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In this post, we discuss how despite the great advances in information and communication technology (ICT) and artificial intelligence (AI), education remains essentially a human endeavor.
In Section 2. We discuss Imperative #1 (“Being Equitable”), Imperative #2 (“Being Inclusive”), and
Imperative #3 (“Being Effective”) in Section 3, 4, and 5, respectively.
Junaid Qadir
Information Technology University (ITU), Lahore, Pakistan
Abstract: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with campuses closing the world over in a
bid to contain the virus, online teaching has taken center stage. However, due to the
hurried nature of the transition as well as its enormity, educators as well as students
are struggling with the break in routine. In particular, educators are torn between
different goals such as effectiveness (i.e., trying to emulate in-person classes online
and cover the same material), inclusiveness (i.e., no student is excluded from the
learning process) and equity (i.e., trying to ensure that no students are left behind).
Matters are made more serious by the fact that we are in the midst of the worst
pandemic in the last 100 years due to which the students are locked inside their homes
with their siblings and family members in stressful situations (which makes paying
attention and engaging in learning very difficult). In this paper, we highlight the
importance of keeping a learner-centric focus in which there is an explicit effort on the
triple imperatives of online learning—i.e., to develop online classrooms that are at the
same time, equitable, inclusive, and effective.
Keywords: Online Learning, Online Education, COVID-19, Online
Schooling, Digital Divides, Online Penalty, Distance Learning
1. Introduction
a. COVID-19 and The Great Transition to Online Teaching
COVID-19, the largest global pandemic in the last 100 years, has been a great disrupter for
the education sector. With approximately 85% of the countries globally closing their
educational institutes, almost 1.6 billion students have been rendered out of school (per
statistics reported in a World Bank (2020), schools and universities the world over have
unwittingly fallen back on an online schooling model. With remote teaching and online
learning suddenly thrust on to the center stage and becoming the “new normal”, teachers were
forced to scurry to online platforms to offer some form of continuing education without due
deliberation on what changes are needed to traditional curricular, instructional, and assessment
b. The Triple Imperatives of Post-COVID-19 Online Teaching
In this paper, we propose that in the midst of this pandemic, to ensure that the online
experience is beneficial for students and not harmful, it is critical that educators keep in mind
the following triple imperatives of online learning.
2. The Triple Imperatives of Online Teaching: Equity, Inclusion, and Effectiveness
A. The Equity imperative seeks to mitigate inequality by ensuring that no one is left
behind intentionally or unintentionally.
B. The Inclusion imperative seeks to involve the students in the education process as
co-owners and aims to develop a learner-centered environment.
C. The Effectiveness imperative seeks to ensure that the quality and coverage of the
learning is not affected by the shift to online learning (i.e., the students do not suffer
a significant online penalty).
We elaborate upon these imperatives in the rest of the paper, which is organized as follows.
We discuss how despite the great advances in information and communication technology
(ICT) and artificial intelligence (AI), education remains essentially a human endeavor in
Section 2. We discuss Imperative #1 (“Being Equitable”), Imperative #2 (“Being Inclusive”), and
Imperative #3 (“Being Effective”) in Section 3, 4, and 5, respectively. The paper is finally
concluded in Section 6.
2. Why Education Remains A Human Thing
a. Limits of Technology
The folly of relying too much on technology is made by Toyama (2015), who highlights that
“technology highlights human intent and capacity and cannot be a substitute for it.” This
means that despite the advances in technology and artificial intelligence, and the huge potential
for using technology for social good, human beings will play pivotal roles particularly in
educational endeavors. As reported in World Development Report 2016, sound “analog
complements” (including policies, incentives, regulations, and institutions) are essential for
ensuring ample digital dividends (World Bank, 2016).
We can learn from the fate of MOOCs that technology alone cannot fix education. The
expectations of the MOOC movement, which was launched in 2011 with tall claims of
reducing the cost of higher education while "reaching the quality of individual tutoring.", had come
thudding down by 2014 at which time, Sebastian Thrun, chairman of the MOOC provider
Udacity and a prominent MOOC pioneer, concluded that, "The basic MOOC is a great thing for
the top 5% of the student body, but not a great thing for the bottom 95%." Thrun’s diagnosis of the
failure of integrating MOOCs into instruction at physica universities was similar when he
remarked about the failed pilot at the public San Jose State University, “These were students from
difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. It’s a
group for which this medium is not a good fit.” This highlights the paradoxical nature of MOOCs:
free open flexibly available courses do not really democratize education.
b. The Paradoxical Nature of Learning
We live in strange times. Despite unprecedented economic abundance, especially at the time
before COVID-19 took its toll, the world reeled from unprecedented debt. These paradoxes
also play out in the field of education and online learning. Despite the availability of a plethora
of free and open educational resources (including the so-called massive open online courses
or MOOCs), learners rarely have the discipline and self-regulation to complete their courses.
