The Radical Experience Of Remote Learning In An Italian University

Although completely replacing classrooms with online classes would be a seriously ill-advised long-term strategy, I believe remote learning does have its place.

Remote Learning - Italian Universities

Although completely replacing classrooms with online classes would be a seriously ill-advised long-term strategy, I believe remote learning does have its place.

By Lara Statham

Since March 2020 when quarantine measures forced us to move our lessons online at the Università di Torino, lessons have been learnt in more ways than one.

Firstly, the experience forced me as a teacher at the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures & Modern Cultures to deeply reflect on the purpose of higher education including the reasons why people choose to go to university in the first place. Secondly, as a result of this online experience, I have recognized that distance learning has its place but have come to the conclusion that completely replacing classroom learning with online classes would be a seriously ill-advised long-term strategy both from an educational and social perspective. Indeed, UNESCO recently published their Futures of Education report that stresses educational institutions everywhere need to tread very carefully before making drastic decisions about how education will be delivered in the future, emphasizing the need for the protection of our physical buildings, classrooms and shared spaces for learning.

But despite these legitimate concerns, I believe remote learning does have its place, not only for working adults for whom following a course online may be more convenient, but also for students who live far away from the physical building — including overseas students, those who miss classes, where timetables clash, and those who would like the flexibility that a truly innovate blended approach offers where classroom learning and remote learning alternate according to the educational aims. An effective blended approach opens the door for combining good teaching methods and practice that can meet the demands of today’s world for the students that will step into it following their graduation.

As UNESCO’s International Commission suggest in their report, there is much to be done to get the balance right but according to Professor Matteo Milani, Head of the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures & Modern Cultures at Università di Torino, our experience during the pandemic has ironically offered us “…a significant opportunity to rethink some of the University teaching dynamics. We have the chance to collect and integrate the main positive elements that have emerged in recent months.”

In short, remote learning at Università di Torino is here to stay but only as part of a wider educational strategy with the overall objective of improving the learning experience for students. There will be no knee-jerk reaction. In fact, Professor Milani himself emphasizes that “…good distance learning also requires the conviction that we have a fundamental necessity to face-to-face teaching. It is only if we are aware of the core characteristics of face-to-face teaching, of its human, relational, interactive and experiential aspect, that we can offer distance learning as an important integrated training tool.”

This is important because with 100% remote learning the human aspect of the teaching experience is worryingly compromised and this could account for why there is a 96% dropout rate from MOOCs despite their free courses being taught by top-notch professors at universities such as Harvard and Stanford.

An article recently published in Le Monde mentions research which underlines the importance of the subtle interactive communications that take place through facial expression and gesture or the quick asides with teachers and classmates: chats by the coffee machine, in the foyer, in front of the building, shared stories over lunch. These interactions deepen our experiences both as students and teachers. If these opportunities are taken away, we lose the founding human characteristic at the core of education.

Nevertheless, it appears we don’t need to be overly concerned about the loss of the human touch at the Università di Torino, and there are positive signs that the question of the efficacy of remote learning is being given the serious consideration it merits. There is the question of the suitability of remote learning for some courses, for example. Virginia Pulcini, Coordinator of English Courses within the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures & Modern Cultures says that “…teachers have said that it is very good for teaching translation, writing classes and listening comprehension, whereas discussions and debates work better in face-to-face sessions.” So, clearly care needs to be taken when deciding what is to be done online and what is more suitable for the classroom.

However, what happens next, from September onwards, depends somewhat on how Covid-19 plays out. “The challenge we are called to face is certainly complex, also because we continue to operate in a situation of (potential) emergency,” Professor Milani points out.

What we don’t want this to be, however, is a missed opportunity to think deeply about the teaching methods and practice that can be used to deliver a blended approach. Professor Monica Elena Mincu, Associate Professor of Comparative Education in the Department of Philosophy & Educational Sciences at Università di Torino, stresses the point that as teachers we need to be clear on what the purposes and outcomes are when we select learning activities and the methods/tools we will use to deliver those. She emphasizes that the learning students take from lessons needs to be a valuable outcome that is closely linked to evaluation. ‘Just in time teaching’ which involves assigning, for example, readings to students before class, and asking them to come prepared for discussion, is one way to engage students in purposeful activities. A range of multi-media learning materials is potentially more motivating than just a coursebook.

