Online education is changing the role of teachers, says educational psychologist

Remote teaching is indeed a milestone in education. Teachers are no longer mere conveyors of information, but rather tutors and guides to knowledge, says Pavel Vacek, Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Education at the University of Hradec Králové. According to the educational psychologist, there is still no real substitute for face-to-face teaching. 

When universities shut down on the 11th March and it became clear that all teaching would have to move into cyberspace, it was a regrettably hasty decision, claims educational psychologist Pavel Vacek. “I’m convinced that it was unnecessary to shut down schools at a day’s notice. It would have been fairer to let lectures continue for the remainder of the week, allowing schools to make better preparations for the lockdown,” believes the Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Education at the University of Hradec Králové.

Remote teaching has become an enormous trend and some Czech universities – as well as some foreign ones, like the University of Cambridge in Britain – intend to keep their massively attended lectures exclusively online in the coming year. Do you think that face-to-face education can be fully replaced with remote teaching?
It depends on the field. It stands to reason that face-to-face teaching is irreplaceable in fields that require the development of practical skills under the guidance of a teacher, tutor or coach. Replacing contact teaching of complex topics, those that might be hard to grasp correctly, would be difficult, too.

Would such complex topics include, for instance, psychology and similar fields focusing on individuality and personal development?
Speaking of psychology, the virtual space is ill-suited for personally-oriented subjects. While teaching these, we often share experiences from our family lives, for instance. It’s more personal and intimate, and it does not belong in the maze of the internet. A communal principle applies here: whatever is discussed by the group, stays within the group. In contrast, it’s already quite common that lectures for large assemblies are held online – there, face-to-face teaching can be replaced. Discussion and analysis of various issues can of course take place over Skype and other such tools.

Do you personally miss live teaching?
I do. There are topics that do demand debate, communication between the teacher and the students – and among students as peers, too. Moreover, I’m sorry to have lost the opportunity for natural human interaction with young people. For most of us, teachers – though of a somewhat advanced age – such connection is very stimulating and inspiring. 

What tools have you been using to connect with your students?
Towards the end of the first week of lockdown, I sent my students the tasks they were – and still are – supposed to accomplish. These assignments were adapted to the circumstances. The psychological disciplines I’m involved in make it possible to give assignments that cannot be copied or googled. A lot depends on the number of students who are supposed to sit credit tests and exams. What I’ve found more difficult has been giving tutorials on nearly finished graduation theses. Here, I’ve been using direct communication over Skype, Jitsi, Microsoft Teams and so on. In one urgent case I gave a consultation on a park bench with a mask over my face.

Is it even possible to thoroughly examine a student’s knowledge over the internet?
Technically speaking, yes, I think it’s possible, and I’m ready to put my assumption to the test in some cases, should there be no other option. But I’ll always view this as a makeshift solution and nothing more.

Is there a way to prevent cheating in an online exam? While sitting the exam, students can look something up on the internet or on their phones, can’t they?
If the online exam is carried out in an oral, question-answer format, cheating can be prevented. In such scenario, the student won’t actually have enough time to quickly look up the correct answer. Also, experienced teachers can put their questions in ways that make it impossible to look up the answer. Quizzing students on facts while giving them the time to look up and copy the answers doesn’t make any sense, of course.

A student attending lectures comes into contact not only with teachers, but also with fellow students. From a psychological or social perspective, is such contact important in any way?
Without a doubt, a majority of students find the loss of opportunities for immediate contact with their peers unpleasant. We too, for that matter, feel socially impoverished in not being able to meet our own colleagues face to face. That being said, students have undoubtedly had occasions to saturate their need for immediate contact via their family members, partners and so forth. Their predicament is a far cry from stories of prisoners in solitary confinement, though the constraints on free movement may have been frustrating, particularly for highly sociable individuals. There, technological amenities such as Skype and such must have helped a lot, cancelling out much of the frustration. What has worked very well for me personally has been walks in nature – there is hardly a hint of the coronavirus crisis there. Psychology, in fact, has traditionally mapped and described the lifelong consequences of deficiencies in social contacts during early childhood, up to the level of so-called social deprivation.

Teachers aren’t there just to teach, they often inspire as people. Yet remote teaching does away with personal contact. Do you see this as a problem? 
Indeed, remote teaching obliterates a part of what we might call charisma, personal charm, in other words the individuality and uniqueness in a teacher. It doesn’t disappear completely. But the same principle is in play: that’s why people go to live concerts, although they can stream them over the internet. The performances of Jára Cimrman Theatre (an enormously popular Prague-based ensemble staging spoof plays attributed to a fictitious Czech polymath – translator’s note) are constantly sold out, even though you can watch all of their productions at home. The point is the shared experience, the “here-and-now” factor. Being a part of the audience and sharing what amounts to an original experience, even if it was the hundredth showing of the same production. Social group theory views an audience as an instance of an organized group, united by a common, voluntarily shared interest. The atmosphere in the auditorium therefore reaches a higher level compared to what could take place in a randomly assembled cluster of people. Returning to students, the ties they form are composite ones, too: academic duties always exist in connection with individually elective relationships. There are a great many social nuances that we start to appreciate once they’ve ceased to be run-of-the-mill, mundane occurrences. Hence, to give you an example, we unconsciously look forward to voluntarily taking up our places in the same seating arrangement, once we’ve returned to the classroom; or to resuming an interrupted discussion we didn’t have time to finish. This, too, is the kind of sharing that evokes a sense of fellowship and togetherness.