MOOC completion rates are dismally low: with single digit completion rates being typical. In
the field of education and schooling, open does not automatically mean equitable; flexible does
not automatically mean better. and same technology across schools can still result in unequal
3. The Triple Imperatives of Online Teaching: Equity, Inclusion, and Effectiveness
schools. In fact, there is much evidence that free online learning materials disproportionately
benefit the affluent and highly educated rather than the underprivileged. Even when resources
and technologies are identical, privileged students benefit more than others through more
progressive resource usage (Reich & Ito, 2017).
The paradoxical nature of learning and social systems can also influence, apart from the
educators, the learners. Furthermore, students, like all human beings, have cognitive biases.
For example, students expectedly prefer ease and facilitation, however, research has shown
that some difficulties—certainly not all—are desirable (Bjork & Bjork, 2011). These “desirable
difficulties” may result in unpleasant feelings of disfluency and the expenditure of more effort
but will result in longer lasting learning overall (due to which these difficulties are dubbed as
desirable). A lot of research in educational psychology has established that learners have poor
intuition for optimal learning strategies and often prefer suboptimal learning techniques
instead (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, 2014).
In the classical book (Senge, 2006), Peter Senge defines a number of laws of systems thinking,
which may at first sight look counterintuitive and paradoxical. The First law (“today’s problems
come from yesterday’s ‘solutions’”) implies that our sudden shift to online learning may create new
problems that will require solutions tomorrow. The Sixth law (“faster is slower”) refers to the
fact that many quick fixes require much remedial work, which means that they are not so quick
after all. In the context of COVID-19 online learning, this can imply the need to go at a
considerate speed rather than hurrying both in terms of teaching speed as well as making
changes to the learning infrastructure.
c. The Downside of “Social Distancing”: The Importance of Presence
In a bid to contain COVID-19, various bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO)
have been recommending physical distancing, also known as “social distancing.” While physical
distancing is essential during COVID-19, the social distancing phenomenon has taken a toll
on learning since face-to-face human contact and presence plays a big part in human learning.
As online teaching expert Judith Boettcher notes, “we learn as social beings in a social context.”
(Miller, 2019). Prior research has established that students are acutely sensitive to the presence
(or absence) of their instructor and classmates in the online environment. While online
learning can do a fantastic job of information transfer, they are less effective psychologically,
especially when the online learning environment has limited face-to-face synchronous contact.
In a physical classroom setting, instructors can get ready feedback about a learner’s status (in
terms of the student’s motivation, disengagement, confusion) just by looking at the students’
faces. This is affected in online learning environments due to various reasons (readiness to
share video from private spaces or simply insufficient bandwidth).
Online communication suffers from a time lag and when mediated by text can suffer from a
well-known propensity to be emotionally tone-deaf. To compensate, online instructors are
recommended to make regular inquiries to students about how the class is going and arrange
check-ins with them in small groups. This is particularly important for the students who are
lagging behind in any way (academically or socio-economically). With the facial feedback
unavailable, the onus falls on the instructors to take the extra burden of keeping a close eye
on data such as frequency of log-in, late assignments, missed classes, to form an accurate
picture of how students are faring.
4. The Triple Imperatives of Online Teaching: Equity, Inclusion, and Effectiveness
3. IMPERATIVE #1: Being Equitable
The Equity imperative seeks to ensure that learners are not left behind intentionally or
unintentionally by our pedagogical choices. In this regard, the first thing is to develop an
awareness of how despite it is possible that our technological interventions can cause
unintended harms to segments of our society. In the case of online schooling, this is
manifested by nuanced kinds of digital divides that can exist even when the same technology
is being deployed. Finally, some students are more vulnerable to be alienated by the lack of
social presence in online schooling and must be catered for.
a. Doing No Harm
“The Chief Source of Problems is Solutions”—Eric Sevareid
Often interventions touted as treatments cause more harm than benefits. In the field of
medicine, this phenomenon has an old Greek name iatrogenics, which means “brought by the
healer.” (Taleb, 2012) This effect is not limited merely to medical healers and is more generally
applicable to anyone intervening in a complex system without anticipating and pre-empting
unintended consequences. In the field of education, good-intentions alone are not sufficient
and researchers (Reich & Ito, 2017) have documented various incidents in which good-
intentioned interventions are neutralized and even transformed into interventions that are
more harmful than beneficial.
