Why Emergency Online Learning Got Low Grades From Many College Students

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The following is an edited excerpt from Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education, forthcoming from Routledge.


Nearly all of higher education moved online at the beginning of the pandemic. For longtime proponents of online education like myself, you might think it would be an accomplishment. Except that many students showed up resentful, taking digital courses only by force of circumstance, and the teaching they got did not always fit the medium.

In a wide-ranging survey of about a thousand students and instructors, merely eight percent of those online during the crisis say their experience was very effective. An earlier study supported these results, with seven out of ten students studying online in the emergency saying that remote learning was not as good as on-campus instruction, with most finding online classes less engaging.

To avoid feelings of alienation online, skilled digital instructors encourage active student participation. Some even argue that online students can come away from a virtual course feeling closer to their online classmates than with their on-campus peers.

Many on-campus instructors command in-person lectures like seasoned stage performers, exploiting tension, timing, and humor with dramatic effect. Online, instructor’s stand-up routines, honed in years of practice, have little effect, since veteran teachers—as all online faculty now—are mostly hidden from view or seen on-screen in a checkerboard image.

Many institutions squandered the summer, debating whether to open, investigating various safety measures, exploring hybrid or flex options, and sadly, failing to get faculty up to speed in high-quality digital instruction.

Higher education has always privileged research over teaching. For most faculty, pedagogy is for K-12 schools, inappropriate in college. It’s no wonder that when remote learning flooded our universities in the pandemic—except for a handful of colleges that take teaching seriously—few senior academic officers recognized that faculty training would be decisive. Instead, they went ahead, plugging into Zoom, trusting that technology alone would do the trick.

“By the time we decided to go remote, a third of the summer had gone by,” lamented Ilan Jacobsohn, former senior director of Distributed Education at The New School. “We should have focused on creating excellent virtual teaching examples in high-enrollment courses, as a way of exposing most students to the most positive online learning experience. It was a lost opportunity.”

Zoom—and its videoconferencing cousins—was a breakout tool at colleges during the crisis, not because it’s a perfect online learning tool, but because it tries to replicate the conventional classroom. Colleges adopted it because it closely resembled the on-campus experience. It was a comfortable step to go from physical to virtual space, without reimagining what it might take to teach effectively online. Most faculty just continued Zooming online as they always taught on campus. If hour-long lectures were deadly on campus, they were even deadlier on Zoom.

The impulse—to mimic conventional classrooms online as closely as possible—was followed earlier by MOOCs, massive online learning courses. In both cases, the initial goal was to capture existing lectures on video, without changing much. The basic flaw in both instances is the conceptual error that the classroom is the ideal place for learning, leading to a parallel mistake, that reproducing it virtually is as close to an authentic educational experience as possible.

In the early days of movies, viewers in theaters watched the screen up front as a black and white curtain seemed to part, replicating the opening of a stage performance. But it didn’t take Hollywood very long to realize that moving-picture audiences did not come to see a conventional play, but something new and exciting—an entirely new mode, not a play at all.

When professors finally recognize that their conventional classroom performances do not quite fit online, they will realize that Zoom, and other digital arts, often act effectively as support services for quality online teaching, not as a substitute. Zoom is quite an inventive piece of digital wizardry, but it is not a replacement for thinking deeply about how students learn. For online to be most effective, students must do the principal work of discovery, while faculty, like film directors, stand behind the screen.

A survey of higher ed academic leaders conducted before the pandemic revealed that most institutions weren’t ready to just flip a switch to shift teaching to an online setting.

Online learning in the U.S. is widely acknowledged as by far the most advanced in the world, admired and followed everywhere. Curiously, experts were not always enlisted to lead the transition from in-person to virtual education in the pandemic. To their credit, some colleges and universities reached out to experienced teaching and learning centers, such as at Duke, on-campus units often at the front lines of the transformation to digital learning, guiding the university in making its way through the crisis. At other institutions, digital learning authorities—many who had been running virtual education programs for years—were not always consulted, with the move online entrusted to others with little or no expertise. Although widely credited with deep respect for knowledge, bafflingly, universities often act no differently from other bureaucracies, carelessly turning to trusted colleagues, rather than the ablest and most competent.

To be fair, as colleges faced their most devastatingly vulnerable crisis in history, confronting steep enrollment declines and financial ruin—and with the health and safety of faculty, staff and students at terrifying risk—it’s no wonder academic leaders fumbled getting instructors up to speed with digital engagement. On campus, pedagogy was never the most pressing objective for the nation’s presidents and provosts. Consequently, digital instruction has rarely risen to the top either—even in a pandemic—as the fate of the university was perilously hanging on the threat of the coronavirus.

Teaching online demands that instructors find new ways of captivating students they often can neither see nor hear, a radical departure from centuries of conventional instruction. Virtual instruction does not depend on one’s expressive face, spirited movements, or an affecting speaking voice, but on altogether new pedagogies introduced in the last century and practiced by inventive early adopters in this century. To recover from the stumbling emergency semester, surely the first item on the higher ed agenda was to guide faculty in digital instruction best practices.

During the pandemic, few college students were exposed to the radical practices championed by digital education. Most emergency instruction—except for online classes taught by veteran digital faculty, who had been teaching virtually long before the crisis—Zoomed ahead with little or no experience, teaching online mostly as they had on campus all along, largely unaware of a quarter of a century of online practice, steering students away from passive video and live Zoom lectures towards student active participation in project-based, peer-to-peer engagement.

From its very start, early online adopters recognized that talking heads were not effective, and that new pedagogical practices were needed to engage students studying far from campus. After months of emergency remote instruction during the pandemic, there’s a broader awareness of that truth.

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