Many universities are heading into their new academic years. But, if one were to visit most campuses across the United States, they would likely be met not by the usual beehive of activities, but shuttered doors, and relatively subdued student populations. Some schools, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison and smaller liberal arts colleges, are offering a hybrid of online education and socially-distanced classroom instruction. Many others, like the University if California-Berkeley, are now fully online. And just last week, Michigan State and Notre Dame announced suspension of in-classroom learning for online instruction.
Before the pandemic, most colleges offered online programs. Instruction, however, was still overwhelmingly classroom-based. Yet, even with more online instruction over the last few decades, and spring and summer planning to streamline remote learning, it’s safe to say that most schools aren’t expecting smooth sailing.
A survey at Stanford University, home to one of the best tech-related programs on the planet, found that most students struggled to transition to remote learning. “Nearly 80 percent of all students indicat[ed] difficulty with focusing on online instruction,” the survey found. “Nearly two-thirds of all students reported that the way courses transformed from in-person to online presented educational challenges.”
Elsewhere, continuing education companies like General Assembly were well prepared for remote learning. GA doesn’t follow a long-form school year (each course is three months or less), and had been delivering instructor-led education in a live online format for several years prior to Covid. The company and those like it were able to draw on that experience in rapidly supporting its instructors on a global level.
The challenge of remote learning, not just for students but faculty and administration, has forced schools to quickly tinker with and often overhaul their educational system. Since March, schools have had to separate what works from what doesn’t. Some professors and instructors have simply tried to replicate their lectures, discussion sections, and tests online. Others have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to explore a more active form of learning, where novel methods allow students of all ages to discover instead of engage in rote memorization and regurgitation.
What is quite clear is that a one-size-fits all approach to remote learning cannot work.
A Virtual Work-in-Progress
Before its spring semester ended, Berkeley planned for a scenario in which fall instruction would be fully remote. Two task forces recommended improved online instruction and academic assessment, according to a campus news report. All instructors took part in summer workshops and programs aimed at supporting online education. Now, Berkeley has a new online resource for instructors, while courses, discussion sections, and syllabi have been redesigned for remote learning. And an online resource features regularly updated FAQs for students and teachers.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist and professor at the Arizona State University, has seen a wide spectrum of responses to the challenges presented by the pandemic. A co-founder of online education platform Beagle Learning, she’s observed robust responses like Berkeley’s, as well as those from schools struggling with the new remote paradigm. Schools who had a leg up, and some idea of how to respond, now have better online products. Educators who never had taught online—and didn’t want to—have actually gotten worse, says Elkins-Tanton.
But what does this new virtual learning look like from the students’ perspective? And what are the new challenges to getting an education? Elkins-Tanton sees two: technology and motivation. Before the pandemic, Elkins-Tanton notes a huge fraction of ASU’s adult learners were being educated online anyway. She says these students are often properly motivated, and usually up for what she calls an "asynchronous experience,” like the one triggered by the pandemic. “They’re not really seeing a teacher face-to-face, they’re not being lectured at—they’re being led through a process in which they're doing a lot of the activities themselves,” she says.
“But for those students who are being thrown into it, oftentimes technology is the issue. They don’t really known how to make things work, or they’re trying to be in Zoom meetings with teachers but they don’t have good enough internet. Sometimes they have old laptop or no laptop at all. Those are the most gigantic barriers that are hard to get past. And that’s where we need to work as a nation to get these students the technology they need.”
In online learning, personal initiative becomes even more important. No longer are students sitting in classrooms, having an instructor tell them what to do and how to do it. Remote students must manage their time and resources and make it work.
In the first two months of shelter-in-place orders, Udemy, an online learning platform, saw new course enrollments surge by 425%. Shelley Osborne, VP of Learning at Udemy, says this trend illustrates not only a need for remote online learning, but one that is accessible and flexible.
“It’s clear that in order to be effective, adult learning (and really all learning) must be dynamic and meet individuals where they are, in their specific moment of need,” Osborne notes. “Whether it’s advancing a current career or reskilling for a new discipline, economic instability is forcing people to learn how to deal with these changes in a productive way. It has become abundantly clear that continuous learning—upskilling or reskilling to find new employment or increase job security—is table stakes for the modern world.”
New Remote Toolboxes
At the the Borough of Manhattan Community College, faculty have been tinkering with virtual instruction and coursework since the spring. James Michel, a lecturer in BMCC’s Academic Literacy and Linguistics Department (jointly run with City University of New York), said three different training courses were made available to the program. One by his department, one by BMCC, and another by CUNY. Michel says that there are also online office hours for BMCC’s E-Learning Center, which assists faculty in writing courses and supporting students.
