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Most colleges and universities will be employing some form of distance learning during the fall term. Especially for those that have shifted totally online, their major challenge will be to design and implement effective learning strategies without the aid of classrooms, laboratories, learning centers, residence halls, communal eating facilities and myriad student organizations.

Findings from research on undergraduate education point to several considerations that might be useful in guiding the design of an effective online education experience. Perhaps the most relevant generalization to be derived from thousands of studies is the importance of student involvement. Basically, involvement refers to the amount of time and physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience: the greater the degree of student involvement, the better the outcome.

According to the research, the greatest challenge for online educators concerns two activities that have the most potential for enhancing student involvement and learning: contact with faculty and contact with fellow students. In other words, the most impactful undergraduate experiences appear to be effective because they increase student-faculty contact, student-student contact or both. With distance education, of course, the student typically has little opportunity to experience personal contact with either faculty members or fellow students, so the challenge for the online instructor who seeks to maximize student involvement is formidable.

Given the many ways in which it is possible to design an education-at-a-distance experience, it is important to know if the research points to specific pedagogical practices that have the potential to enhance student involvement. While it may not always be possible to duplicate such practices in a distance learning environment, knowing what is effective in a traditional campus setting can still be helpful in designing an impactful online experience. A partial list of such practices includes:

  • Courses that emphasize writing. Most faculty members would probably agree that writing is a basic skill that has tremendous relevance not only for academic work in a university but also for postgraduate study and employment. Writing assignments are capable of enhancing student involvement in part because the instructor generally has to provide the student with personal feedback. Few educational experiences have as much potential to involve students and get their attention as personal feedback from an instructor.
  • Narrative evaluations. Like writing assignments, narrative evaluations -- as an alternative to traditional course grading -- have the potential to enhance student involvement because they involve personal feedback from the instructor.
  • Independent study. Independent study projects may well serve to increase involvement because they require students to take on a good deal of personal responsibility. Like writing assignments and narrative evaluations, independent study can also include a good deal of personal feedback from the instructor.
  • Participation in faculty research. Involving undergraduate students in faculty research projects, a relatively recent phenomenon in higher education, most likely enhances student involvement because it almost certainly results in increased student-faculty contact.
  • Limited use of multiple-choice tests. Unlike writing assignments, narrative evaluations and essay exams, multiple-choice tests tend to be highly impersonal, with feedback usually limited to a simple “right-wrong” result.

Faculty members might well be reluctant to adopt some of these effective practices because they tend to be labor-intensive. It takes time and energy to read and critique writing assignments, to write narrative evaluations, and to supervise independent study and participation in research projects. But for their online classes to be effective, they should consider pursuing some, if not all, of these strategies.

The Threat of the Course Content Approach

The transition from campus-based instruction to distance learning also comes with a major risk: it can tempt instructors to think of undergraduate education strictly in terms of course content. In this view, a liberal education is defined simply in terms of course credits: take such and such an array of courses in the right fields, pass them, and ipso facto, you’ve been liberally educated. Under this view of undergraduate education, it doesn’t much matter how you acquire the requisite credits or degrees. You just need to pass the right combination of courses, and you’re done.

That view of a liberal education obviously flies in the face of the research evidence. Among other things, it allows little or no room for the sort of student-student and student-faculty interaction that has been shown to be such a key part of a quality undergraduate education. Unfortunately, however, for the past several decades, some cost-conscious state legislators and policy makers have advocated this approach. They’ve argued that a traditional residential liberal arts education is outmoded and needlessly expensive, and that the future of public higher education lies instead with distance education and online learning.

If the online education that the pandemic has forced on our colleges and universities persists much beyond the fall term of this year, public higher education in some states might well begin to morph into a version of the course content approach. To salvage state budgets, policy makers might be tempted to dispense with expensive “frills,” such as residence halls, student services and co-curricular activities. As long as students are able to take the right set of courses, the method of delivery is more or less irrelevant, their thinking could go. But if something akin to this actually occurs, the quality of undergraduate education in the United States will decline precipitously.

In sum, since distance education severely limits the opportunities for students to interact personally with fellow students and with faculty, online instructors in traditional colleges and universities face formidable challenges in their efforts to offer students an impactful undergraduate experience. Findings from research on traditional undergraduate education suggest that distance education can be made more effective if it provides students with opportunities to interact more frequently with each other and with faculty members. Moreover, since most college faculty are currently employing Zoom, FaceTime or similar software in conducting their online instruction, they should strive to use any apps or other features that might facilitate either student-student or student-instructor interaction.

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