Could COVID-19 be a step backwards for digital education?

Digital education in all its variants – from e-learning programmes to massive open online courses (MOOCs) – has been built on the premise that the academy can extend its influence beyond the walls of an institution.

Like distance education, digital education is based on a desire to widen access to education, a goal which at first sight has been made more achievable through the development of the internet and the emergence of the web. Even though many on-campus universities have meddled in this sub-field of education provision, the majority have done so to capitalise on or establish their reputation within a global arena.

This has led to the conflation of education goals with marketisation imperatives, as evidenced, for example, by higher education institutions’ increased involvement in MOOCs. It would therefore be fair to assert that on-campus universities’ interest in online education has been driven more by a wish to explore new markets than it has by pedagogical innovation.

This approach has had an impact on the strategies put in place to ameliorate the impact on higher education of the recent global health crisis, but perhaps not in the ways one would expect.

Innovation, but not in digital education

Before the pandemic, apart from universities specialised in distance education, on-campus universities had not given digital education the sustained attention many had anticipated despite an increase in policy guidance in this area, as exemplified by the continuous investment of the European Commission in a digitally literate society, Jisc’s focus on digital capabilities or UNESCO’s goals for a sustainable and equitable global education system.

The same cannot be said for institutions’ appetite for technological innovation, epitomised by investments in smart buildings, state-of-the-art technology and high-tech labs. Higher education institutions have shown a special inclination for the kind of innovations that extend their status, deeming pedagogical developments somehow peripheral to such strategies.

Add to that a dominant line of digital education inquiry that tends to either romanticise or polarise digital education debates and we can start to see why the exploration of critical issues that technological developments bring to education is often missing.

This has been damaging to the field, especially because this lack of criticality has led to an increased disregard for curriculum design as well as a contempt for the cultural practices that emerge within digital environments – an ironic reality if we consider universities’ rhetoric about connecting students’ learning to the needs of contemporary society.

Yet, it is precisely a lack of localised pedagogical approaches as well as digital cultural knowledge of how the online world works that has led to a less than satisfactory digital education experience overall, as our research on university students’ experiences of higher education during COVID-19 shows. Foregrounding this context therefore becomes crucial to any understanding about on-campus institutions’ approach to digital education during the pandemic.

A failure to understand digital education practice

Based on two separate studies conducted in the United Kingdom and Brazil on the experiences of university students during the pandemic, we have observed that emergency online education was mostly enacted through a content delivery approach, an approach that remained unaltered as the pandemic progressed.

As sophisticated as this content delivery has become, given the technological innovations universities have been quickly able to acquire during this time – including live video lecture facilities, pre-recorded videos or podcasts – this strategy is evidence of a failure in understanding the logic of practice that derives from engagement in digital environments. At the same time, it also reveals a reliance on technological innovations masked as curriculum design solutions.

We propose that the dominant discourse that points to a revitalisation of digital education because of the pandemic is flawed as it lacks a critical and creative pedagogical rationale, a rationale that should mirror the cultural practices of the online world it aims to emulate.

This is surprising if we think that universities are supposed to be specialists in this matter, and it is frustrating if we consider that a simplistic translation of face-to-face teaching practices to online environments seems to have been the main solution for universities during the pandemic.

In times when students and academics are fighting for the decolonisation of the curriculum and the university in general, we have ended up with a colonised version of education, where the digital market and not our pedagogical specialism has shaped our educational practices.

This then shows not only a lack of pedagogical and curriculum imagination, but also the submission of higher education institutions to a functionalist trap. Universities have become enthralled by the technological innovation ‘shine’ that stops them from engaging with deeper educational issues.

Passive learning

By submitting digital education to a functionalist design that arguably keeps ‘education going’ but does very little more than that, higher education institutions have placed students and academics in a binary opposition: the former as knowledge consumers and the latter as knowledge providers. This has imbued teaching and learning with a level of passivity that is even uncharacteristic of contemporary forms of face-to-face education.

What is even more remarkable is that despite neither party (students or educators) being fully satisfied with the solutions they were given, proposals for different educational arrangements seem a long way off. This lack of curriculum imagination is clear, as is the inability to contextualise digital practices that happen elsewhere within the official curriculum.

For digital education to prevail we need to stop relying on curriculum translation and privilege an approach of curriculum localisation that allows for the contextualisation of the teaching and learning experience within its ‘host’ environment. Without that, we are trapped in technological innovation and are a long way from achieving curriculum and pedagogical transformation.

A flawed model

In short, the approach to digital education deployed during the pandemic has been difficult because of a clear lack of preparation, but it has also been stalled by a visible lack of imagination. The digital education experiences developed during the pandemic will undoubtedly have consequences for the future, especially regarding how digital education is interpreted and valued in relation to on-campus education.

Drawing on the findings of our research projects, we challenge the rhetoric that digital education has been given a new lease of life and is now here to stay thanks to the pandemic.

On the contrary, we claim that confusing ‘emergency education’ with digital education is a real threat to this field of practice in that digital education runs the risk of becoming even more sidelined than it was already, with on-campus education achieving a renewed form of distinction that will arguably drive further educational inequalities.

The answer to a robust digital education approach is not, and should never be, one of technological innovation but rather pedagogical imagination.

Dr Cristina Costa is associate professor in the school of education at Durham University, United Kingdom. Dr Huaping Li is lecturer in the foreign languages college, Shanghai Normal University, China. Dr Ana Lúcia Pereira is associate professor in the department of mathematics and statistics, State University of Ponta Grossa, Brazil. This article draws on research from two projects on students’ experiences of university during the pandemic: British Academy Small Grants SRG20200065: ‘From on-campus to online: international students returning to academia in the context of COVID-19’ (Costa and Li), and a large-scale study, ‘Higher Education Interrupted: exploring the challenges COVID-19 poses to students and academic staff in Brazil’ (Costa and Pereira). The research report for the British Academy Small Grants SRG20200065 study is out now and available to download here.