Since the mass roll out of remote learning last spring, colleges and universities have had a chance to take stock of its benefits, drawbacks and learn how to make it better. In reviewing the findings, there have been a few surprises.
Where we are
According to Splashtop, a majority (55%) of educational institutions currently deliver either entirely remote learning or hybrid learning programs. Globally, 38% of institutions are continuing in-person learning, 30% are conducting all-remote instruction and 25% are taking a hybrid approach — combining both remote and in-person instruction.
According to Inside Higher Education, most colleges that have announced their plans for the spring intend on continuing what they did in the fall. Many have brought students back to campus but are continuing with most instruction online; others have encouraged remote learning.
Measuring the pluses and minuses
Splashtop’s survey of faculty, staff and students found that nearly 53% of survey respondents feel that remote learning is more effective or on par with in-person instruction.
While faculty confidence in remote learning increased during the pandemic, according to a new survey by Inside Higher Education, the survey also found that the biggest complaint was the lack of engagement and interaction between students and their instructors.
Online learning is taking a mental and emotional toll on students, according to Amy Bintliff, a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of California, San Diego. Among the college students she surveyed, she noted lowered motivation and a sense of alienation among them since the pandemic began.
Another assessment found that, on average, students performed substantially worse on standardized course exams at the end of the COVID-19 spring semester than in previous academic terms. The National Bureau of Economic Research also found that though many feared disadvantaged students might fare more poorly during the COVID-19 spring term than their peers, this did not turn out to be the case. The researchers also found that instructor experience with online learning prior to the pandemic mitigated the negative impacts.
History professor Steven Mintz of the University of Texas, Austin, sees the challenges of online learning in four main brackets:
- Isolation: How to transform an online class into a community.
- Engagement: How to keep students motivated and on track.
- Rigor: How to ensure student learning outcomes and academic honesty.
- Quality: How to make sure that online courses meet minimal standards for accessibility and usability, learner support, interactivity and robust assessment.
Mintz recommends combating isolation by building community through:
- Weekly breakout sessions where students can discuss the course material, ask questions, hold debates, analyze primary sources and build their writing, critical thinking and problem-solving skills;
- Using messaging and chat tools to promote student interaction outside of class;
- Encouraging social interaction tools such as giving students access to digital whiteboards, digital sticky notes and mind-mapping tools to facilitate conversations and brainstorming sessions.
He recommends keeping students engaged by:
- Making sure lectures are interactive;
- Emphasizing the instructional materials relevance.
Strengthen course rigor and quality by:
- Establishing clear deliverables;
- Providing a well-defined schedule;
- Offering frequent reminders of the tasks that need to be undertaken and when they are due;
- Measuring and monitor student progress and performance frequently;
- Combining synchronous and asynchronous elements;
- Incorporating hands-on learning and other active learning strategies.
Support students through:
- An emphasis on access and accessibility;
- Offering student support through virtual office hours and study guides.
- Creating FAQs: a single resource where students can turn to when they encounter a problem;
- Using video tutorials;
- Encouraging peer support by making it easy for students to reach out to peers by facilitating study groups or creating online spaces where students can interact and ask each other questions;
- Participating in proactive intervention such as watching for warning signs that a student is off course, monitoring online engagement and attendance at live sessions and poor grades and send out an alert or reach out whenever a problem is detected.
Edutopia emphasizes the importance of organization with these tips for online instructors:
- Have a single, dedicated hub where students can go every day to find their assignments and other crucial announcements;
- Create and articulate the simplest communication plan for how to get ahold of you for help;
- Consider holding “learn your technology” days with your class to walk through common-use cases, like submitting work or signing on to synchronous lessons;
- Make an extra effort to be clear and concise in your directions;
- Consider making a short daily video summarizing the day’s objectives;
- Avoid the dreaded “wall of text” and use numbered lists and short paragraphs with subheadings;
- Get rid of visual clutter like hard-to-read fonts and unnecessary decorations or images;
- Put your lessons into smaller digestible chunks;
- Use simple annotations like arrows and text labels to provide “visual scaffolding and help direct the users’ attention to those aspects that are important in learning materials.”;
- Use frequent, low-stakes quizzes to measure engagement.
Combat student isolation with these ideas:
- Use unstructured time to chat at the beginning of class;
- Use breakout rooms to split students into small groups for show-and-tell, two truths and a lie or other relationship-building exercises;
- At the end of the day, ask students to reflect on their learning with discussion prompts or a closing activity like appreciation, apology, or “aha” moment;
- Pose fun questions like “What’s your favorite movie?” in your all-class video tool or on digital whiteboards like Jamboard or Padlet and have students share.
Just like the remote work trend, the pandemic has propelled online learning to a long-term landscape it has never experienced before. What has been learned during these recent months will undoubtedly prove crucial as higher education moves into the post-pandemic era, changed forever.