A finding from a report that I and a co-author conducted on emergency remote instruction at Stanford University during the first two years of COVID-19 initially surprised us. Since the report’s publication last October, however, we have given a dozen or so interviews and presentations sharing that finding, and the responses have convinced us that something special happened not just at Stanford but also at many other colleges and universities.
The finding is this: despite online education’s reputation for being impersonal, the remote teaching successes that emerged at Stanford during the pandemic could help lay the groundwork for a new emphasis on empathy as a driver of academic success, including how best to incorporate student voices into courses. Positive interactions between students and instructors play a large role in learning, and student well-being is what allows students to show up in classrooms ready to learn and engage. Consequently, instructors who empathize with their students and are able to cultivate feelings of belongingness in the classroom will see that their students are more effective learners.
Recent reports from our peers at Bowdoin College, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have reached similar conclusions. They have all highlighted how the initial difficulties in deploying online tools led quickly to an awareness of the need for more student-centered pedagogical practices.
Certainly, emergency remote teaching proved challenging for colleges and universities. Our report at Stanford notes that we experienced an uptick in academic integrity violations. MIT’s study observes how isolating virtual learning environments were, Bowdoin’s identifies student participation issues like screen fatigue and “chaotic home environments,” and Harvard’s signals how much faculty have needed to rethink traditional approaches to teaching. As the reports thoroughly detail, those challenges to learning were accompanied by particularly severe impacts on low-income and underrepresented minority students, a spike in student stress and mental health problems, and student frustrations and concerns over concurrent world events like Black Lives Matter and the 2020 presidential election.
Still, all the reports suggest that the widespread perception that emergency remote education was a failure is, at best, one-sided. They concur that there is no going back to the pre-pandemic campus-bound learning experience. Indeed, together, the reports point to three ways that colleges and universities can embrace a new chapter in higher education: one that redefines the relationships that institutions and faculty members have with their students.
Listen to what students want, but take it with a grain of salt. While students have opinions for and against online learning and its efficacy, the evidence suggests that most want it to stick around because of the convenience it affords. For instance, students at Stanford and MIT say they enjoyed the increased flexibility during the period of emergency remote instruction, including the ability to attend online office hours and watch recorded lectures online when they had to miss class due to illness. Some Stanford students are even petitioning their professors for the privilege.
That said, digital accessibility to learning materials alone doesn’t necessarily equate to improved learning outcomes. For instance, recent literature suggests that although students say they want recorded lectures, they tend not to watch them. Instructors rarely give advice on how to use them effectively, and students may be more likely to disengage and multitask while watching them, which can further hinder learning. Recorded content can improve comprehension, but only when properly scaffolded and only when students see it as a supplement to—not a replacement for—synchronous instruction.
In other words: just because students like certain aspects of online teaching doesn’t mean they are optimal for their learning. Students require strategies that challenge them to the right degree in order to enhance learning, a concept University of California, Los Angeles, psychology professors Robert and Elizabeth Bjork call “desirable difficulties.” We know a lot about what students enjoy (or don’t) about online learning, but not a whole lot about the aspects of online learning that best support student learning outcomes. Institutions that put weight on the latter, rather than the former, may have more success.
The meteoric use of ChatGPT by faculty in classrooms (and by students on their assessments) is just one example of technological advancements in AI that could either aid or hinder student learning, depending on the mode of delivery. A recent poll of Stanford students revealed that 17 percent used the tool on their fall quarter 2022 final exams. Institutions such as the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of Massachusetts are already crowdsourcing new assessment practices for AI generative tools, acknowledging the need for technology literacy and determining how current teaching methods can be adjusted to account for their responsible use while promoting course learning outcomes.
Build a culture of empathy in teaching and learning. The pandemic underscored that educational community building doesn’t happen naturally in online environments. It has to be intentional. During emergency remote teaching, instructors could no longer assume that informal social spaces such as the time leading up to the start and immediately following an in-person lecture, when students traditionally approach instructors and one another with questions, are sufficient to build community. Student relationships with faculty changed, too, as opportunities for networking and cultivating relationships were lost.
Those very serious challenges to student well-being required thoughtful solutions. Lacking in-person opportunities for engagement, students turned to virtual classroom communities for support. Although those efforts did not always overcome the loss of face-to-face connection, they provided students with a new and often successful way to communicate with their professors. The Bowdoin report notes that during the first wave of the pandemic, 58 percent of students said they relied on virtual office hours, with 95 percent reporting “being satisfied or very satisfied with this resource.” Moreover, at Harvard, 82 percent of faculty are considering “adding tools and approaches from remote teaching to their in-person classes,” suggesting that digital tools are here to stay.