In the field of medicine, the realization that the first imperative for healers is to “first, do no
harm.” is often referred to as the Hippocratic Oath. In a similar fashion, educational experts
and policy makers would do well to keep this dictum in mind and be wary of causing harm to
some or all segments of the students. Relevant here is the realization that the shift to online
education is harder on the less-privileged backgrounds, who could be left behind when
students don’t have access to campuses and shared resources such as libraries and labs. The
less-privileged students are also likely to have other debilitating issues such as lack of personal
space in the home environment (e.g., is there a quiet space where the learner can attend online classes
without being disturbed?); insufficient access to communication devices and resources (e.g., a single
mobile phone or tablet shared by multiple siblings); or be expected to do household chores (e.g.,
supervising siblings during the class). This can result in a vicious cycle that takes the less-privileged
even further behind (Reich and Ito, 2017) (Reich, 2020).
b. Digital Divides and Online Penalty
As we adjust to the new normal of online education to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,
we run the risk of accentuating and reinforcing the social divide. This social divide emerges
from the digital divide (some people have access to advanced digital technologies, but others
do not) due to which digital poverty also translates into an online penalty for some learners.
Researchers have shown that this online penalty is more severe for struggling, underprivileged,
and vulnerable students (e.g., younger students, ethnic and racial minorities, and students with
low prior achievement) and negligible for high-achieving and affluent learners who will do well
anywhere (Reich, 2020) (Reich, 2020). The COVID-19 crisis is likely to exacerbate the existing
divides in resources, connectivity, and infrastructure, with the existing backwardness of the
less prepared communities setting them further back as digital education becomes mainstream
during the pandemic. Other factors such as the need to take care of siblings can also contribute
to an increased online penalty for the less-privileged classes or particular denominations of the
5. The Triple Imperatives of Online Teaching: Equity, Inclusion, and Effectiveness
c. Maslow Before We Can Bloom
The term “Maslow before Bloom”1 is becoming popular in education circles in COVID-19
discussions and refers to the importance for basic human needs to be met before we can
prioritize academic learning. The phrase refers to two prominent American psychologists,
Abraham Maslow (d. 1970), who theorized a hierarchy of basic human needs, and Benjamin
Bloom (d. 1999), whose taxonomy of learning objectives is used globally. In the wake of the
COVID-19 crisis prioritizing Maslow before Bloom means emphasizing human safety as well
as physical and mental health more than we stress desirable but less critical needs such as
academic knowledge and skills. Following the “Maslow before Bloom” dictum is helpful for
ensuring equitable classrooms especially during the pandemic since the underprivileged
students face a bigger online penalty and their learning is more likely to be plagued by
physiological and psychological needs. It is to be expected that stress related to COVID-19,
which is expected to grow as the number of infected people increase, will negatively impact
student’s academic performance and due to this there have been many calls for a reduced
focus on grades since under stress student’s performance on assessments such as quizzes and
tests will be compromised and will no longer accurately reflect their learning (Reich et al.,
4. IMPERATIVE #2: Being Inclusive
In the aftermath of COVID-19, it is unlikely that we will have a one size-fits-all solution that
will work globally in all settings. The Inclusion imperative seeks to include all learners actively
into the education process. This involves keeping in view the unique constraints that apply in
the environment as well as a conscious effort to involve and empower students in the
learning process.
a. Designing for The Constraints
To comply with the inclusion imperative, it is important to take extra steps towards ensuring
that the pedagogical and educational strategy is tailored to the unique setting in which the
instruction is made. This will typically entail a special consideration for the constraints
(technical or otherwise) as instructional choices are made. These constraints vary and are more
stringent in disadvantaged community already suffering from a prior digital divide (e.g., limited
Internet access or access to digital devices). Even when a digital device is available in the home,
a household may not have sufficient number of laptops/tablets (possibly due to multiple
siblings sharing these devices). There is also a need to cater for low-bandwidth smartphone
users since in many parts of the world smartphones are more common than laptops/ tablets.
