Online learning gone wrong

Elizabeth Meade gives a run-down of the highs and lows of online learning, in recap of the acadmic year that has been like no other!

Elizabeth Meade
24th May 2021
Pixabay: @HaticeEROL
Online learning is, to some extent, one of the few possible answers to school in a global pandemic. It is also more accessible than face-to-face learning for some students. However, Newcastle University's execution of online learning leaves much to be desired.

Newcastle University chose to switch from Blackboard to Canvas, with mixed results. Canvas applies the term 'Courses' to modules on a course and 'Modules' to...sections, I think (?)...of a course. You need to click the 'Courses' tab to see the modules on a scrolling bar, instead of just having a page where you can see all of them at once. It's also difficult to see all the 'Modules' within a 'Course' without scrolling or minimizing a number of columns. When I can't see everything at once, it's easy to forget where things are, or even that they exist on the site. That said, Canvas is otherwise a fairly workable site. It has some great accessibility options as well, such as Immersion Reader and the option to download documents in various formats including BeeLine Reader. However, a pandemic was not the best time for students to be presented with a new interface.

Although Canvas is good but mildly annoying, the way lecturers use it is worse. Canvas has a section especially for connecting to Zoom, which is helpful when lecturers actually take advantage of it. However, most lecturers put their Zoom links in a Module, Announcements, an email, or a page in a folder in the Files section that nobody would think to read. I have missed lectures and parts of lectures because I couldn't remember what counterintuitive place the lecturers put the link. Perhaps the Zoom section is not be flexible or user-friendly enough if lecturers are using other features for the same thing. But couldn't they just pick one place to put Zoom links instead of making me open every single tab to find where they hid it?

Online tools make learning accessible to students who can't be there physically for any reason

Furthermore, online presenting isn't terribly good. Lecturers who are good presenters have their work diminished by lag, bad lighting, technical difficulties, and bad audio quality. Some professors, who are used to drawing and explaining complex things on projectors, are quite experienced at getting the information across over Zoom. However, lecturers in other topics are stuck trying to make talking to a screen interesting or figure out how to present drawings and images digitally for the first time. Lecturers who aren't great at presenting, typically just read off the slides, which makes me wonder why I'm even attending. At this point, it seems they are just giving us a bunch of information, with no genuine opportunity for discussion or analysis. Not only is the digital quality bad, the lecturers are not taking advantage of the opportunity to give additional useful information or a better explanation of something.

Overall, I'm glad we have online learning. Online tools make learning accessible to students who can't be there physically for any reason. In fact, I think it's something we should look into further, particularly for disabled students and those with responsibilities that prevent them from attending lectures. But before that can happen, lecturers need to get better at using the tools of online learning, and the people behind Zoom, Canvas, and other tools need to vastly improve performance.

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AUTHOR: Elizabeth Meade
Science sub-ed and Chemistry major. Avid reader. Chaos theorist. Amateur batrachologist and historian. Rock fan. Likes cybersecurity and cooking.

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