Preparing for the Future of Higher Education: Adapting in Challenging Times
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, universities worldwide have been forced to transition to all-online teaching, and while some researchers are reporting that this will decrease college students’ desire to continue programs in an online learning environment, a large majority are reporting the opposite (Lederman, 2020). Already universities today are seeing a declining enrollment across most programs. For the spring 2019 term, nearly 300,000 fewer college students enrolled in the US than in the spring 2018 term. Likewise, for the fall 2018 semester enrollments decreased by 1.7 percent (Johnson, 2019). Sutton (2020) also reports that community colleges across the US see a decline in enrollment. Could this be a result of today’s generation of students’ dire need for the online learning platform? If so, it is paramount that instructors of higher education know how to promote community in their online learning environments similar to what is provided in the traditional face-to-face model. Due to the evolution of technology today, instructors are easily able to promote instructor-to-student and peer-to-peer interactions in online courses (Lederman, 2020). This article will discuss how two university supervisors modified a traditional face-to-face senior seminar course to a virtual learning platform. In this course seniors are teaching full-time to complete their internship requirements and completing their Education Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA). Therefore, consistent communication and support were vital to overall student success in this course.
Pandemic restrictions have been extremely stressful for seniors in education programs, as most of them had their student teaching experience truncated by the restrictions placed on K–12 public schools. During a student’s internship, all the academic and practical knowledge obtained through previous courses culminates in their application of every skill at the same time. Additionally, the reality sets in that despite all their preparation, many children do not learn, act, or respond in the way that was described in textbooks. Beyond their learning to complete all the tasks required of a teacher, interns face many other challenges. One of the most significant undertakings is the completion of a performance-based assessment that they must pass to earn a teaching license. There are currently 41 states that use the edTPA as part of obtaining a teaching license. While each of the three tasks (planning, instruction, and assessment) are a part of being a teacher, the process is immensely stressful for student teachers due to the high-stakes nature of the result.
With university courses forced to transition to online classes, traditional class sessions that had allowed for direct instructor feedback and academic dialogue with peers ended. While distance learning can be as effective as in-person classes (Simonson et al., 2011), student teaching is nearly always offered in-person. Two university supervisors took advantage of the opportunity to reexamine the traditional student teaching supervisory role to meet the needs of future teachers by increasing accessibility for instructor-to-student interactions and incorporating today’s advanced technology platforms to improve peer-to-peer exchanges.
Using the “right” technology
Many universities have multiple licenses with different technology platforms, and many platforms now offer free versions of their software. Zoom allows students to host a video conference of up to 40 minutes directly with their peers while sharing documents at the same time. Other teleconferencing platforms, such as Big Blue Button and GoToMeeting, are also being used worldwide during this pandemic to foster virtual collaboration among students. Google Docs, Zoom, Big Blue Button, and GoToMeeting allow for consistent collaboration, which enhances student productivity and overall discourse in the classroom and in turn makes a significant impact on student learning. When instructors foster communication virtually, they are preparing students to share thoughts and ideas using both oral and written communication skills and to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams, valuing individual contributions (Rider, 2019). Google Hangouts is also a free platform for users with a Google account. Adobe Connect is a more feature-laden video conferencing platform that allows for participant engagement to be measured and the use of a virtual whiteboard for drawing necessary information.
Universities that use Blackboard as an LMS can use Blackboard Collaborate, and Canvas instructors can use Canvas Conferencing. Both tools allow instructors to hold virtual office hours to communicate with all students at one time, deliver synchronous lectures, and encourage real-time discourse. Special guests can also be invited to present to several students and engage students in critical thinking. Students can create conferences and host study groups and discuss assignments and projects. The specific video conferencing platform matters far less than the user’s comfort level with using the technology.
For working on documents as a group, it is hard to find a simpler or more ubiquitous application than Google Docs. Google Docs allows students to communicate in real time and share responsibility for their learning. Whether students need to work on a visual presentation, a spreadsheet full of data, or the writing of an essay, Google Docs has a free, easily accessible application.
While there were many challenges in converting the seminar and student teaching course to an online class, doing so did allow for a reexamination of how things could be designed. During a traditional seminar course, supervisors had high scoring former students provide in-person explanations of each task and how to accomplish each during seminar sessions. Now, former students are invited in as special guests using Canvas Conferencing and Zoom. Also, steps are being taken to have the former students record their presentations for upload to the course website for future use.
