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With 9 in 10 students affected by COVID-19 closures, how is the shift to online going so far?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The vast majority of the world’s students have been affected by campus and school closures
  • Some teachers and learners are transitioning well to online learning, while others are having more difficulty
  • Students at some universities are protesting the fact that fees haven’t dropped enough as instruction has moved online
  • Online platforms are experiencing massive uptake as universities and schools use them to deliver content
  • Being flexible, creative, and caring are essential for keeping students’ morale up and their connection to your programmes intact

Most COVID-19-related statistics are distressing but some veer towards the simply astounding:

“The pandemic has disrupted learning for 9 out of 10 students around the world (87%), according to UNESCO.”

This proportion is largely due to the severe lockdowns that remain in place in many countries. Much of the world’s population has been ordered to “stay home” except in the case of essential workers and exceptional circumstances. And staying home, for most, means more consumption of digital content than ever before.

Cartoon by Ellis Rosen. Source: The New Yorker

It also means that many students at all levels of education – from K-12 to language studies to university degrees – have made an abrupt shift to online learning within the last few months. As public health measures led to rapid campus and school closures, and as widespread travel restrictions brought a halt to student mobility, institutions and schools quickly introduced or expanded online programmes. Many of those immediate moves to online were essentially a stopgap measure to minimise disruption to students and allow for teaching and learning to continue during the lockdown period.

But how are students adjusting to virtual learning so far? On the one hand, they’re digital natives, so it’s not much of a stretch to go to school online. On the other, most made an explicit choice to learn in a classroom or on campus and they want the immersive and social networked experience that in-person learning provides. And there have certainly been some bumps in the road and quality concerns as institutions worked to quickly ramp up online programming. In fact, there are already examples of students banding together in protest.

For example, nearly 2,000 students at the University of Chicago have signed a petition that argues that tuition should be halved for the spring semester. The university has already reduced student services fees but students say it’s not enough. One student had this to say about how she feels about studying right now:

“It’s a throwaway – a shortened quarter. They took away one week of the quarter. I do not feel like I am getting the same education that I would have otherwise. The sort of enrichment and learning that I would have in the classroom isn’t there.”

Chicago isn’t the only US university where students are upset about the fact that tuition wasn’t lowered when classes transitioned online. Students attending the University of Miami and Drexel University are suing their institutions, claiming that their universities are asking them to pay for classes that cost less to deliver and are less effective.

For their part, the universities facing student protests such as these say that the online learning protocol is both necessary (because of the need for physical distancing) and convenient because students remain on track towards obtaining degrees or other credentials. Chicago students were also told in March and early April that they could obtain a full tuition refund if they asked for a voluntary leave of absence by 10 April. The university adds,

“We recognise that spring quarter will be different than anyone anticipated, but these changes are necessary to safeguard members of our community. On tuition, we take into account that the cost is a reflection of progress toward a degree. UChicago instructors are adapting courses to a remote learning environment to ensure that students continue to receive a rigorous, transformative education.”

Steep learning curve

In fact, a decision to cut tuition fees could be ruinous for many schools and universities experiencing new costs due to investments in online platforms and technologies. COVID-19 has been so disruptive to operations and created such a need for speed – in terms of how quickly institutions can move online – that online learning platforms such as Open Classrooms, FutureLearn, and Coursera are seeing a surge in demand and also offering free content to schools and universities.

Open Classrooms, a Paris-based platform offering online bachelor’s and master’s degrees complete with one-on-one mentorship to students, has responded to the pandemic by offering free content to universities. Open Classrooms has now rolled out in many European countries as well as the UK, the US, Canada, and several African nations.

Pierre Dubuc, the company’s founder and chief, said there are now 1,200 institutions and 120,000 students participating in Open Classrooms. “We’ve seen it ramping up as more and more regions in the world move to a lockdown,” he told Times Higher Education. He noted that Open Classrooms is being used both as a stand-alone platform for institutions that have never had to offer online instruction and as an additional resource for universities that already have a platform.

Open Classrooms also offers training for teachers on how to instruct online. As Mr Dubuc notes, “online is different to face-to-face; you can’t just provide a two-hour video lecture, it doesn’t work … it’s a different culture.”

