Online learning experts: More than 15 minutes of fame? How the corona-pandemic elevates online learning experts from obscurity into the spotlight

Alexandra Mihai

We are living in extraordinary times. Most of us are by now stuck at home, for an indefinite period of time, trying our best to be productive while coping with an inevitable feeling of anxiety.

For me the experience of working home is not totally new and luckily, I developed a good amount of self-discipline. But I also know that the longer this situation lasts, the more likely it is for a feeling of fatigue and lack of focus to settle in. After all we are social beings and we need the variety that social life offers us in order to keep being good at what we are doing. I am currently finalising my PhD so this is, ironically, a good, distraction-free, time for me to actually wrap up this long term project. I am also teaching online courses at the IES Brussels, so in that respect, I think now I am in a rather privileged position: nothing really changes, the course can go on as planned. The only adjustment I have to make is offering students more flexibility with deadlines as they are affected by the current situation. And I can do that thanks to the already in-built flexibility of the online environment. So hopefully, my students will manage to get through this semester without too much disruption, at least in what the courses are concerned.

Every cloud has a silver lining. For me this is the fact that the coronavirus crisis has brought my field of expertise into the spotlight. I have been designing and teaching online courses for the past 13 years. For most of the past decade I have trained and coached academics on how to design engaging online learning experiences. My PhD research is on the interplay between technology and pedagogy in teaching political science. It is fair to say that until now, In Europe, the interest in teaching with digital tools was rather low among the majority of the teaching staff. There are, of course, exceptions- professors who have a special interest in teaching and want to experiment with new tools and formats. In many universities, teaching online has often been perceived as less serious than face-to-face teaching. And deep integration of digital technology tools into the education process has taken place at a slow and uneven pace. Support levels offered by universities for teaching with technology also differ widely: British and American universities provide more systematic support, while in many European countries this is often organised on an ad-hoc basis.

The coronavirus crisis changed everything. Most universities have been forced to switch to online teaching in a matter of days, causing disruption for everyone involved- teachers, students and university administration. Suddenly, using technology became the only way to ensure that teaching and learning can continue, at least to a certain extent. This extraordinary situation sheds new light on my field of research and expertise, making it highly relevant both in times of crisis, when online experts become a valuable commodity, and beyond the crisis when universities will, hopefully, work on finding more sustainable solutions. For now, the most important thing is to make the best use of existing technology to support student learning in these challenging times. While it’s all too easy to fall back on recording or video-streaming lectures, teachers need to be more creative and spontaneous and try to involve students more, rather than reinforcing the existing physical distance. There is no time for pedagogical training now, but I’ve been impressed by the amount of resources that educational technologists and instructional designers from around the world have pooled together in a very short time. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t have access to these resources, especially if their university has not been very active in providing pedagogical support and, more specifically, support for teaching with technology. I am currently considering ways of enhancing access to valuable knowledge and expertise on online learning. This could be very useful in case this crisis is prolonged and at the same time it would provide teachers with a tool they can also use in the future to rethink their course design.

The coronavirus crisis has brought online teaching and learning into the spotlight but, beyond the boost in popularity, this can have also negative consequences for the reputation of technology-supported learning. For many students and teachers this is the first time they take or teach an online course. The success of this “emergency online teaching” experiment is critical for the future adoption and sustained use of technology in Higher Education. For universities, the main lesson from this crisis is that they need to invest both in infrastructure and in building a strong (online) teaching support system. In order to be prepared for the future, universities need to make the switch from a “business as usual” traditional mindset to a more agile culture of experimentation and peer exchange.

Alexandra Mihai is Associate Researcher at the Institute for European Studies (IES), Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Her work focuses on designing engaging learning experiences using digital tools. You can follow Alexandra on Twitter @Anda19 and read her blog:


This blog aims to reflect the opinions, thoughts, and concerns of academics and researchers related to COVID-19. It does not aim to engage any prediction. All views belong to authors and it does not represent the views of any organisation.