What COVID Has Taught Us About Remote Learning
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created havoc for universities worldwide as they struggled to transition quickly from in-person classes to remote learning. While the shift was stressful for students, faculty, and administrators, it also provided an opportunity for schools to self-evaluate the success of online education by surveying students about how they perceived the transition.
That’s exactly what we did at Sam Houston State University’s College of Business Administration in Huntsville, Texas. At the end of the spring 2020 semester, we sent survey invitations to all students who had been enrolled in courses with a business prefix. In the questionnaire, we asked them how satisfied they were with the transition and whether they intended to continue their studies. We also asked about their learning preferences, technology skills, and tech-related stress. We believed that their answers would give us insights into how we should handle remote learning once the pandemic is over.
Levels of Satisfaction
The survey results showed that, generally speaking, students intended to continue their programs of study at the university and complete their degrees on schedule. Sixty-one percent of respondents were satisfied with the way the switch had been handled, and that tended to be especially true when instructors demonstrated flexibility.
For instance, one respondent expressed a preference for taking classes face-to-face, particularly when those classes were core business requirements. But this student, who intends to continue studying at the university, appreciated the fact that during the months of remote learning, “my professors were very understanding when it came to assignments.”
However, 39 percent of the students indicated dissatisfaction or uncertainty with the transition. In addition, 26 percent of respondents said they do not intend to register for future online courses, while 10 percent are unsure if they will—altogether representing 36 percent of students who are not prime candidates for remote learning.
One survey respondent wrote, “I intentionally avoid online courses for the following reasons: lowered retention rate, student-professor communication impairment, and an overall negative impact on GPA.”
Access and Stress
Our survey also measured how students perceived their access to technology, their technological self-sufficiency, and the level of their tech-related stress. Results indicated that most students were confident in their ability to access and use the technology required for their courses, but they still experienced stress.
According to one student, “Some professors want to use webcams when students do not have access to one. On top of that, some students do not have computers to even do their work.”
Survey results showed us that about 25 percent to 40 percent of our students might not be good candidates for online courses.
“Keeping up has been a real struggle,” said another. “I also have a bad internet connection at my house so turning in assignments and taking tests has been difficult. … I really wish Sam Houston would do more for its students during this time.”
A more detailed look indicated that 41 percent of respondents experienced technological overload and 39 percent experienced technological invasion in their lives. These percentages are similar to the 39 percent of students dissatisfied with the transition from face-to-face to remote learning and the 36 percent who indicate they are unlikely to register for future online courses, as noted above.
While technology is crucial in online learning, student learning preferences also impact the effectiveness of online courses. Our survey measured whether students prefer to learn through codification, in which knowledge is shared via text, audio, or visual formats; or through personalization, in which knowledge is shared via interpersonal contacts.
While both codification and personalization strategies are used in face-to-face courses, personalization is typically low or nonexistent in online courses. Thus, students with a preference for personalization may be at a disadvantage in an online learning environment.
“I am dyslexic and nearsighted. So, I don’t often remember or understand what I read. This is why I’m a lecture-going student,” wrote one survey respondent. Another said, “Trying to learn new accounting information online is very difficult. I do much better with face-to-face classes.”
A cluster analysis of survey respondents identified three distinct groups of student learning preferences. Cluster 1 preferred codification; Cluster 2 preferred personalization; and Cluster 3 liked both. The number of students showing a distinct learning preference for personalization was approximately 22 percent of the total, similar to the percentage of students who do not intend to register for future online courses at SHSU (26 percent).
Taken altogether, survey results showed us that about 25 percent to 40 percent of our students might not be good candidates for online courses. Their profiles seemed to fit the pattern of individuals who have a distinct learning preference for personalization and are experiencing technological stress.
However, because the pandemic remains a concern, a great deal of learning is still being delivered online. At the College of Business Administration, we took three important steps last fall to help students who were struggling with the transition to remote learning.
We began offering hybrid options for all classes for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters. While courses were largely online, students met in person once a week. The business school also took the lead at the university in implementing technology to allow remote learners to interact with faculty and other students via webcam and audio systems.
We encouraged faculty members to offer more personalization in the portions of their classes that were conducted online. For example, instructors scheduled more synchronous meetings with students, used interactive polls and student discussion activities during the synchronous sessions, created short videos throughout the semester to personalize lectures for students, and encouraged students to share screens during synchronous sessions.
It will be critical to balance the competing needs of students who prefer a traditional, personalized learning approach with those who prefer online courses.
We helped alleviate tech-related stress. The college provided access to software not normally available off-campus and set up rooms with internet connections so students without reliable Wi-Fi could complete online assignments. Individual instructors helped reduce stress by lengthening online exam windows; allowing ample time for students to complete assignments; combining topics to reduce the number of assignments; and constantly encouraging students through emails, in-person lectures, and targeted videos. Fall teaching evaluations indicated how much students appreciated instructors who took steps to personalize courses and mitigate stress.
Closing the Loop
While the survey helped us understand how well we had managed the transition and how we could improve student satisfaction during the crisis, it also gave us insights into how successful we might be if we offered more remote learning options once the pandemic is over.
For instance, if 22 percent of our students prefer in-person learning, 36 percent are uncertain about taking online classes in the future, and 41 percent are experiencing tech-related stress, how likely are they to enroll in online classes in the future? And how many are likely to drop out or fail if they do enroll? What tools and resources can we offer that could improve their chances of success?
Like SHSU, many universities are debating what kinds of online options they should offer once COVID-19 is no longer an issue. It will be critical for schools to balance the competing needs of students who prefer a traditional, personalized learning approach with those who prefer online courses. Like us, these schools could develop short questionnaires on learning preferences that will help them determine how well their students would perform in an online environment—and how many might enroll in virtual classes.
Moving forward, administrators must answer some hard questions. Will offering more remote sections of a course be detrimental to the learning of students who prefer face-to-face interactions with their instructors? How can administrators identify the instructors who will teach most effectively in online or hybrid learning environments? If schools begin to rely more heavily on remote learning, how will that impact student life? Given that many universities’ core competencies are based on their culture, vibrancy, student integration, and intellectual discourse, what might a post-COVID campus look like?
As they look to the future, administrators must remain flexible and attuned to student needs. While these requirements present additional challenges, they also afford schools with new opportunities to improve student retention—and ultimately, student success.