FutureLearn executives also quickly grasped the huge need for universities to quickly impart online teaching skills to their professors. FutureLearn Campus’s Simon Nelson said, “We realised we couldn’t hand-hold everyone through this, so we decided to develop a course called ‘How to Teach Online’.” Roughly 30,000 people signed up in the span of just few days.

Mr Nelson doubts that there will be a return to normal:

“I just can’t see people going back to the way it was, not only because there is a high chance that an outbreak like this will happen again, but because the crisis has shown up inefficiencies in university business models and challenged perceptions about online learning.”

Open Classroom’s Mr Dubuc also believes that online learning works best when it doesn’t try to replicate in-class lectures but rather offers “more learning-by-doing, project-based or competencies-based pedagogies, group projects and that kind of thing, which have a greater connection to career prospects.” As we’ve reported on recently, this type of learning was already very much in demand even before COVID-19.

Jeff Maggioncalda, chief executive of Coursera, adds that he anticipates a post-COVID-19 learning landscape in which students will once again want to be on campus for the physical experience it provides, but also one in which blended learning will be the norm. “Institutions will see that they are genuinely able to offer this … we won’t go back to normal,” he said.

Lowering stress for faculty and students

Different levels of Internet access and comfort with interacting online – to say nothing of teaching across time zones and languages – can all contribute to feelings of confusion and frustration with online teaching and learning. Here are a few tips for instructors and institutions:

1. Show you care: If online instruction is not as good as your institution would like it to be, and there is no quick or easy solution, prioritise authentic, caring communication. Acknowledge that things aren’t ideal but that you’re working on it and standing by to answer any questions and help with issues students may be facing. Faculty can share stories with their students of their challenges and situations (e.g., having young children at home, caring for elderly parents, instructing online for the first time) so that students understand that they aren’t alone in facing up to inconvenience or challenges. Ideally, have faculty and staff check in at least once every 24 hours to respond to students’ questions quickly so that frustrating delays don’t add to students’ list of dissatisfaction with their current circumstances.

2. Be flexible: Just as students are having to be flexible in terms of how they are learning (a major disappointment for many who looked forward to travelling to a foreign campus), be flexible with them, as well. For example, you might offer “live” discussions but make it clear that attendance is optional (and/or record the sessions for later viewing), since some students’ time zones simply won’t permit it. Similarly, since students in some countries will see assignments posted many hours later than those in other countries, offer more flexible deadlines for assignment delivery. Students in countries with significant Internet restrictions, such as China, may have difficulty accessing assigned readings or other resources so making alternative readings and assignments available is a must. On this point, the Study in Australia website provides some helpful guidance for delivering online learning programmes for students in China.

One professor’s tweet musing about whether she should adapt her content for delivery to students overseas.
One professor’s tweet musing about whether she should adapt her content for delivery to students overseas.

3. Drop credit requirements in cases where students simply can’t – through no fault of their own – complete what would normally be necessary. For example, at the University of Washington, in the department of dance, instructors are grading students only on the work they have already submitted for the dance technique component. Jennifer Salk, the chair of the department, explained to Inside Higher Ed that, “Our students are dispersing all over the world …. they might have a three-by-three space to move in. Safety and viability and integrity would be lost.”

4. Add additional – optional – content at no additional cost (if possible) to make up for areas in which students won’t get proper instruction. For example, the dance department at the University of Washington added some “small, not-for-credit technique course options specifically designed for small spaces.”

5. Don’t encumber students with too many resources. Simple is best. Students want to quickly understand what they have to do – using which tools – to progress in their courses. Don’t make them wade around in a poorly designed website interface to find what they’re looking for.

6. Provide faculty with as much training and assistance as possible as they navigate these completely unchartered waters, and explore online platforms that can help faculty transform their content into digital courses.

7. Keep the campus connection going. Even if students aren’t “on” your campus, they can still feel a part of it. Run contests for school-themed prizes and dream up fun ideas for students to share their passions and personalities “on campus” even when they’re not there. This Presence.com [link to https://www.presence.io/blog/53-virtual-activity-ideas-to-keep-college-students-engaged-during-COVID-19/ ] article offers myriad ideas for how to stimulate engagement, including sharing music playlists, making room (“dorm” decorations), showcasing funny pets, launching e-scavenger hunts, and many more.

For additional background, please see:


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