the reality of social distancing might lead to bigger audiences. In the US, for example, eight Ivy League institutions have joined forces to offer more than 450 online classes for free.

The reason behind this collaboration is to help keep people meaningfully occupied in this time of social distancing.

Advocates of online learning point to the cost saving, and the idea that it can open education up to non-traditional students, for example, people living in poor rural communities.

However, research published by the Stanford Centre for Education Policy Analysis concluded that online courses were associated with reduced student learning compared with conventional in-person classes. Online courses were also associated with higher dropout rates and much greater variability in students performance. Similar findings were published in the American Economic Review in 2017.

I have taken several online courses in the past few years. One of them was relatively lengthy, taking about a year to complete. The course was clear and well-structured but lacked peer interaction. For me, it is this interaction with fellow students that makes colleges such rich and stimulating learning environments. The Arabic word for university is jaami’a, from the root jama’a, meaning to gather together.

The online course I took had a tutor who was occasionally available for live online chats. There was also an online discussion forum so that we, the students, could interact. However, these elements of the course never really took off, which was a shame.

Nobody knows what the social legacies of Covid-19 will be. I like to hope that our prolonged social distancing will motivate us to learn new ways of meaningfully engaging and interacting with our lecturers, students and classmates at a distance.

One thing is sure, educators around the world will all have a lot more experience of teaching and learning online once the Covid-19 pandemic has passed. What we then do with our new-found skills remains to be seen.

It is also worth noting that in 1665, following another outbreak of the bubonic plague, Cambridge University closed its doors, forcing Isaac Newton to work from home. During this period of social distancing Newton was inspired to formulate his law of universal gravitation.

We cannot all be Newton, but it is important to bear in mind that challenging times often give rise to great opportunity and inspiration.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University

Updated: March 23, 2020 05:39 PM

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