Online learning will be different this fall -- here's four reasons why

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Earlier this week, the University North Carolina, Chapel Hill announced that it would transition classes on-line, reversing course on its decision to hold in-person classes after learning nearly 200 students that had tested positive for Coronavirus. It’s likely that others may follow, moving to virtual classrooms temporarily or for the remainder of the year. This means that, once again, many instructors will teach classes online.Copy of Bedford New Scholars.png

This past spring Instructors closed their offices and students packed up their dorm rooms within a span of weeks. All the careful planning instructors had done to create a semester’s worth of learning needed to be dramatically altered to reflect the new reality of an online classroom.  The quick transition saw challenges with technology, student engagement, accessibility and more. With all the upheaval, it’s not surprising that a survey from OneClass found that 75% of college students were disappointed in the quality of their virtual classrooms this past spring.

With their recent experiences, the thought of another semester online may seem unappealing to students. But unlike last spring semester, when many colleges shut down without having contingency plans in place, this time the industry was better prepared.

No matter what college looks like this year (and it will look different from class to class and college to college) students will experience improvements that will make learning very different this fall. Here are four reasons it will be better. 

  1. Instructors have more experience with technology. About half of instructors and many students got their first taste of online learning this spring. While instructors did their best to deliver classes similar to their in-person ones, many struggled and the process wasn’t always seamless. 

    It can be daunting setting up and using technology for the first time, not knowing which buttons to press and what certain prompts mean. But instructors have been using digital learning platforms, LMS, Zoom and iClickers for a few months now and are more familiar with the ins and outs. There will be fewer requests for people to mute their phones, students know how to virtually raise their hands to ask questions. Learning online will feel more familiar to both students and instructors.

  2. Active learning and student engagement are a priority.  More than 60 percent of instructors cited "keeping my students engaged" as their biggest challenge as they transitioned to remote learning, according to the Tyton Partners survey. Instructors recognize that students don’t learn their best by clicking through slides and watching videos. To help with engagement many are turning to active learning, which encourages students to interact with content rather than simply listen to it. 

    Many have discovered new technologies that allow students to actively participate in class. Whether it’s using Zoom breakout sessions, iClicker for in-class polling, peer-review of work, Achieve’s pre-class activities, or something else. Instructors are embracing the opportunities technology offers.

    Active learning can be especially important for students with skills gaps. Our research with instructors using Achieve found that less academically prepared students who engaged in at least 80% of assigned activities elevated their final exam grade nearly a full letter grade and closed the gap in their average performance and the performance of their more academically prepared peers by about half.

  3. Greater investments are being made in technology and training. Many colleges recognized that there are areas that can be improved in online learning, and are investing their time and resources to acquire the tech and training to do just that. In fact, a survey of college presidents by Inside Higher Ed found that 76% were very likely to invest in online learning resources. The Boedeker Group found that 67% of professors were seeking training in best practices for online instruction. 

    While some colleges are tackling the digital divide and helping to ensure better equity by investing in laptops for students and hotspots across campus, others have invested in training instructors and technology to improve the quality of online learning.

    Many instructors had to use teaching methods they had never used before and recognize they could use training. It takes an entirely different skill set and pedagogy to teach online. Macmillan Learning recognized that we could help instructors explore the benefits of digital learning and edtech, and offered 70 professional development webinars that were attended or downloaded by over 11,000 instructors.

  4. Instructors have planned for classes to be online. According to a survey by Tyton Partners, 52% of percent of faculty adjusted the learning outcomes and objectives of their courses to accommodate a remote environment this past spring. This meant dropping assignments and changing the quality and quantity of work.

    This fall, those changes won’t need to happen. While there will still need to be a degree of flexibility, classes will be more structured. Expectations will be set early on about when classes will start and end. Students will know how to access the course materials. Expectations about assignments, grading and deadlines will not need to shift midway through the semester.

Beyond just being different than this spring, digital learning has many benefits and it’s not uncommon for instructors to use digital learning course materials even when they meet in-person. Faculty are recognizing benefits, with a survey by Tyton Partners indicating that 45% saying their perception of online learning has become more favorable since the start of COVID-19.

Digital learning can engage students before, during and after class, with interactive ebooks, adaptive quizzing, polling, and choose-your-own-adventure-like activities. It also offers flexibility for both students and instructors. And from our own research with our new digital learning platform Achieve, we know that using pre-class activities can help boost student grades.

While students will surely miss the “full college experience” with in-person interaction with their peers and instructors, technology can help bridge the gap between our new normal and a traditional college experience. And learning should be more fulfilling this fall.