So far, you’ve made it sound that face-to-face teaching is the much better option. Do you think there are also some advantages to remote teaching?
I’m sure there are. Again, it varies from field to field. Given good organization and the technological capacity, one can essentially teach a limitless number of students at the same time, regardless of borders. This is an advantage that holds promise, preferably in combination with opportunities for individual tutoring. After all, many teachers are now basing much of their teaching on a variety of educational platforms and all sorts of communication channels. Naturally, this trend is bound to continue. This is one of the reasons why we’ve been speaking about the changing role of teachers: no longer as mere conveyors of information – technology has already taken care of that – but rather as tutors, advisors and guides into the realm of knowledge. After all, many of your readers will live to see fundamental changes in education over the next ten or perhaps fifteen years. And it won’t matter a bit how much the state will try and impede or support the process. Schoolchildren and university students alike will increasingly be learning from home. I can picture them going to school once or twice a week for those tutorials and classes that cannot be held online, like choir practice, PE and team sports, but also to acquire the so-called “soft” communication skills. Once we possess the kind of sophisticated technology that will allow everything to be dealt with digitally, deliberate and systematic education and training in face-to-face communication will become a necessity. Failing that, events could take a dire turn. Philip Zimbardo and Nikita D. Coulomb wrote a very insightful book on the topic called Man Disconnected – highly recommended reading!

Universities were conducting remote teaching even before the coronavirus breakout. Is it correct to say that students enrolled in remote study programmes were receiving education on par with the students in day study curricula, or do the two types of teaching differ in some respects?
Yet again, a definition is in order of the kind of remote teaching in question. Members of our faculty have been giving group tutorial sessions, which has allowed them to explain the more complex topics of study. Put differently, well-organized remote teaching can be wholly adequate and on par with full-time (face-to-face) study. Yet, as I’ve already said, this of course does not apply to some fields – medicine, for instance – that require attendance of lab practice and such.

When the coronavirus crisis is over and physical attendance of lectures is resumed, do you think there will be something that’s changed for good – i.e. will schools hold on to some practices they have embraced?
I think that in global terms, remote teaching will be deployed more frequently, but I don’t expect any groundbreaking changes. After all, our department was already using such methods, in one form or another. However, personally speaking, I wouldn’t wish to make the move towards exclusively online teaching. That being said, I’ll certainly take advantage of remote teaching more often, when the occasion arises. 

Some universities have even contemplated holding exit exams over Skype, if necessary. Online exit exams will almost certainly be brought to bear on foreign students enrolled in Czech schools. Do you approve or disapprove of this exit exam format?
I’m conservative on this point. Technically speaking, it could probably be organized: camera surveillance in the exam preparation zone, for instance, could see to it that the student does not cheat, and so on. And this may well be the only option in some cases. Still, an exit exam is a special event, an authentic experience. It has some markings of a ritual, a ceremony: ceremonial attire, ceremonial nerves. Neither could I picture a secondary school graduation exam being held over Skype – that would be a travesty. Regular end-term exams, sure, but not the exit exam. We tend to rate such events among life’s milestones due to their social dimension, among other reasons. In purely practical terms, secondary school graduation exams and exit exams could be dispensed with; instead, annual grade reports or academic credit counts alone would do. Such exams are in fact one-off events and as a testimony of a given student’s achievement they are much less substantial compared to the student’s performance throughout the study. Yet these exit ceremonies have a social, ritual relevance. There are plenty of rituals at the level of family life, such as weddings, funerals, birthdays and so forth; at the community level there are carnival and harvest festivities, and others; and there are even society-wide ones – events commemorating important anniversaries. Rituals enrich, consolidate and strengthen the bonds of familial, communal as well as national kinship. The frequency and tradition of these social events evokes a sense of identity, of belonging – to one’s alma mater, for instance. Abandoning rituals, scoffing at weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies, can and does have a more profoundly negative impact. It sets one adrift, erodes one’s sense of social security and personal well-being. 

How well do you think Czech teachers have coped with remote teaching?
I think we’ve managed to adapt and adjust to remote forms of teaching fairly easily. But we all agree that, in terms of time, regular face-to-face teaching was and remains less demanding. Remote teaching has increased the number of essays and papers, for instance, and these have yet to be pored over and assessed. In standard circumstances, assessment would have taken place in class over the course of the semester. So, this has not been “time off” for teachers – quite the contrary.

On the whole, do you think that the shift towards remote teaching during the pandemic was a positive or negative moment for Czech universities?
I’m more inclined to view it in a positive light. Currently, some people might be shirking and neglecting their duties, making things easier for themselves, using the pandemic as an evasion, but looking into the future, in the long term, universities will have benefited from their experience with remote teaching instigated by the coronavirus.

The author is an editor of Hospodářské noviny./ Translated by Petr Ondráček.