Student Feedback on the Pandemic-Induced Switch to Online Instruction, Part 2: More Improvements and Consequences for Inaction
This article is the second part of a two-part series on student opinions of the efforts of our colleges and universities in moving classes online in spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part 1 outlined several areas where improvements for fall 2020 are warranted. Part 2 identifies additional areas for improvement and lists several consequences of institutional inaction.
While it was not possible to create virtual duplicates for quality faculty–student and student–student personal interactions during the sudden and rapid change to online instruction this past March, there are some steps faculty can take as the fall term progresses to create more engaging online learning experiences. First, faculty might consider more synchronous, real-time Zoom events. That is, they could use regular meeting times for classes as events where lectures (or demonstrations or discussion) are given similarly to the way they would be in person and adjusted for questions at the end. They could record each class meeting and make all available for those unable to attend and for review by all students. Additionally, they could establish regular office hours via virtual conference platforms or through the school’s learning management system. DeBrock et al. (2020) contend that when done well, online instruction can help students feel even more personally connected than face-to-face formats. They argue that instructors can take steps to increase student satisfaction and reduce isolation and loneliness, including the following: inviting students to individual live Zoom sessions, encouraging live chat room events during primary content delivery, creating small breakout rooms online, fostering group work online to create strong team bonds in short periods of time, interacting with students while they work, highlighting students’ individual experiences, soliciting questions, and holding online office hours. These steps may also create more inclusive classrooms and increase students’ sense of belonging. Creative use of tutors and mentors in running discussion and problem-solving sessions for small groups of students may also have positive impacts. Class enrollment would dictate these models’ feasibility and particulars.
Creating a vibrant online community of students across campus will no doubt be a daunting task in upcoming semesters as it requires a coordinated effort across academic affairs, student affairs, and student organizations. There is a critical interface between student course community and a wider-level campus social community. At this interface, formal and informal student–student interactions that support academics and enhance social and cultural exchanges take place daily on campus. These events are often spontaneous and random and, therefore, difficult to simulate virtually. Additionally, creating community among students within the a course is challenging, especially in classes with large enrollments with no break out sections (e.g., labs, recitations) and no assigned teaching assistants.
Survey results suggest that some students had difficulty accessing academic support structures (tutors, peer mentors, resource centers, and advisors) within their institutions. It seems that, with appropriate planning, all these supports could move seamlessly to the online environment. Institutions should have policies and agreements in place to ensure that these functions continue during times of crisis.
The issue from the survey that speaks to “distractions at home” is a phenomenon directly related to COVID-19. When our courses went online, our campus housing closed down, forcing many of our students back to their families’ homes. If their homes were located in areas where high-speed internet was unavailable or if it was too expensive for the family, there would be online access issues for the students. In addition, if siblings were present, there might be competition for hardware in addition to a chaotic atmosphere with several people sharing the same space. Students may have been expected to pitch in (run errands, help others with schoolwork, etc.) at a time when none of the children would ordinarily be present. Travel restrictions and shutdowns often meant that students could not go to libraries, coffee shops, or other places for improved internet access; have quiet time to do their work; or visit with friends. It is not difficult to see how this type of living arrangement would elevate stress and anxiety levels.
Although creating effective online teaching may require more planning and overall effort than traditional classroom teaching, the consequences of not creating quality virtual learning environments are significant and include decreased enrollments (with accompanying revenue losses); student drop-outs, stop-outs, and transfers; under-engaged student populations; and louder and more organized demands for tuition refunds and reductions.
The general consensus is that overall higher education enrollments will be lower for fall 2020 than would ordinarily be expected. The losses, however, will be greater for some of our institutions, many of which have seen declines over several years and are already on the edge financially. For continuing students, surveys indicate that the vast majority will return for fall classes but not necessarily to the same institution. In the California state survey of California students scheduled to continue college in the fall, 34 percent said they needed to work more, 21% percent were considering attending a less expensive institution, 25% percent wanted to stay closer to home, 22% percent did not want online courses and 15% percent were considering stopping out. As a result, every type of institution showed a decline in the planned enrollment by this group along with 12% percent increase in the “undecided” category. High school seniors, in keeping with themes of less expensive and closer to home, planned on attending community college in greater numbers (DeBrock et al., 2020). The Panetta survey of students from a variety of US institutions revealed that 42 percent would consider stopping out if their institution did not return to in-person instruction in the fall of 2020. We are currently learning the decisions of these “undecided” students.
As we collect and analyze data from the fall term, we should also be working to improve our online offerings, even if it is just for 2020–21. Recruiting students will become even more important to those institutions that survive the fiscal nightmare of COVID-19, and they will want to have as many ways as possible to convince students to attend; thus, making the case for excellent online experiences will be critical. Surveyed students did acknowledge the value and potential of some virtual experiences, and the best of these can be mixed with in-person experiences to make hybrid classes that reduce space usage on campus and achieve cost reductions in the long term. Improving virtual courses now should prevent or diminish enrollment erosion in the near future.
Because students felt their spring 2020 online learning experiences were inferior to face-to-face instruction and they did not have access to on-campus resources, many students expressed the desire for reduced tuition costs and fees. One IUPUI student noted, “I do not feel that the cost of what I am paying for school equals the value of the education I am receiving online currently, as professors are scrambling to move classes online” (Hansen et al., 2020). This sentiment was raised in all the surveys. A few institutions have announced online tuition reductions for fall while others have frozen tuition at 2019–20 levels. Colleges and universities are already reeling from the spring costs resulting from the pandemic. We shudder to think what the final bill will tally to across the US. Tuition rebates and reductions will be deadly for some of our institutions if courts mandate them in response to student lawsuits. This possibility should provide impetus to higher education to improve its online instruction and to make academic resources and personnel accessible to students remotely. We hope that campuses will use students’ voices to guide their efforts. Campus leaders may struggle with the decision to fully develop the necessary online infrastructures, pedagogies, policies, and practices that may be perceived as solutions to short-term problems and in opposition to what our students want and expect. Additionally, in this fiscal environment it may not be reasonable or possible to invest to the degree required at this time. At the very least we should move to correct our known flaws and make regular, documentable improvements in our online courses. But students’ expectations are clear: we must provide quality virtual learning environments that meet students’ diverse learning needs and improve engagement. Students have given us a pass for spring 2020, but it won’t happen again; we must do better in 2020–21.
DeBrock, L., Scagnoli, N., & Taghaboni-Dutta, F. (2020, March 18). The human element in online learning. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/03/18/how-make-online-learning-more-intimate-and-engaging-students-opinion
Hansen, M. J., Janik, R., Rauch, J. T., Marsiglio, C., & Keith, C. J. (2020, May). 2020 IUPUI student COVID-19 transition needs survey. Institutional Research and Decision Support, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN. Unpublished report.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
Michele J. Hansen, PhD, is assistant vice chancellor for institutional research and decision support at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
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