When we look back at the spring semester of 2020 in the US, it will forever be remembered as a time of viral disruption: a moment that required large-scale, high impact decision making in a matter of days. While institutions of higher education are not known for their speed, fast decision making was necessary to protect the health and safety of their communities and to provide a solution for educational continuity.
Many universities used whatever synchronous tool they could get their hands on to finish out their semesters online, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or similar video conferencing platforms. While emergency remote learning was far less than an optimal experience, students had already met their peers and professors and completed a significant part of the semester on campus. The objectives and structure of the courses they were taking were already in practice. That existing groundwork made it easier for students to connect with their class online, even if the learning was limited to listening to a professor lecture, asking questions, and some level of small teamwork activities.
Most students–but not all–recognized that a rush to emergency remote learning was unavoidable in the wake of a sudden global pandemic. This fall, with ample time for universities to prepare, students may not be so forgiving. They will expect a return to quality education, regardless of the modality.
I’ve spoken to many university leaders, and most agree that online learning will play a predominant role in their scenario planning, but with that comes challenges. The difference between the remote learning experienced in the spring and a high-quality, engaging online educational experience students expect this fall is profound.
Universities with prior online experience and an existing digital strategy are at an enormous advantage. However, there are steps that all institutions can take between now and the fall to start on the path toward proficiency that will keep students engaged and progressing toward academic goals. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when preparing for the fall online.
Design online courses with learner-centered dimensions in mind
Our approach to learning design and delivery at 2U is centered around three evidence-based, learner-centered dimensions: feel, do, and think. Feel refers to how emotions play a role in helping learners achieve success. How a learner feels impacts their engagement with the learning process. Do refers to applied practice: doing. What a learner does and how they do it impacts the quality of learning. Think refers to both feeling and doing—the input students must receive while learning to progress. How a student thinks about their learning impacts their ability to grow and improve.
Take the time to understand these philosophies and other learning design best practices to ensure you’re creating experiences that allow students to learn best. One resource I recommend reading is Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom by Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison.
Invest in training faculty
Training is a process that will need to continue well beyond this fall, but you can get started now. To create a memorable and impactful educational experience, faculty need to be able to facilitate experiences that create meaningful connections and foster engaging discussion. Without training, faculty tend to teach the way they were taught. It is often less anchored in pedagogical assumptions and more in their own formal experience. In many cases, this does not represent various learning styles and dimensions, let alone a digital dimension.
At the minimum, faculty training should cover how to create an effective lesson plan and drive a dynamic live online session that is tied to asynchronous material so that there is natural connectivity between content delivered to students. Allocate budget to training, share resources, and support your faculty. Teaching online is a huge intellectual practice leap to take. Faculty need a guide to help them think through online pedagogy to be successful.
For our university partners, we created No Back Row® PRO, an interactive faculty training environment currently available free to all faculty members.
Incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous delivery modalities
Both asynchronous and synchronous sessions are key to creating high-quality online education. Through a blend of interactive live online classes and engaging pre-produced video content, students are able to build meaningful connections with the material, their instructors, and each other.
Synchronous, live online classes can provide an effective venue for deepening individual learning, building social connections, and providing real-time feedback. These are all factors critical to driving motivation and building community for learners. It’s in synchronous sessions that students can have discussions on topics they don’t understand or are interested in learning more about and problem solve in a group setting while practicing skills learned with their peers. Isolation is often a concern in an online learning environment.
Asynchronous, prerecorded coursework can offer students a range of practice and reflection activities to complete and repeat on their own time. In 2U-powered degree programs, we include discussion forums and other tools to promote social interaction even when the class isn’t live. This practice has proven to be both effective and engaging.
Assess students’ existing level of knowledge
In the fall, faculty will have new classes of students they have never met before. They’re going to be at a disadvantage because they don’t have the ability to naturally connect in person on campus and build a trusting relationship with learners. One way to foster that trust is to assign asynchronous diagnostic assessments at the beginning of a course. This way, faculty can gain insight into a students’ existing level of knowledge to inform live session activities and identify knowledge gaps that may require additional content.
Present information in manageable segments
According to John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory,** learners process and retain information better when it is presented in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily tax working memory. Splitting up long, recorded lectures into shorter sequences of videos can help manage cognitive load. A study on video content in online learning, “How video production affects student engagement: an empirical study of MOOC videos,”*** found that videos under six minutes significantly increased levels of student engagement. We follow that rule of thumb when engaging in learning design at 2U. Keep this in mind when determining the length of time students should spend watching videos—one-way content can lead to disengagement.
Create intentional non-curricular meeting spaces online
As a sociologist by training, I’m keenly aware of the need to create community. That can be fostered online with intentionality on the part of institutions. Consider creating online spaces that are outside of the classroom, but still inside the online campus, where students can gather in asynchronous forums and their own live video events. While students are remote, that doesn’t mean they lack the desire and drive to congregate and discuss what is on their minds. Give them the room and the space to do so, and you will see social affinity groups arise organically to create a digital community.
My last piece of advice: be realistic about what you can accomplish in the next two months. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress, especially when it comes to the post-production fit and finish of a course. Quality of content, the attainment of learning outcomes, and the formation of an educational community is your aim, and that’s what students want and need.
*Bonwell, C. C. & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC higher education report, 1. Washington, DC: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
**Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257–285. doi:10.1207/ s15516709cog1202_4
***Guo, P. J., Kim, J. & Rubin R. (2014). How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos. Proceedings of Learning @ Scale ’14, 41–50. doi:10.1145/2556325.2566239
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