Go online, they said. It will be grand, they said.

Conversation with Meabh Coleman, a lecturer from TU Dublin, about virtual communication and online education. 


In the last few months, we have been all forced to move learning online. And it did take many of us by surprise. How are we adapting to this new reality?

So it did, it was what they call it "a big disruption" to the way that we normally function and the way that we normally assume. And what I'm going to say is just to preempt the answer to how we all are doing, is we feel that we're, you know, when things are constant, and when things are within a context, we assume to be true and assume to be stable, we all do quite well. And that was the case before. Then the context changed. And everybody had to then rebuild their assumptions and how things worked. And to be quite honest, I think everyone had to do that really quickly, back in March, in particular, and I think particularly in second level, and third level, formal education, it happened quite well, and quite quickly. Best practice was shared really well throughout.

I think we're doing okay with the new context that we've built. But we're not doing so okay, with how uncertain the duration of this transition might be. I think that's what probably causes people problems in terms of when we don't know how long this is going to last or how much effort should I put into it? Those are things that affect how well we're doing. So there's a lot going on with that question. I actually feel really positive about this, and I feel people have taken to the online medium, and people are sharing so openly about their practices, that it really is quite a positive time for online education and online learning.

Ed Tech, online learning, teaching online, virtual communication
Because of COVID19 pandemic, online education, online learning, teaching and virtual communication became a new normal

What kind of concerns people have when it comes to teaching online?

Well, here's the big concern that people have, that permeates all the other concerns. It's  Am I enough?. That's quite a big question. Because people are very afraid of being wrong. Particularly, because we have so much recorded media around, that someone could come back as they do, and we see this every day. It's sort of part of the online culture, this ‘cancel culture’ that someone finds something from years ago, and then they bring it up out of context, and it causes a big storm. And people are really afraid of that. Having that, that happened to them. And I think that's a big fear. It's something that we don't talk about that much. Behind all of that is this  Am I enough?, Is what I do going to be enough?, Is what I say going to be enough?, Am I right or wrong?. It brings up a tremendous amount of uncertainty in people's lives to go online. When I was going online, with my teaching and learning, this is going back 10, maybe even 15 years, you just had to give it a lash. But there wasn't the whole same emphasis on recorded media that there is now. So there's two things going on. The first is I'm so used to this context, how do I adapt? And then this is my best effort. Is it enough? And finally, if I'm recorded, it's out there, it's a digital artifact, and that's there forever, so I feel a risk. So I think those are probably the big issues that the concerns that people are facing right now. But these come from people who are the most amazing educators that you've ever met, they put you to shame, and still as human beings, we all face these central concerns.

Interesting. I can totally understand what you're saying. Online teaching comes with responsibility as all teaching does, I suppose. Did you see a lot of developments in how we teach or learn online since the lockdown? Did it change?

I think I am a kind of a systems thinker. So I think about the overall context and the overall models and the ways that people teach. And I think that there has been a tremendous spread of different models and in different contexts. So for example, in universities, where I work every day, there is a good emphasis on the recorded regular lecture. And so we still have many of the same assumptions within the context. We have a timetable, lectures, students, but instead of coming to a room, we go to an online lecture and that's recorded and people go back to that. And so that's not a massive change. We're just using a different space. I think in let's say, community settings, and in life in general, we have a lot of emphasis on Zoom. And that's a different model again, that is where people come together.

When listening to your online presentation, I was struck by a combination of two words,  compassion and education. This is very much resonating with me as an educator. How can we be compassionate educators?

No one has ever asked me that. I feel that as an educator, when you reach someone, you know, and you have this feeling like the lights have gone on, this topic has worked, this child or adult or whomever you're working with, it's worked, they get us, you know, and I feel that it takes compassion to do that. Before you even give the message, you have to get them, you have to meet them where they're at. And you have to understand what they're going through, what their skill levels are, and how they might meet this new information, and how that might impact their lives. 

I'll give you an example. Every year I teach hundreds of postgraduate students about research methods, and it's a topic that gives people a lot of stress. All these students have to do a dissertation. And frankly, they're terrified of doing a good job. And, for me, showing compassion to them, it's been able to demonstrate, A) It took me six years to understand this, it's not you, the topic is just difficult B) to break that down into these teeny-tiny bite sized chunks that people can get together, you know, they and they can get on their own these teeny-tiny bite sized chunks, but then together, you know, the sum of that is more. I think that demonstrating the compassion is to be able to see what people are going through, to see how the information or new knowledge that you're providing will impact them. And to make some kind of communication pathway along which they get it. That's our traditional teaching. We need to show compassion with our online education, just as we do with our face to face. How does that happen? Before you even create anything, a lesson plan, a session, artefact, a game, anything like that, think about the person who will use it, and why are they using it, what that education means to them and what it will do for them. These small changes in what you do that means so much to people. And that's when they feel that you're being compassionate about them. They are more responsive to your message, more engaged, and they want to learn more. 

Let's talk a little bit more about online education. What are the characteristics of online education as opposed to usual face to face learning like in a school setting.

It's a very broad question. The characteristics of online education are very similar to what I term as virtual communication. In many senses, it doesn't change all that much from your traditional ways of thinking about communication. There's the mode, the medium, the message, those kinds of indicators. What makes it different is time and togetherness. Online education doesn't have to be at the same time. Right? So that leaves you open to interactive experiences before, during, and after. And it may mean that you're educating people that you never meet, as well. And that's the concept of togetherness. You don't have to be there to be there. 

So can we distinguish here the synchronous and asynchronous education? Some people might not be familiar with these ideas.