Fostering community in an online course
While online classes shift the traditional student to teacher interactions, the relationships remain just as important as it is for regular in-person courses. According to a review of the literature for distance learning courses, the effective use of technology and varied opportunities for interpersonal interaction are among the key indicators of a quality distance course (Jaggars & Xu, 2016). Jaggars et al. (2013) found that higher levels of interpersonal communication correlated with higher academic performance from students in online courses. Gray and DiLoreto (2016) indicate that an instructor’s presence in an online class has a significant and direct relationship with student satisfaction in the course. Research further suggests that 15 to 30 percent of class time should be devoted to student interactions that enable students to construct their knowledge effectively (NAGT, 2016). Students completing their internships virtually need regular opportunities for interaction with supervisors and peers, and these interactions can lead to positive student outcomes.
As with all distance learning, accessibility, and structure are crucial, and they are even more critical for capstone classes or classes that require field experiences (Simonson et al., 2019). As weekly seminars were canceled and the three working sessions for the performance assessment were dropped, the supervisors updated the class calendar using a Google Doc that they shared with all students. They adjusted due dates according to updated submission requirements from the assessment scoring body, but they maintained working sessions with the adjustment that these became virtual. They communicated all information was communicated both in email and via the Google Doc to keep everyone readily informed.
Students also needed to have more means of communicating with supervisors. A Google Doc was established as a running question and answer guide where interns posted questions at all times of the day. The questions were open for other students who were currently completing edTPA. Additionally, supervisors checked the document every few days to respond and answer questions within guidelines. Items were organized by the three different tasks, which allowed students to scan to see if others had similar inquiries quickly. For some students, supervisors scheduled weekly virtual meetings using Zoom and Canvas Conferencing to answer questions and to keep them accountable; other students requested only one or two sessions. Supervisors also gave students their cell phone numbers as another easy way to ask or text a quick question.
Supervisors also adapted other components of the traditional student teaching experience to meet the changing needs of the students. Normally, interns at the supervisor’s university are required to complete a leadership and community collaboration project that has been presented at an on-campus research symposium. Instead, students performed in small groups to two supervising faculty members through virtual meeting software.
When North Carolina public schools closed in March on the order of the governor, supervisors were unable to complete required observations for the second half of the semester. To overcome this challenge, students submitted unused videos that they had recorded as part of their edTPA submission requirements. This allowed university supervisors to complete their required observations using actual teaching footage rather than based on documentation of activities sent to students during the school closure.
Available technology allows students and faculty to meet online and engage and interact just like they would in a traditional classroom. For institutions of higher education, it is critical that all college instructors are well versed in online teaching modalities and provide rigorous instruction that meets the needs of today’s student population. Having the capability to offer an internship as a distance learning course may also help with meeting the needs of a transient student body. Fayetteville State University (FSU) serves a large percentage of current military and military family members from nearby Fort Bragg. Many of these students are relocated before they complete their degrees. Being able to offer internships through distance learning allows the supervisors, who have built relationships during previous classes, to continue meeting the needs of relocated students. If online teaching is what is needed to meet the needs of students, then we must deliver to increase our student enrollment across the US.
Gray, J. A., & DiLoreto, M. (2016). The effects of student engagement, student satisfaction, and perceived learning in online learning environments. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 11(1). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1103654.pdf
Jaggars, S. S., Edgecombe, N., & Stacey, G. W. (2013, April). Creating an effective online instructor presence. Report completed for the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, NY. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED542146.pdf
Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance? Computers and Education, 95, 270–284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.01.014
Johnson, K. (2019, June 6). College enrollment falls in North Carolina; elsewhere in US. https://patch.com/north-carolina/charlotte/college-enrollment-falls-north-carolina-elsewhere-u-s
Lederman, D. (2020, March 18). Will shift to remote teaching be boon or bane for online learning? Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/03/18/most-teaching-going-remote-will-help-or-hurt-online-learning
Rider, S. (2019, April 19). Improving communication and collaboration in the classroom. https://www.leaderinme.org/blog/improving-communication-and-collaboration-in-the-classroom
Simonson, M., Schlosser, C., & Orellana, A. (2011). Distance education research: A review of the literature. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 23(2), 124–142. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-011-9045-8
Simonson, M., Zvacek, S., & Smaldino, S. (2019). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (7th ed.). Information Age Publishing, Inc.
Student-Student Classroom Interaction. (2016, November 3). https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/certop/imp_ssi.html
Sutton, H. (2020). Community college report outlines declining enrollment concerns, top priorities. Dean and Provost, 21(7), 8–8. https://doi.org/10.1002/dap.30697
Bradley Mills, PhD, is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Fayetteville State University. His research interests focus on investigating strategies to support students with emotional disabilities, graduation for students with disabilities, strategies for students with ADHD, and teacher preparation.
Ashley Johnson-Holder, EdD, is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Fayetteville State University. Dr. Holder’s research interests include student engagement and motivation, Generation Z, learning styles, digital and global literacy, teacher licensure assessments, teacher preparation, edTPA, 21st-century literacies, and community and relationship building in the classroom.