Széchenyi 2020
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Can forced distance learning also have positive effects? – Interview with Dr. Tamás Bokor

The situation caused by the coronavirus has radically changed our daily lives, and online solutions and digital technologies have come to the fore. What does a digital communication and pedagogy research professional and university lecturer think about these changes? We talked to Dr. Tamás Bokor, assistant professor at the Institute of Communication and Sociology of Corvinus University of Budapest, whose useful advice is for everyone. Let us learn about the five skills everyone needs in distance learning!

How does a closed situation caused by the coronavirus affect our digital presence?

The sudden changes - social distancing, voluntary quarantine, switch to distance learning - are the consequences of a classic crisis situation. However, according to the old communication commonplace, any crisis is also an opportunity. I see this statement justified in relation to COVID-19, as the closure has forced the daily use of digital solutions that have been with us for a relatively long time, but so far we have only partially used them. This could have happened because of the familiarity with the old methods, or because we were afraid of unknown technologies. These reflexive actions are resolved by an even greater force, the anxiety of confinement: grandparents hitherto averse to video calls, educators hesitant of digital pedagogy, students who do not like online work, coaches who value personal instruction now had to dive into the digital sea because the shore behind them started to burn.

Which digital competencies do we need most in this situation?

In recent days and weeks, everyone has been increasing their digital competencies at a tremendous pace, mostly on a non-voluntary basis, of course. Compared to the pace of development so far, primary and secondary schools, higher education institutions, and workplaces have switched to digital education and teleworking incredibly fast. We got acquainted with new programs and software, we were forced into online situations that are well outside the comfort zone of most of us. But in order to turn this situation into a productive one, I do not consider digital competencies to be the most necessary, but other skills and abilities that are more comprehensive than these.

First there is patience. We found ourselves in this situation with different levels of computer knowledge, different backgrounds and fears. No one can be expected to react quickly, to immediately overcome reluctance and hesitance.

Then there is empathy: I also find personally, for example, that parents of primary school children expect teachers and instructors to hold small group online classes on Zoom from the first week of the switch, while educators only got to know about Google Classroom two days ago. Not to mention that as parents with multiple children, they may also have to take on more roles.

Thirdly there is critical selection: we should recognize that for tech companies, the current situation is a huge opportunity to gain market share, as it will be difficult to move away from an established system later by using services that are temporarily free. It is worth using already known and reliable, quality-assured systems. Corvinus, by the way, follows the same path when it recommends the use of Moodle and Teams to teachers and students.

The next is self-restraint: although we are overwhelmed by applications, now we also have the opportunity to recognize that less is certainly more. No one likes to have and six or eight channels open and pay attention to all of them for a long time simultaneously. The more we can direct our everyday business to one platform, the more transparent our life and work organisation will remain.

 Finally, my examples include taking advantage of quality time: the virus situation has given us the gift of turning inward, the opportunity for self-education, time to spend with immediate family members, and an increased need to pay attention to each other. It would be a sin not to take advantage, and thus show a flick to forced quarantine.

How can distance learning improve our digital skills?

Many of us have realized that a large proportion of university courses can be skilfully transformed into a distance learning format with some creativity. Nearly 85% of Corvinus instructors have so far used Moodle for one-way communication, i.e., for sharing learning materials and sending out announcements, if at all. This rate has certainly dropped drastically in a single week.

We also discovered the Office365 suite of services, although the vast majority of university staff and students may not have been aware so far that, as a university citizen, they have access to a significant amount of storage space and a number of software services. In addition to Moodle and Teams, we began to use additional interfaces and, in the process, felt what I referred to earlier: the more channels we are present in, the less effective we can be.

The development of our methodological toolkit is almost self-evident: for example, it has caused me serious a headache how to turn small-group trainings based on attendance tasks into e-learning materials that can be done individually. After three days of brainstorming and thinking, the picture came together little by little, and a Moodle version of the courses in question was born.

I also believe that the work culture of teachers also develops by seeing their own work logged. This situation teaches us self-discipline and orderliness. At the same time, it is important that distance learning and digital pedagogy do not mean the same thing. It can be seen well in public education, but we also find that the usual four-step process of task assignment, solution, submission and feedback becomes different when the curriculum and related tasks are developed and operated in digital form according to the logic of online communication. So far we have just transformed, but if distance learning continues, we also need to be prepared for the creation of creative, digital curricula.

What are the potential beneficial effects of the current intensive distance learning in the future?

It would be premature to make any prediction on the matter. Distance learning is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it expands the methodological culture and allows for more informal access to higher education. On the other hand, it points to the uneconomical use of university resources, both in terms of human resources, real estate and IT infrastructure, by the institutions so far, which could trigger changes that will sooner or later have unpleasant consequences for some higher education actors. On the other hand, it gives us hope that the role of a teacher will be ranked by many futurists as occupations that artificial intelligence will only be able to replace among the last.

Digital forms of education have been with us for more than two decades, while our brains have evolved and function as a form of communication that have existed for tens of thousands of year and according to the interpersonal logic. No matter how rapid the current changes, our brain development will not be able to take such a sharp turn in a few weeks. Therefore, we may believe that when we return to our ordinary lives, personal teaching and learning in higher education will also reappear, maybe in declining proportions and weight. So our relationships with our new tools will not be lost, only transformed somewhat.

Written by: Tünde Taxner 

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