Professor Milani also explains how this method of teaching can help solve the issue of large class sizes “…since, until the recent past our ‘seminars’ were unfortunately overwhelmed by the student numbers, the live lesson itself can now turn into an opportunity to deepen and compare the learning that has been done through accessing the materials prepared online.

But, as Professor Mincu observes, if the evaluation system simply requires you to reproduce from memory rather than critically evaluate material there is little motivation for students to come to class or perhaps even do the reading beforehand, feeling that it will be sufficient to study it a few weeks before the exam. Continuous assessment could be one solution towards solving this problem combined with useful feedback for groups and individuals both in written and spoken form.

A Professor of English in the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures & Modern Cultures, Silvia Pireddu, adds that the issues of student motivation are also compromised if the learning materials are not continuously updated, adapted and refreshed. The creation of what she terms “an expanding environment” links classroom and remote learning to the real world where students are supported in finding their way into that world through the Web. This includes raising their awareness of how to behave during the course, including how they manage their time; an important skill that students must acquire to be able to access and use materials.

What our online teaching experience also taught us is that students are not as tech savvy as we think within the university context. “We can misjudge their level of independence and often take for granted that they can navigate the complexities of the university system and of the subjects taught. So, whether we are teaching fully online or using a blended approach, we should never forget to offer guidance”, adds an English teacher in the Department.

As well as introducing the new we can also update the old such as the student office hours ‘ricevimenti’ “…which are all too often neglected by their possible users,” says Professor Milani. His suggestion to “…get around the long wait for the weekly appointment, which often pushes people to give up, by introducing more flexible online meetings, agreed in advance,” is surely a good one.

Università di Torino already has a lot at its disposal to create the foundations for a valid blended approach. There is ongoing discussion about exam security tools for invigilation and ‘Turn It In’, a detection tool used to check articles for plagiarized content is already available. Plus, Università di Torino offers excellent access to online journals. What is more, in the Centro Linguistico di Ateneo (CLA), blended learning has already been in action for some time now, prior to Covid-19 and includes initiatives such as Caffè Linguistici, Cambridge certification courses and even Open Badge Certifications’ for students to earn certification for professional English.

Professor Milani points out that “…such a diversification of learning methods and tools could also allow the student more responsibility as the architect of their university training process, through a personal organization of time and space which is both physical and virtual.

A blended approach is clearly an interesting prospect, but in the months ahead, universities can no longer risk vulnerable students being left out. As Professor Milani says, “…obviously, all of this can only be achieved if access to technology is guaranteed to the entire student cohort, with specific support for those with fewer economic resources. Special attention must also be paid to disabled people, for whom the use of new technological resources can constitute a new form of inclusion.”

What Università di Torino is not short of are ideas and initiatives, and no doubt other universities in Italy are considering similar steps, but it is now important for all Italian universities to combine both strategic and pedagogical objectives so that the university experience is one that reaps benefits for students that make them fit for the outside world. University courses have to be constructed to push students beyond the boundaries of their school experience by incorporating critical approaches to materials and interactions, as well as memorization when appropriate, and explicitly testing these approaches when one or the other is required. Blended learning can offer this flexibility.

This approach offers fertile ground for building humanistic and professional skills that transition students from university to the working world. Most students go to university primarily because they believe that a degree will boost their chances for a good job but we must not forget that they also go for the wider purpose of a higher education experience to develop into more cultured, social, independent and open-minded beings with the capacity to think critically, communicate persuasively, deepen their research skills and develop specialist knowledge in areas of their own interest. These are the skills that we need for the physical and virtual world. These are what students want and expect and are the ones that will prepare them adequately for the workplace where they can make useful contributions in terms of covering the demand for human capital, innovation and academic research.

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