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Overnight Transformation To Online Education Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons learned

By Sudhaman Parthasarathy, San Murugesan / September 2020

TYPE: INTERNATIONAL ONLINE EDUCATION
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Online education is the use of digital tools and technologies for teaching, learning, and assessment. It is also known as technology enhanced learning (TEL) or e-Learning [1]. Online education can improve the effectiveness of the learning process [2], and is becoming an increasingly valuable mode for users to learn in a convenient and inexpensive way. In contrast to online education, emergency remote teaching (ERT) is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances. It involves the use of fully remote teaching solutions for instruction or education that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face or as blended or hybrid courses, and will return to that format once the crisis or emergency has abated [3, 4].

During the on-going COVID-19 crisis, some institutions have been practicing online education to some extent for a couple of courses using commercial/freeware tools. On the other hand, many other institutions were eager to quickly adopt online education tools to continue their academic instructions/lectures and assessments to students. Thus, the focus of this study was “online education” and the ERT, which act as a short-term remedial measures during crisis to help manage the institution to continue their academic activities, is beyond the scope of this study.

In the absence of a tested vaccine to control the transmission rate of COVID-19, the regulatory bodies of educational institutions in most countries have instructed them to stay safe at home and continue their academic operations and activities as online education. Following this, educational institutions in almost all countries have started to transform their mode of conduct of classes, assignments, seminars, and tests to online platforms [5]. This requires both the faculty and students to rapidly learn to use the online platform.

While some institutions and faculty had already adopted online education and became familiar with it, driven by the COVID-19 crisis, many others started using it only recently and began experiencing the benefits and challenges associated with it. In fact, without any preparatory exercises, most of the institutions have been forced to transform to online education mode overnight and this might be the reason why some of these institutions became “digital flops” [6, 7].

As a traditional mode of education is not possible in the current situation, institutions are swiftly experimenting and adopting online learning. For a successful online education implementation, educational institutions must assess their “organizational readiness.” To assist them in this endeavor, this article outlines the challenges and benefits of online education and presents a framework for successful implementation of online education. Further, recommendations for an effective and beneficial online education are presented and preliminary evaluation of the framework was also conducted.

Transformation to Online Education—Challenges and Advantages

Online education has been in practice for several years at various educational institutions [8]. Platforms for online education such as edX and Coursera have received fair acceptance in several countries. Online platforms enabled academics to reach out to aspiring students across the globe. They allowed institutions and individual teachers to not only offer educational programs in remote mode but also generate revenue. For instance, in India, the online platform “National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL)” launched and promoted by the Government of India became popular among the faculty and the students in recent years. India is estimated to witness eight times growth in online education over the next five years to reach $1.96 billion and around 9.6 million users by 2021, according to a KPMG report [9].

Expected growth in student numbers is another factor promoting online education. For instance, researchers and consulting companies caution that not all educational institutions have, or can mobilize, required campus resources to accommodate a 30-50 percent increase in student numbers for on-campus education over the next 10-15 years [10, 11]. In the absence of financial assistance from the government or private agencies to construct new buildings, other infrastructure, such as laboratories, or establishing new educational institutions, enrolling students for online education becomes a necessity to cater to growing demands for education.

Hence, institutions are left with no choice but to look for alternative channels like online education to help their students learn from their faculty and perform assessment activities [12]. Though there are some benefits in getting adapted to online education in terms of finance and campus infrastructure [13], such alternate initiatives also brings with it some key challenges for institutions such as: the availability of requisite IT infrastructure at these institutions; the ability of the stakeholders (faculty/students) to get adopted to the new online system; arranging training to use online education systems such as Edx, Coursera, or any custom-built learning management software system for faculty and students; and the availability of funds to purchase a new online education software system or to leverage their existing system [14]. Online education can be operated at relatively lower costs, are scalable, and make it more feasible to connect an expert to student communities across the globe. But such online courses, if offered without any preparatory exercise by the faculty, did not result in corresponding increases in the student’s performance as measured by state standardized tests or interim assessments [15]. Remote learning is just a baby step in the long journey to offering online education that has been conceived as such, which includes effective student engagement tools and teacher training [16]. To examine the challenges educational institutions face, a study adopting a suitable methodology was conducted as outlined next.