This suggests a preference for asynchronous instructional models in which the students can
access the learning material at their convenience. However, students do not always welcome
digital education that lacks traditional face-to-face methods, and students are more likely to
drop out of digital courses that lack personalization and human presence. The flexibility
associated with asynchronous lectures is also known to engender procrastination and
complacency. This suggests a hybrid asynchronous-synchronous pedagogical model, with the
split customized for the target audience, may be more suitable. One viable strategy is to use
lectures (preferably short ones) that have to be accessed within some time frame
6. The Triple Imperatives of Online Teaching: Equity, Inclusion, and Effectiveness
asynchronously supplemented with short groups in which the instructors are present to
mentor and tutor students.
A comprehensive list of guiding principles for effective remote learning during COVID-19 is
issued in the World Bank Education Global Practice Guidance Note (World Bank, 2020b).
The salient points of this note include: (i) a planning for both short- and long-term remote
teaching; (ii) utilizing both online and printed material for students to learn at home; (iii)
utilizing media fully (educational radio and TV) and not rely only on the Internet; (iv) make
content available through a variety of devices (including mobile devices); (v) support the use
of low-bandwidth (including offline) solutions; and (vi) train students and share information
on best remote and online learning practices.
b. Motivating and Training the Students
To enable students to maximally benefit from online learning, there is an urgent need to train
them on metacognition and on effective learning practices. Metacognition—or the ability to
know one's thinking, to self-evaluate, and to know the limits of one's thinking—plays a
fundamental role in human learning. Since our mindset, or our belief system, fundamentally
affects our actions, goals, and perception, teaching metacognition is a low-cost high-impact
educational intervention, whose value is established through extensive evidence.2 Broadly
speaking, students can acquire metacognitive skills in two ways: (1) via negativa—which focuses
on avoiding common learning impediments and mistakes; and (2) via positiva— which focuses
on leveraging essential yet-little-known learning facts that can vastly improve people's learning.
Taking the via negativa approach, the following common learning impediments were identified
(with tips on how to surmount these impediments) in (Qadir, 2015):
(1) having a fixed mindset;
(2) the failure to engage oneself in learning;
(3) the failure to manage time;
(4) the failure to realize that paradoxically failing (i.e., making mistakes) is the key to learning;
(5) the failure to realize that learning is a social activity;
(6) being a learning monogamist (i.e., learning from only one source/viewpoint); and
(7) not learning how to learn.
Alternatively, the via positiva approach can be adopted as in (Qadir and Imran, 2018). The paper
highlighted the counterintuitive insights discovered in the learning science literature such as
the fact that some difficulties are desirable in learning, and that not all learning fluencies are
desirable, while also talking about scientifically established effective learning techniques (such
as retrieval practice, spaced learning, and interleaving). Experts have also figured through
advances in neuroscience how learning is affected by factors such as sleep and exercise.
The students, particularly those who are disadvantaged in any way, are recommended in such
settings to adopt actions described in our paper (such as taking ownership of learning and
reaching out for help and support). There is a need to train people in having better self-
assessment skills as self-regulatory attributes (e.g., self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-
teaching) have been shown to be associated with higher quality learning and performance.
Interested readers are referred to the recent student primer (Qadir & Al-Fuqaha, 2020) that
outlines 7 steps that students can take to survive and thrive in post-COVID-19 online learning.
For example, British Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) lists teaching metacognition as
“high impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence”
7. The Triple Imperatives of Online Teaching: Equity, Inclusion, and Effectiveness
c. Getting Students Onboard
In the aftermath of COVID-19, there is a great need to have empathy and care for students
and for prioritizing their emotional needs and mental health (Reich, 2020a). There is also a
need to strive proactively and reach out to students to avoid the unfortunate situation where
the students most in need of support are least likely to reach out for it (Dynarski, 2018) (Reich,
2020). It is recommended the teachers regularly check in with their students particularly for
providing moral support, celebrating progress, offering guidance, and providing emotional
support especially as the students, or their near ones and their acquaintances, suffer from
illnesses. Such support can be provided by teachers for students in multiple ways: (1) whole
class broadcasts; (2) individual check-ins and coaching; (3) synchronous in-person meetings;
and (4) facilitating small group meetings. Reich (2020a) recommends that schools should
provide teachers with training and support for implementing these four modes appropriately
as per the local context.
Due to perceived anonymity of remote teaching, and the sense of distance between faculty
and students, problems of plagiarism and cheating can crop up. Indeed, without specialized
technological aids or in-person proctoring, it may be impossible to verify if a given assignment
was indeed completed by a student or by someone else. Lang (2013) in his book Cheating Lessons
makes the compelling argument that academic integrity is best preserved by creating classroom
environments that engage students and by creating specific/personalized assignments rather
than generic assignments reused over the years (which makes it easy and tempting for students
to cheat.) McTighe & Martin-Kniep (2020) recommends the presence of an honor code to
reinforce the importance of trust and to encourage the students to take ethical responsibility
for completing their work honestly and with integrity.
