Emergency Remote Teaching ≠ Online Learning

For many MLIS students, looking ahead to a fall semester consisting of all-online courses will not be new, given the availability of online-only MLIS programs in the pre-COVID world. However, for my fellow MLIS students who were at least partially face-to-face before the pandemic, this transition to exclusively online learning may have been a somewhat jarring transition in the spring; and will continue to be frustrating in the fall.

The pivot to online instruction may have also been difficult for those who are in instructor roles, such as, for example, those who teach information literacy at an academic library (like me), grad students who TA, or public librarians who teach virtual workshops for their patrons. Much of this instruction wasn’t originally designed to be performed online. Rather, it has been adapted to be compatible with an online environment. Online courses and courses that are now online are two different things and should be looked at differently, lest we forever associate the two and condemn all online learning.

The term that describes the online courses that many of us will be undertaking in the upcoming semester (and what we experienced this past spring) fall under the category of ‘Emergency Remote Teaching’ and should be separated from courses that were always intended to be offered online. What exactly is emergency remote teaching? According to this article from Educause, “emergency remote teaching (ERT) is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances.” 

During the shift to ERT, many students and instructors have been understandably frustrated by the process and may be quick to dismiss online learning as a result. Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of issues with the transition to online-only learning, with the digital divide at the forefront. The digital divide can affect both students and instructors in the same ways. Two major elements of the digital divide are access to a device and the Internet, and the digital literacy skills to use that technology. As I mentioned in a previous post, educational institutions have made strides to provide their students with the devices and Internet connectivity needed to complete their classes, but it remains true that some students and instructors may “still fall through the cracks.” However, providing students and instructors with the means to access online courses doesn’t mean that everyone will be comfortable with and be given the opportunity to succeed within this new online learning environment.

Quick aside, did you know that there is a 15-year-old Black girl in Michigan who was sent to juvenile detention because she did not complete her online schoolwork? Check out @GoSociafy’s Linktree for information on how you can help #FreeGrace. Not only is Grace’s situation an example of the school-to-prison pipeline to which Black American children are especially subjected, but also how a lack of support for students experiencing online ERT can lead to real harm.  

This lack of support is partially due to the fact that many of these courses that are now online were not designed to be offered in a remote, online format, nor with accessibility and traditionally underserved populations in mind. In fact, distance education classes (those that were always intended to be offered that way) have been shown to positively affect “many groups of learners who have been disempowered in traditional education systems (including some social and racial groups, and people with disabilities, as well as women)” (Herman & Kirkup, 2017). In the cases of MLIS students, distance education conducted online is a way for those who work full time and/or have full-time familial responsibilities to earn a graduate degree in a way that fits their lifestyle. These online programs are designed for this type of learner and situation.

The ERT that traditionally in-person MLIS students are currently experiencing in their classes, in my experience, has been an effort to transform courses originally designed to be taught in a specific format to be compatible with an entirely different format with varying degrees of success.

As we approach the fall and, for many of us, prepare for a semester of online instruction, I thought it prudent to bring this issue up not only to assuage any fear or anxiety some may be feeling about a whole semester of online courses, but also to attempt to defend the online class. It’s not your fault if you found your coursework to be challenging after the pivot to remote instruction because your courses weren’t designed for that format. Additionally, we face a very real possibility that all online courses, whether they are ERT or specifically designed for an online distance format, will be unfairly lumped together despite their differences. This may tarnish the reputation of well-designed online courses and lead to more dismissal of their validity (particularly problematic, since, as discussed earlier, distance education tends to work well for those whom the traditional education system may fail). 

I’m interested to see where the fall semester takes us, now that course designers and instructors have (hopefully) had the opportunity this summer to adjust their classes for an online environment. I’m going to remain cautiously optimistic, but I will be taking things with an ERT-fueled grain of salt.

Note: this post was inspired by and some of the sources cited came from a lesson on ERT in a summer course I am taking: Foundations of Technology in Education (Online Teaching Focus) taught by Dr. Virginia Byrne.

Works Cited

Herman, C., & Kirkup, G. (2017). Combining feminist pedagogy and transactional distance to create gender-sensitive technology-enhanced learning. Gender and Education, 29(6), 781–795. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2016.118726


Jane Behre is an MLIS student at the University of Maryland. At UMD, she is the coordinator for the First Year Book Program and a member of the Research & Teaching Fellowship’s 2021 cohort. She holds a B.A. in Theatre from Barnard College, Columbia University, and worked professionally backstage for two years before deciding to make the switch to library science. Within the field, her interests include academic librarianship, research & instruction, and information literacy. In her free time, she enjoys cooking for her friends and family, listening to podcasts, and, of course, going to the theater.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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