Across the country, Berkeley is offering instructors resources for best practices on remote teaching, compiled from across the globe. The school also produced guides for remote proctoring and alternative assessments, as well etiquette—and, like BMCC, equitable grading.
“More than 1,000 faculty members enrolled in a course on best practices for remote instruction and the campus’s learning management system,” writes Berkeley’s Media Relations lead, Gretchen Kell. “And initiatives took off, such as Semester in the Cloud, a redesign of more than 30 large gateway courses and critical path classes for the fall, so that they’d offer the best in online pedagogy.”
A $1 million grant, donated anonymously, helped Berkeley launch the Graduate Remote Instruction Innovation Fellows Program. As part of it, 260 graduate student instructors (GSIs) attended an eight-week program to help Berkeley prepare for this fall’s online instruction, with project proposals for redesigns of courses, discussion sections, and syllabi.
Elkins-Tanton says she is seeing an explosion in online webinars designed to aid instructors in online education. Of particular interest to teachers is material on teaching online during the pandemic.
“One webinar was the ASU REMOTE conference, with literally tens of thousands of registrants,” says Elkins-Tanton. “InfoSys ran a big Future of Education workshop, and then there have been and continue to be many smaller ones. Instructors K-16 have been a lot of the participants I've seen.“
To better train its instructors in online education, ASU is currently offering a 60-minute webinar focused on its Sync program, which provides students interactive remote learning using live lectures via Zoom. Instructors are introduced to a series of self-paced modules and additional training opportunities. It will also include a “digital backpack” for students that features Zoom, Slack, G-Suite, and Dropbox; and, an introduction to new learning technologies like Voicethread, Playposit, and Yellowdig. Beyond technology, ASU is offering other teaching and learning resources for “active learning, redesigning assessment, and material selection.” This, even more than the digital backpack, suggests ASU realizes that online education is not going to look much like in-class room learning. Stanford is also developing robust instructor resources. A combination of online workshops, a pop-up symposium, online teaching guides, and one-on-one consultations are helping teachers fine-tune virtual coursework and remote technology.
BMCC’s fall training program’s theme is “Resilience,” which Michel says has been useful in developing effective tools and practices. One common element is diversifying instruction so that students can have various means of acquiring information and developing skills. Michel says that the resilience of students, in this time of great difficulty, is supported by understanding teachers and resilient institutions. BMCC is also offering workshops to help the community become oriented with the college’s new learning, teaching, and community-development practices.
The sheer number of BMCC’s online learning resources can seem overwhelming. It includes Zoom and Blackboard (BMCC’s learning management system), as well as video recording and screencast services. Note-taking services are available, as well as a tool that allows instructors to text students without exchanging phone numbers. Each course has a menu from which students can access various basic course content, like materials, discussion boards, announcements, as well as links for learning modules, activities, and larger projects.
“Many tools are only necessary for certain tasks that an instructor might be used to,” says Michel. “But, one or two tools can make a huge different in the online format.”
For certain assignments, Michel plans to use video discussions and reflections, students’ screencasts of their own slideshows, and student audio responses. All can be highly useful tools in the remote learning toolkit. Michel also rewrote many of his courses over the summer, given that the spring’s online instruction was a sudden patchwork effort. With time to develop better online instruction, his course rewrites leave behind anything that doesn’t fit within that framework. Michel says computer literacy remains a major obstacle for some students, so BMCC instructors are going out of their way to ensure equity among students. But, the classroom’s text-heavy approaches quickly exasperate students in an online setting.
“As a reading instructor, this is quite the challenge, but I’ve found that text can work well when it’s broken into smaller sections, is accompanied by various related media, is integrated into community-building activities, or is otherwise adequately supported,” he explains. “All of this knowing that the absence of an instructor in the room in many cases takes away a student’s best option for clear, thorough, and engaging support.”
For comprehension assessment, Michel is shifting from class discussion and annotation to reading guides and online discussion. He’s also reduced content and expanded interactivity.
“I’ve removed the requirement that students present final projects and given them the choice to present live via Zoom, create a voiceover slideshow, or create a video,” he explains. “I’ve removed attendance as a course assessment, and therefore no longer present new information during Zoom sessions—which are now for interactivity and depth of understanding.”
Stanford’s Virtual Study Hall is another attempt at replicating the support that students would get in-person. Grad students can register for the Virtual Study Hall, which hopes to create a “quiet working space” that students may not find elsewhere. But, it also encourages peer socialization, goal-setting, and on-demand consulting to manage academic goals.
Technology companies are also racing to provide schools with new educational experiences and tools. Dropbox recently announced an integration with Canvas, a software platform used widely at colleges, for students and faculty to connect course content between Dropbox folders and Canvas.