How the Study Was Conducted

Our research process consisted of two phases. In the first phase, an interview with 32 selected academics drawn from eight different educational institutions, which are more than 30 years old, was conducted. This resulted in developing a simple capability assessment framework for online education in educational institutions. In the second phase, to demonstrate the usability of our framework, a case study, as recommended by Yin [17], was conducted at an educational institution. Both the interview and the case study were held via online channels such as Google Meet during March–April 2020.

Three of the eight institutions from where the academics were drawn have already been using online platforms partially, while the others were new to online offering and they were probably using it due to restrictions enforced because of the COVID-19 crisis. A qualitative “focused semi-structured” interview [18] was conducted with 32 academics, four from each of these eight institutions are coordinating the online education implementation in their institution.

This study ensured confidentiality of the responses and anonymity of institutions are maintained and relevant ethical and standard professional practices were followed in conducting and reporting this study.

The interview covered strategic, tactical, and operational aspects. All the interviewees were requested to elaborate the activities they performed to plan and implement online education, their discussion with faculty members and students, documents they used to facilitate planning, and other technical challenges and issues. Interviewees’ responses were recorded and analyzed to discover their decision-making patterns. Our study revealed without much guided preplanning and preparation, all these institutions have started suddenly offering courses that they had offered online in the previous academic year.

By the end of the interview, it was evident that, as a consequence of poor planning and hurriedly implemented online education system, these institutions were found struggling due to insufficient IT resources, lack of familiarity of online tools and absence of strategic decision to either purchase a new online education tool or upgrade their existing tool, or at least pilot test some of the publicly available free online resources for e-learning before making it mandatory to use by their faculty and students. Based on the analysis of responses from interviewees we established for an educational institution aspiring to launch online education effectively and efficiently three attributes (capability assessment parameters) are essential:

  1. Requisite IT infrastructure
  2. Ability and willingness of faculty and students to adopt online offering
  3. An appropriate software platform (or product) for online education.

A capability assessment framework (CAF) incorporating these three attributes is presented next.

Capability Assessment Framework (CAF) for Online Education Implementation

A capability assessment framework (CAF), shown in Table 1, will help an institution to evaluate its current capabilities as well as those required to effectively conduct online education.

In the framework, each of the three attributes (IT infrastructure, people, and product) is evaluated against three possible measures of capability, namely no change, incremental change, and radical change. Here, for the attribute IT infrastructure, if the capability of the institution is that they cannot afford to make any changes or improvements then it is given a score of 0, similarly a score of 1 if they can do some minimal improvements or changes, and a score of 2 if they afford to make radical changes or phenomenal improvements within a reasonable time. Similarly, the capability is evaluated for the people: a score of 0 if they could not adopt to any change, a score of 1 if they accept and get along with incremental or minimal changes brought in by an online education management tool (OEMT), and a score of 2 if they are acceptable to any changes introduced at any point of time by an OEMT.

Similarly the attribute product was scored: a score of 0 is assigned if the institution cannot afford to make any upgrade to their existing product (OEMT), a score of 1 if the product could be updated to meet the current needs, and a score of 2 if the institution could either upgrade their existing product or even can afford to buy a new product to suit the present needs for their faculty and students. Ideally, an institution has to obtain a score of 2 for each of these attributes with their total evaluated score as 6 considering three attributes together, that is, C1-C2-C3 in the CAF. If the total evaluated score is 0 (A1-A2-A3 in CAF) then it’s obvious this institution should either refrain themselves from the online education or consider introducing it with limited features.

Attributes

Capability of the Institution

No change (0)

Incremental change (1)

Radical change (2)

IT Infrastructure

A1        

B1        

C1        

People

A2        

B2        

C2        

Product

A3        

B3        

C3        


Table 1. Capability Assessment Framework (CAF)

A Case Study: Application of the framework

The case study methodology is well suited to this research work since it can demonstrate application of the approach in a real-world context, both researchers and practitioners involved can learn from their experiences and also can come up with a list of desired properties for the proposed approach to consider while improving, enhancing, or refining it. Our choice for case study methodology is justified by our intention to explore a real-life phenomenon in the context in which it happens. A case study is a particularly suitable research method to situations in which researchers study seeks to analyze the practice [19].

