eLearning in emergencies

mask-tissue-disinfectant

eLearning was constantly mentioned in the press as the spectre of the H1N1 pandemic flu outbreak threatened to shut down schools. Thankfully, this flu strain is not yet highly fatal. Nevertheless, the question bears asking: What happens if everyone has to be quarantined at home today?

No doubt, this is a drastic scenario to consider. However, it is plausible. A fast-spreading flu might necessitate decisive action such as the implementation of home quarantine for schools or affected areas on very short notice.

Individual preparedness

First things first: there is no eLearning without a few requisite pieces of hardware. Students and teaching staff will require the following at home:

  • Vital
    • an internet connection, preferably broadband
    • a computer (desktop or laptop)
  • Recommended
    • an audio headset with microphone
    • a webcam

At tertiary level, most students and staff probably have at least basic home access to the internet and a computer. These become a necessity if eLearning is to take place.

An audio headset with microphone is an optional item, especially as many laptops have in-built speakers and microphones. However, audio quality is much better with a headset with microphone. This is essential if teaching staff want to create materials requiring audio input.

Similarly, webcams are also integrated with many laptops and some computer screens. This is probably more important for lecturers who might want to transmit or record video, although students may also engage in web conferences with other students using video.

Choosing an eLearning solution

Teaching staff's choice of eLearning alternatives comes down to three factors:

  • degree of comfort with technology
  • class size
  • amount of time available for preparation

Your confidence with technology dictates the mix of eLearning tools that you will use. CIT's H1N1 Flu Pandemic Preparedness website details the various levels of technology use. These are suggestions which can be mixed-and-matched, depending on your needs. Also, there are varying levels of use of each individual software title.

Large classes also lend themselves to certain eLearning options. Lectures for large groups involving limited interactivity can be conducted by pre-recorded webcasts, Breeze presentations or screencasts. Smaller classes might be better served by IVLE chat rooms or virtual classrooms.

Time may be very limited for eLearning preparation as pandemic situations can develop rapidly. It is good practice to maintain a certain level of online presence for every module in IVLE at all times as well as use technology in aid of teaching where possible so that both students and faculty staff are familiar with these tools. Ultimately, there may only be time to implement the simplest options available to tide yourselves over the quarantine period.

Possible issues - General

As quarantine might not only affect NUS, staff and students might find themselves sharing computers at home as people are told not to come to work or school. Households with just one or two computers might have rotate access as family members use the computer(s) to carry on with work or studies. To prevent this situation from occurring, it is good if you can set up a wireless network at home as well as purchase a personal laptop.

Some lecturers and tutors may want live/synchronous eLearning solutions. However, live sessions such as text chat and virtual classrooms can be hindered by real life problems such as unavailability due to shared access to the home computer or even students arriving late for lessons. Things may also go awry for reasons not in our control. Thus, asynchronous (any time) options may be a better choice.

From a macro perspective, Singapore has not faced an actual situation where network capacity is pushed to its limits to deal with thousands of Singaporeans working primarily from home. While this may be theoretically possible, whether things may grind to a halt when it comes to the real thing is anyone's guess. On an individual level, any failure or unavailability of a link in the technology chain - computer, peripherals, internet connection - can result in non-optimal conditions for eLearning.

Expectations during emergency eLearning

Expectations have to be moderated when eLearning is instituted without lead time for preparation. These attempts are bound to be not as effective as face-to-face lessons. The reality is that there are learning curves to overcome with software and adaptations to make with reduced visual or audio cues.

Lessons from eLearning Week

CIT conducted a small-scale eLearning week with Communications and New Media Programme in 2008 to learn more about our ability to cope with such situations. The following are recommendations which stemmed from the lessons learnt:

  1. Be prepared - Have the necessary hardware at home. Also, early preparation is a must, especially if you are not well acquainted with the technologies involved.
  2. Keep things simple - A simple solution can be deployed fast and there will be fewer human and technology pitfalls. Experiment with technology when all is well to prepare for pandemic situations.
  3. Moderate expectations - Even if you are an expert in your eLearning method of choice, your students need time to get up to speed, unless they are only required to view/participate passively.

You can also view the staff feedback from the previous eLearning Week.

Mask, liquid soap and paper tissue photo by Julien Min GONG
Reproduced under a Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 Generic License