5. IMPERATIVE #3: Being Effective
Research has shown that even in the best of circumstances (predating COVID-19), effective
distance learning is difficult to accomplish especially since young people have less capacity
and persistence with online schooling (Reich, 2020a). In the aftermath of the COVID-19
pandemic, the Effectiveness imperative emphasizes the need to minimize the impact to students’
learning and to get remote learning right (ASCD, 2020).
a. Being Learner Centered
In the midst and the aftermath of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to put learners
at center stage and to design educational interventions empathetically for facilitating and
helping students develop. This calls for the adoption of learner-centric/ student-centric
pedagogies instead of pedagogies centered around regulations and technology. This also means
that learners are granted the status of an important stakeholder in all decisions related to online
education and appropriate feedback mechanisms are in place. We need to establish classrooms
that give importance to the students’ voice and involve them in the “what” and the “how” of
learning so that the students can assume ownership of their learning and become co-creators
and partners in the learning process (Kallick & Zmuda, 2017).
Building a learner-centered approach also means empowering the learners with the meta-skills
they need to thrive in the challenging times that we live in, particularly, during and in the
aftermath of the pandemic. This also involves a focus on the affective dimension of their
learning, psyching the students up and motivating them, and helping in developing their self-
efficacy. When students acquire meta-skills such as learning how to learn, read, write, they
8. The Triple Imperatives of Online Teaching: Equity, Inclusion, and Effectiveness
bring this skill to every course and reap its exponential benefits—this effect is sometimes
called the “Matthew Effect” or the rich get richer and the poor get poorer effect. In this regard,
special attention should be paid to formative assessment (Qadir et al., 2020b). In a landmark
study, Black and Wiliam showed that formative assessments, in contrast to summative ones,
return the more powerful effect on student learning.
b. Focusing on Uncoverage (Rather Than Coverage)
Due to the disruption, many educators are looking to achieve more with less—in other words,
they are looking for economical ways of communicating the core insights to the students,
which the students can then transfer and use in authentic real-world contexts. Wiggins &
McTighe (2005) recommend that learners should instead of focusing on "covering" topics
(which may leave students lost and alienated, when they are unable to see the relationship of
the covered topics) should focus their attention on "uncovering" the core understandings that
underpin the subject. A better approach would be, in the words of the English philosopher
Alfred Whitehead, to ``let the main ideas which are introduced be few and important and let them be
thrown into every combination possible''. In this way, uncovering the big ideas returns impressive
results with frugal investment since the ideas learned are few in number but broadly applicable.
The conventional coverage of topics, according to the educator Jerome Bruner, is
uneconomical since with coverage seeing the whole requires more and more effort as the
topics begin to increase.
c. Compensate by Focusing on Authentic Skills and Projects
“When students become their own teachers, they exhibit the self-regulatory attributes that seem most desirable
for learners (self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-assessment, self- teaching)”—Albert Einstein.
Most people will agree that learning success should not be measured just in the ability to
remember—more importantly, we should focus on what the student can do with the
knowledge (Qadir et al., 2020a). The silver lining accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic can
be that it catalyzes the development of alternative assessment strategies needed for 21st
century learning. Learners should be able to demonstrate performance on authentic tasks
(which simulate realistic environments and problems that the learner would face in the real-
world). Due to the non-feasibility of in-person exams in many parts of the world during
COVID-19, alternative assessment strategies for open-ended real-world authentic problems
can be developed and tested. This is an ideal opportunity for educators to leave traditional
deficient assessment strategies behind and to try to incorporate authentic assessment in their
teaching. The focus on projects for enrichment and reinforcing previously taught skills and
prioritizing it over introducing too much material is also emphasized by Reich (2020a).
6. Conclusions
In this paper, we present the triple imperative for educators as they plan and conduct their
online teaching during the COVID-19. More specifically, we propose that educators should
follow the: (1) Equity imperative, which seeks to mitigate actions that intentionally or
unintentionally widens inequality; (2) Inclusion imperative, which seeks to include all learners
actively into the education process; and finally (3) Effectiveness imperative, which seeks to ensure
that the quality and coverage of learning is not compromised as much as is possible. We have
also elaborated on the implications of these imperatives and have provided practical guidelines
for realizing these imperatives.
9. The Triple Imperatives of Online Teaching: Equity, Inclusion, and Effectiveness
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