To assess the usability of the proposed framework, a case study was conducted at one of the eight institutions. Our evaluation of the proposed framework was guided by the case study research method suggested by Yin [17]. Our case study research is exploratory in nature. Its objective is: First, to apply the framework in a practical setting so that one can describe for readers the results one could expect; and second, to learn from its application. It was decided to execute the case study by carrying out the following steps: first, identify the academicians from the case study institution to help collect data; second, facilitate the case study participants to use the framework by guiding them on how to award evaluation score for each attributes for their institution; third, analyze and summarize our findings and recommendations.

The case study was carried out during early April 2020. The institution, which we are calling “GIST,” is more than 30 years old and offers 12 under-graduate and 16 post-graduate degree programs. On average, 1,500 students graduate every year. The institution has faculty strength of 290 and also possesses basic IT resources and other amenities. As part of this case study process, the first author virtually interfaced with a team of seven professors who were entrusted with the responsibility to guide their faculty and students to implement online education in the case study institution. They are well-experienced faculty members who had thorough knowledge about the evolution of teaching and learning processes and assessment mechanisms in their institution. They were familiar with their people’s usage of online education, the facilities available, and the features of their OEMT. It was observed the institution GIST was getting used to online education only during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

The institution has been using a freeware OEMT since February 2020. With very limited scope for training to be provided to their faculty and students, the management of this institution decided to ask them to use this tool beginning the last week of February 2020. Those seven professors from the case study institution GIST were asked to provide scores against each attribute in the CAF so as to ascertain the readiness of their institution to switch over to an online education platform seamlessly. Each professor was informed of the significance of awarding scores for each attribute and its implications. All the seven professors were invited to a common online platform, Google Meet, to discuss the proposed CAF and award marks together unanimously for each of the attributes: the IT infrastructure, the people, and the product.

The first author documented details of the discussions with the professors during the case study and their scores for GIST. The total score obtained by the institution was just 2 (B1-A2-B3 in CAF) with individual attribute’s score as 1 (B1) for infrastructure, 0 (A2) for people, and 1 (B3) for product. As discussed earlier, an ideal total score should be 6 or closer to that, say, 4 (e.g. C1-B2-B3 in CAF) or 5 (e.g. C1-C2-B3 in CAF) for effective implementation of online education.

As observed by research methodologists namely Seddon and Scheepers [20] and Wieringa and Daneva [21], although one cannot generalize results from just a single case study, one still could use our findings to leverage their understanding and knowledge on the suitability of the proposed framework for transformation to online education by institutions.

Lessons Learned

As the case study institution obtained a low total score on application of the framework, one would be eager to understand from them how they manage their online education practices with faculty and students. One of the professors involved in this case study explained they were reactive and not proactive in either foreseeing technical or managerial issues faced by the faculty and the students, thereby leading to chaos resulting in incomplete lectures, delayed evaluation of assignments by faculty, lesser participation by students in discussion/clarification forum, and poor digital content preparation and delivery. As far as our case study institution is concerned, they even had difficult times instructing their faculty’s use of their newly introduced OEMT apart from poorly managed IT resources and less user friendly online education software product. This indicates poor capability on the part of the institution to handle change management with regard to their faculty and students, which indeed plays a vital role in the success of online education.

From the perspective of IT resources, the case study institution was ready to scale up their IT resources such as increased broadband access and system configurations/"up-gradations." They were also interested in investing to procure a licensed version of their existing online education software product, as the freeware products currently used by them are provided with limited features only. But their main constraint is they would require a longer time to leverage these two attributes: the IT resources and the product as per their existing approval and funds management processes. Until and otherwise the institution’s top management decides to put in place a strategic action plan to prepare themselves for online education implementation in terms of IT resources, change management for people, and recommending usage of a user-friendly online platform, one case study participant admitted online education implementation would be a herculean task and serve no purpose for faculty and students.

Recommendations

For institutions to help ease the transition from the classroom to online offering, the following recommendations should be considered.

Choice of online product. Institutions that are already familiar with Microsoft Systems or Google Classroom, both of which are free for educational institutions, can continue to use these systems and do not need to rush to new technology or new online platforms, without a thorough analysis and deeper understanding of features and other technical requirements [13,22]. In fact, during a crisis, like the present one due to COVID-19, it is advisable to keep things simple and utilize the tools already embedded in their institution. Later, they could explore other online tools available in the market.