Hands-On but Socially-Distanced
A major question remains about how students in hands-on disciplines, like engineering or industrial design, will learn remotely. Elkins-Tanton and a colleague are currently undertaking a nationwide survey of online engineering courses. The goal is to better understand how instructors are doing hands-on instruction.
“You can teach and learn software engineering online,” she says. “But when you have to build things like circuit board and tools, you’ve got to figure out how to do that online.”
Elkins-Tanton has found that some instructors are sending students to maker spaces for hands-on work. Others have mailed kits and instructions or parts ordering lists, so students can get what they need and build at home.
“It’s a bit like a better ‘How-To’ channel on YouTube,” explains Elkins-Tanton. “People are explaining how to do it while not being there, and people are doing it. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Matt Brems, a Data Science Faculty member at General Assembly, thinks hands-on education will demand creativity but also caution. He believes it can be a burden, but also unethical, to encourage students to get materials if they are experiencing financial hardships, or if the materials aren’t safe to use at home. Schools and education companies will have to ask themselves: in the short term, does the hands-on, materials-based education outweigh the risks?
“If most students get materials, do we put a small group of students at a significant educational disadvantage,” Brems wonders. “If all of your students can’t reasonably and safely get what is needed, it’s on you as the teacher to examine alternatives. Are there apps or online simulators that can be used? Can we explore hybrid education where most education is done remotely, but only what is necessary is done in person?”
Online Learning Stagnation
In this pandemic, a worry is that remote students may not be as intellectually stimulated as when they were alongside classroom peers and work colleagues. Is there a risk that at home, starved of in-person, cross-disciplinary education, that learning stagnation will set in?
BMCC’s Michel acknowledges the possibility, but argues the degree of risk would likely vary according to content and instructor. Michel notes that tunnel vision can be a problem in-person classroom settings, too, as students often find value only in certain content and activities. Instructors can think of creative ways to prevent stagnation, but students must buy in.
“Course demands are course demands,” says Michel. “There are ways of challenging students to think and act differently, both for in-person and online formats.”
Udemy’s Osborne thinks learning stagnation can be mitigated by avoiding one-size-fits-all educational programs. She argues that schools and businesses need to offer modern and personalized frameworks to help students and employees navigate and thrive remotely from home. Recent research by Udemy found that 67% of people learned new skills to help adjust to working from home or to learn new skills in order to secure an in-demand job.
To create new challenges and learn new things, novel motivational strategies may be necessary. Udemy’s DEAL (“Drop Everything and Learn”) Hours, for instance, give employees the time and space to learn both within and outside of their job functions. General Assembly calls this “informal social learning”—something that happens when people interact with each other. It also happens less in more remote settings, and requires a distinct and intentional approach.
“We’ve examined the ways our teams are interacting with each other to craft opportunities for organic interaction and knowledge sharing,” says Sarah Farveau, Director of Learning at General Assembly. “From incorporating ‘learnings’ sections into meetings, where teams can share major takeaways and lessons learned from large projects, to strongly leveraging Slack channels to support free flow of information and thoughts.”
Farveau notes that there are currenmtly many ways to consume educational content to meet different needs. It could be watching a one-minute video on a smartphone, completing a self-paced e-learning course, or attending virtual instructor-led workshops and trainings. These and other options are available to empower and support students and employees to continue learning, even as a pandemic turns us into hermits. The critical step, in Farveau’s mind, is for schools and companies to create a strong “learning culture”, and put plans in place to make it bloom.
“If online learning requires motivational strategies, it’s perhaps because the classroom education wasn’t motivational to begin with,” says Elkins-Tanton of traditional educational modalities. “Now that students aren’t locked in a classroom, it’s hard to make themselves listen, especially if the fundamental task is not engaging on its own.”
The Future of Learning
Ultimately, Elkins-Tanton sees remote instruction as an opportunity to evolve education. In recent months, she has seen many instructors doing what they’ve always done—recording lectures, supporting a proctor administering a test, or offering an online discussion section.
“That, I think, we’ve got to steer away from with all of our might,” Elkins-Tanton says. “Those traditional paths of learning techniques were bad in the classroom.”
“We know that there is really good data for decades that shows this is not a good way to teach,” she adds. “You can only really lecture for about eight minutes—it’s a really short period of time. If we think that this kind of passive learning isn’t effective in a classroom, it’s way less effective online.”
And, as Freeman Hrabowski, the President of University of Maryland-Baltimore recently told NPR, “I would challenge educators and the public to not be so quick to assume, oh, the old way is the best way.”
Once again, Elkins-Tanton sees a widening gap in the quality and inventiveness of online, remote learning. In other words, some schools and businesses are learning into the future of education, while others are resisting it.
”Some people are really falling back into the safety zone of their early education themselves,” she says. “But, others are stepping up and completely going for it in the most inspiring ways.”