The four reports on the period of emergency remote teaching highlight empathic teaching, which involves creating a sense of shared connection and understanding between students and faculty, as one approach to addressing these challenges. At MIT, those instructors who were able to build a culture of “community, well-being and belonging” in their virtual classrooms saw improved academic outcomes.
For instance, the MIT physics department piloted a peer mentoring program in fall 2020 for students enrolled in an introductory physics course who struggled on their first midterm in hopes of improving “the self-efficacy and STEM identity of these students, which is to say their well-being and sense of belonging.” The program provides academic support in addition to building community within the physics department, “in which the student mentors are partners with faculty and staff in the (academic) mission of the department.” Due to its success, MIT has now expanded the program to five courses.
Additionally, at Stanford, the university provided training and resources for instructors on cultivating inclusive learning environments in their courses through resurrection of its (then) defunct Teaching Commons, a faculty-facing online teaching and learning repository devoted to providing curated content, including teaching guides, articles (including how-tos, activities and instructor interviews), as well as antiracist pedagogies to support empathic teaching practices.
As the pandemic increased the mental strain on a generation of college students who were already reporting record levels of depression, stress and anxiety, the experience with emergency remote education drove home how higher education institutions must provide more support for their students. Student mental health is an emergency, and instructors, whether they want to be or not, are first responders. Faculty members can play a crucial role as empathic listeners by offering regular check-ins, referring students to institutional mental health services when appropriate and being mindful of the emotional toll online learning may be taking on students.
At Stanford, for instance, flexible mental health services—such as virtual therapy and coaching appointments and well-being coaches who leverage empathic counseling to support student mental health—provide clinical and holistic scaffolding outside of the classroom.
The MIT report notes that instructors can enhance empathy in virtual classrooms in a few simple ways. For instance, instructors can consider implementing “start of class welcoming practices,” including five-minute student check-ins that ask students to describe themselves with “a slide or a one-minute video, allowing them to be creative in choosing and explaining images with metaphorical or personal significance.” The report highlights that this “creates a space and time where students can share their struggles and joys [and] contributes to their well-being and belonging.” Students who feel safe in the classroom are more likely to engage in creative problem-solving and discussion.
Invite students to be co-designers of learning. During emergency remote instruction, students were empowered to take control of their own learning in a way that they weren’t previously. At Bowdoin and Stanford, the pandemic facilitated the rise of teaching support structures that engaged students in new roles as academic technologists and course co-designers. That occurred first out of necessity, due to a lack of instructors and designated learning designers to transition courses from in-person to online and later because of students’ expertise in creating online communities. Faculty couldn’t be everywhere at once and/or they needed real-time support in designing breakout rooms, monitoring a Zoom chat or redesigning an assessment. As a result, students—some for the very first time—were offered a look behind the academic curtain and given an opportunity to provide feedback on syllabus and course design.
The Stanford Introductory Seminars program also developed a new role for students in spring 2020 known as course development assistants (CDAs), responsible for supporting faculty with course design and implementation in small, discussion-based elective writing courses for first and second-year students. Unlike teaching assistants, CDA roles are explicitly not permitted to take on responsibilities that would traditionally be delegated to a TA, including “grading, evaluating student work or taking the place of an absent instructor.” Instead of serving as subject matter experts, CDAs are trained to provide back-end logistical, technological and pedagogical support for online courses, helping to promote equitable virtual classroom environments and serving in an advocate role for students.
Online learning illustrates the power of teaching as a team sport, showcasing the collective power of instructors and teaching assistants, course designers, academic technologists, and students in crafting a meaningful learning environment for their peers. The “sage” doesn’t need to leave the stage; rather, they should be welcoming an ensemble cast.
And students say that their courses are better for it. For instance, student digital ambassadors who engage with faculty members on course design at Stanford report feeling more connected to the course content, their instructors and their peers. They are also more excited about academe and instructional technology as possible career paths.
Pandemic remote teaching, though imperfect, was, frankly, a miraculous experiment. Educators became more aware of the needs of their students and, often operating on the fly, did their best to address them. That work is continuing, with a new push to determine what will best support students’ learning moving forward. How can we promote empathy in all of our courses—online, hybrid and in person? We have now embarked upon intentional online teaching and learning design that takes into account the whole of the student experience.