Use the same online product. All seven faculty members advised using the same online software product, be it a freeware OEMT or a commercial OEMT. They believe, to a greater extent, this will help their faculty and students to exploit all the features in the product by sharing their experience within themselves then and there. Different faculty using different software products will only make the students’ learning processes more difficult as user interface design and operations will vary from one product to another.

Leverage your IT resources. Uninterrupted teaching-learning process through online mode is feasible only when the institution is aware of the IT resources available for their faculty and students, and suggests the best ways to improve it so online education services progress without any hiccups. For example, guidance could be given by their internal computer maintenance cell to specify the minimum hardware and software specifications needed to maintain a home desktop/laptop system.

Promote blended learning. During the interview, a couple of faculty suggested blended learning (also referred to as a “flipped class” model) [23] than a complete online class based course delivery. In this model the audio/video lectures or e-course contents will be shared, either partially or completely, to the students prior to the online interaction by the faculty. It can be downloaded by the students leisurely and be used to give a quick reading/listening prior to formal online lecture by the faculty. It is up to the course faculty to take a call on this model or a complete online platform for course delivery in the context of their institution’s and students’ IT resources.

Motivate and train people. Digital transformation in any organization could be successful only if they invest in the people who can make that technology useful [23]. With regard to people (faculty/students), the pressing issues for our case study institution was the ignorance of some set of faculty and students about online education, while some did not show interest in such mode of conduct of classes, and others, despite their sincere efforts, found it hard to use it effectively due to lack of training and insufficient IT resources. To overcome this stalemate, at first, an online education implementation training team consisting of a set of cross-section of faculty should be set up. Then, this team may either be trained by some third-party company or experts from other institutions. Subsequently, they may train other faculty members in their institution as well as the students in a phased manner. More so, such a process will help the institution fix a couple of technical snags or features during the actual usage of the product by their internal training team itself. Institutions may consider giving some incentives, reward points, or appreciation certificates to the training team and a couple of faculty who are popular among their students for successful delivery of online lectures and conduct of innovative assessments through online platforms.

Don’t shrink your IT investment too much. The institution should be prepared to do reasonable IT investment to leverage the features of their existing product (if any) or to procure a new one. Such investments are vital as some online education tools are available in Android only, while there are online tools that may cost slightly higher than usual but would be compatible with various operating systems such as Android, Microsoft, and Linux. These tools will also be available as web-based applications and as mobile apps.

Conclusion

The benefits of online education could not be fully realized if the institutions are hesitant to invest in people and face limitations in leveraging their IT resources and online learning platforms. Failing to do so, institutions may reduce the level of sophistication of the e-contents used and create frustration in users and trainers alike. Implementing online education requires a comprehensive strategic approach to change management, as advocated in much of the organisational change literature [24]. If executed properly, besides benefits of accessibility from anywhere and flexibility of delivery, online education can be a revenue booster to educational institutions due to its ability to reach out to as many students as possible across the globe.

Further studies could address limitations of this work. To explore the generalizability of our observations and suitability of the CAF, extension of this study with other institutions of different sizes involving a cross-section of members of their academic community is recommended. New research to shed light on the learners’ experience with online education is recommended.

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About the Authors

Sudhaman Parthasarathy, Ph.D., is a professor of data science in the Department of Computer Applications, Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai, India. He has published research papers in peer reviewed conferences and international journals such as Computers in Industry, Journal of Systems and Software, Software Quality Journal, Computer Standards and Interfaces, International Journal of Project Management, and Business Process Management Journal. He is a regular reviewer of peer reviewed international journals in software systems, MIS and ERP from Wiley, Elsevier, Springer, and Emerald. His current research interests include requirements engineering, enterprise information systems, ERP and software engineering.

San Murugesan is director of BRITE Professional Services, and an adjunct professor in the School of Computing and Mathematics at Western Sydney University, Australia. He is former Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE’s IT Professional magazine. He is coeditor of Encyclopedia of Cloud Computing (Wiley-IEEE, 2015) and Harnessing Green IT: Principles and Practices (Wiley-IEEE, 2012). He served as senior research fellow at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, and worked at the Indian Space Agency in Bangalore. He is a Golden Core member of IEEE CS and a fellow of the Australian Computer Society. For further details, see his webpage http://tinyurl.com/san1bio.

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