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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, educators and students across the world were forced to adjust to new, digital ways of learning practically overnight. A year later, it’s still unclear how the sudden switch to virtual instruction has impacted the education community.

A recent survey on digital teaching, conducted by the publication Times Higher Education (THE), sought to answer this question. The poll canvassed 520 university educators in 46 countries, with most of the respondents in THE’s home territory of the United Kingdom. The survey’s results highlight a range of challenges for online education: increased workload; a negative impact on mental health; and detrimental effects on student learning outcomes.

Spectrum of challenges

As educators learned to instruct using online platforms in the pandemic’s early days, the survey respondents reported, their working hours and job pressure increased tremendously. Some 89% of respondents felt that their workload increased with the switch to online teaching, with 61% expressing strong agreement with that statement.

Virtual instruction also required educators to rapidly learn new technical skills. One humanities lecturer said that “to deliver the equivalent of a one-hour lecture takes at least three to four hours for recording and uploading (usually in several shorter segments). With editing and captioning, it’s more like eight to ten hours.” On top of the technical work required, educators reportedly had to lengthen office hours to support students with technical difficulties, and some say that they became sounding boards for students coping with anxiety.

During this period of increased workload and social isolation, both students and teachers suffered from mental health issues, according to the survey. When asked about the initial move to online teaching, 51% agreed or strongly agreed that the transition had a negative effect on their mental health. Equally concerning, approximately six in ten respondents believe the transition to online learning negatively affected students’ mental health.

These results suggest worries not only around mental health, but also for student learning outcomes. The survey found that 59% of respondents agree or strongly agree that learning uptake was adversely affected by the move to digital. For lab-based classes this is particularly relevant; 82% of respondents reported that the loss of physical lab time had significant negative effects on student learning. The learning outcomes for students from nontraditional backgrounds, such as first-generation or financially disadvantaged students, particularly concerned instructors—some 63% of respondents believe such students are at greater risk of being left behind in the digital shift.

Future of education

As vaccinations increase and an end to the pandemic comes into view, educators worldwide wonder about the future of teaching. Will things go back to “normal,” or are some changes here to stay? Some educators note that the switch to online teaching has allowed them to take advantage of new learning resources, and reportedly are happy to see some less confident students who were “anxious in the classroom” a year ago now flourishing online. When asked what aspects of the switch to online learning educators would like to keep regardless of COVID-19, 54% cited online lectures and meetings.

Others, however, stressed the personal connection in classroom instruction that’s impossible to achieve online. One physical-science senior lecturer said, “With online teaching you cannot, no matter how hard you try, get the same level of interaction, discussion and debate, even with the most advanced platforms.”

While it remains unclear exactly what the future of teaching will look like, THE hopes that the survey’s results can help inform sustainable education practices going forward. Indeed, the survey itself coincides with the launch of a global online platform for supporting educators, THE Campus, that the publication has created in partnership with Microsoft, Arizona State University, USA, and Cintana Education.