Emergency online remote learning’s unintended consequences

02 Nov 2021
02 Nov 2021

Lecturers and students learned how to use new tools overnight. Tertiary institutions made structural changes, not only to physical infrastructure, but also to how they operate.

Lecturers, students and administrators innovated, adapted, and in the process, they tacitly agreed to waive various rights and due processes to ensure the transition to online learning was successful, because there wasn’t enough time to consider the consequences.

As is the case with any new technology implementation, organisations had not caught up with all the changes during the initial stages of the pandemic. Universities were no exception.

Despite the changed context in which lecturers worked, the traditional academic and professional expectations on staff remain unchanged. Staff had to navigate a new world of life and work.

They had to balance personal and professional decisions, as well as the added responsibility of the governance of disruptive technologies. Streaming and recording lectures undoubtedly hold benefits, but also risks.

Notwithstanding the practical issues relating to online learning in a developing country, such as stable electricity supply, reliable connectivity and unequal access to resources and education, there are risks relating to streaming and recording lecturers which gather around three themes, namely teaching practices, student experience and institutional strategies and responsibilities.

Teaching practices

Besides finding the balance between student needs and increased student demands, lecturers have always struggled to find the right balance between personal time, teaching obligations and research commitments.

This has become more difficult in the remote learning environment, with online teaching being more time-consuming than face-to-face teaching, mainly because lecturers were required to learn how to teach online, while teaching at the same time.

Course design and marking had to be re-engineered. This required time to develop the necessary guidelines and collaboration time.

Typical small tasks become time-consuming. The volume of correspondence increased over multiple platforms. Instead of searching for the answer, the keyboard warrior influence became more apparent with students, rather than searching for answers, asking every small question at all hours of the day.

Discussion boards had to be actively monitored to ensure content being posted was factually correct and non-biased. Social media platforms also led to the spread of misinformation and created digital noise.

Given the difficulty in authenticating students and their work, the integrity of assessments was called into question. The number of disciplinary cases increased, with students facing charges of colluding with each other and using technology or subscription services to cheat.

Input time did not always equate to rewards with low response rates to student evaluations and students’ confusing technological issues with lecturers’ performance.

Being unable to engage in person increased students’ sense of isolation and a decline in their well-being. Lecturers were expected to provide students with engagement opportunities and emotional support, despite not being trained to do so.

This imbalance in time allocation and additional priorities manifests in the psychological impact on lecturers as well.

Student experience

Recordings and streaming diminished the students’ learning experience. They may miss the nuances of a lecturer’s facial expression and gestures, while, on the other hand, lecturers may inhibit their action, morphing into using modes of presentation that play up to the camera and also become cautious about interactive formats for fear of making mistakes or saying something controversial.

Moreover, anonymity of the online setting may embolden some students, while intimidating others.

Recordings or click-through presentations also reinforced passive learning. Given students’ preference for passive learning, their scrutiny regarding the differences in teaching styles of lecturers increased.

To avoid the complaints, lecturers then tended to take the path of least resistance, irrespective of the pedagogical motivations.

Making recordings available saw a decline in attendance of the live sessions, with students not keeping up to date, believing that they could re-watch the recordings before an assessment. This led to ‘binge studying’.

Institutional strategies and responsibilities

These pedagogical challenges are not the only concerns lecturers have to consider. They also have to take responsibility for managing student online behaviour, since many universities may not have updated their processes and policies in the rush to design a workable online learning experience.

The pace of adoption of online learning resulted in many lecturers not understanding the appropriate access controls and operating settings around the online platforms used. Incorrectly configured settings may lead to unauthorised access and learning content being shared without constraint.

Tech-support focused on implementation, not operations, which left organisational controls lacking. In recent years, academia has increasingly become a target for online attacks, with a host of phishing websites with suspicious domains (URLs) being registered.

These URLs could be embedded in general correspondence, chats, polls or quizzes with the information gathered being used to download malicious programmes and to facilitate socially-engineered attacks and malware.

Given the disconnect between the physical personality and digital personalities, students often become fairly familiar during online discussion and forget to maintain professional tone and behaviour, with students’ actions being in breach of the institution’s policies.

There have been examples of innocent instances of students accidentally switching on a camera and being partially dressed, as well as intentional attempts to take control of lectures by unmuting microphones, Zoom-bombing and hijacking lectures with students protests. Trolling, harassment, doxing or cyberbullying of fellow students have become a problem.

A lecture hall has historically been considered a safe space to critically discuss real-world issues as it relates to course material. Being recorded or not knowing who is present in an online lecture may inhibit this academic freedom, discouraging participants from taking controversial views and reducing participation and sharing of own views.

This is relevant in the era of populist politics and ‘cancel culture’. Once a recording is made, it lasts indefinitely and is easy to share. Registered students could download learning material and share it without considering copyright and reputational risks.

The temptation to use material created by a colleague and simply recycle it, is also significant. There is probably little commercial value of content produced by a student today, but that is not to say that it would not have commercial value in the future.

Reputationally, as values change over time, an innocent comment today could become viral in the future. Once the social media-mob, traditional media and political parties take the story on, the reputational damage is done.

In addition to a loss of academic freedom, academics could also lose ownership of identity. Universities have always taken ownership of products produced by academic staff under their employment contracts.

It is often assumed that this has only been in reference to written works or artefacts produced, which does not involve a lecturer’s personal physical being (ie, voice and image).

Some universities have separate policies governing written works and artefacts as opposed to voice and video recordings, while others may purposefully ‘broad-catch’ all policies and include recording as part of a university’s record of information assets.

This raises the following important questions: Who owns the material, the voice, images and recordings of a lecturer’s physical being? How long is an acceptable period of use? What safeguards are in place to protect the lecturer’s and the university’s rights? And at what cost?

Besides academic freedom and loss of ownership, there are also wider ethical issues such as privacy and identity at play.

Recordings could infringe on a person’s perception of privacy. Although privacy is a right included in the South African Constitution, legally there isn’t clarity on whether a lecturer or student can refuse to be recorded, or whether a university could force someone to be recorded without their consent.

Moreover, ambiguity exists in this regard. Personal data also includes biometric data contained in video and voice recordings.

By generating recordings, a lecturer is generating biometric data which can easily be used to make deepfakes or be used in other forms of voice synthesis.

Security risks

What is unclear, is the extent to which recorded versions of biometric data could be used for fraudulent access and its related future security risks. There are various documented international cases of voices cloned and being used to authorise fraudulent transactions.

While universities give consideration to the safeguarding of personal information of students and staff stored in traditional databases, they not doing enough to protect biometric data or its potential future legislative implications of privacy, particularly across different legal jurisdictions, regardless of where the university is located or how everyone is connecting.

One could argue that these risks won’t have existed if lecturers had time to reshape their pedagogical stance in an online environment, or if those charged with governance had the time to consider the IT risks arising from streaming and recording lectures and implement governance mechanisms proactively.

As the world returns to ‘real’ new normal post-COVID, the higher education sector must make the time to understand the unintended consequences of online learning and ensure equal access and opportunities to education.

Riaan J Rudman is an associate professor at the school of accountancy in the faculty of economic and management sciences at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. This article is based on his paper ‘Understanding the unintended consequences of online teaching’ published recently in the South African Journal of Higher Education.