March 29 - April 4 2021
The advantages of distance learning
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted teaching. Social distancing measures have encouraged distance learning, especially in higher education. Unfortunately on-line courses require resources which some universities do not possess, thereby accentuating inequalities. Lectures, often in front of hundreds of students, have for a long time been a cornerstone in the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). But recent studies have shown the that lectures online are just as beneficial, if they involve active participation.
Where this is the case, these lectures fall into the category of active learning, long recognized for its qualities. Unlike the classical format of passive learning, it pushes the students to do, and to think about what they are doing. In science, routine tasks like writing or revising an article, giving a presentation of results or trying to drum up funding take lots of time, yet are little taught by universities. These are typical examples of active learning: guided by an expert, the students learn by “creating” and “applying” something relevant to their discipline. A typical lecture might divide students into small groups, where each group is given certain active tasks. Through group interaction, the students can evaluate their level of understanding, enhance it and come to agreement with fellow students before returning to the supervisor. This approach promotes engagement, personal research, a critical spirit and problem-solving. Studies show that in comparison with traditional teaching, active learning improves student performance, reduces disparities, and enhances social inclusivity and a sense of community through interaction. Students learn from others in dealing with practical, relevant topics of work.
The numerous advantages of active learning for STEM students have been apparent for several years, whether for young pupils or for adults. Where classes are face-to-face, there is no need for the lecturer to have access to special equipment to be able to implement these methods, which can lead to a reduction in discrepancies in results between universities. The benefits are similar where online teaching is involved, but this obviously necessitates a computer and an internet connection. For greater flexibility, basic instructions can be pre-recorded on video. Some videoconferencing software includes numerous extra options (voting systems, quizzes, debates…). The LabXchange programme, for instance, specializes in teaching concrete molecular techniques.
There has been a great deal of interest in these methods during the pandemic in order to improve student teaching. But in the future, should we return to traditional methods or use this recent experience to rethink STEM teaching? To neglect the benefits of active learning might well work to the detriment of students and teachers, since it brings an emphasis that goes beyond mere knowledge. Rather than replacing traditional teaching, active learning should be integrated into it, with a certain flexibility. It can be adapted to all disciplines and to all levels, and could transform teaching practices overall. By way of pleading their cause, the authors quote from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a boat, don’t bring a group of men and women together to give them orders, to explain every last detail, to tell them where to find everything… If you want to build a boat, inspire in your men and women a yearning for the sea itself”.