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The conventional wisdom holds that most students and instructors alike were deeply dissatisfied with their experiences with emergency remote learning this spring. Numerous surveys of students and parents have said as much, and many college leaders seem to be taking those attitudes to heart in their planning for fall. In announcing that they will return as much as possible to in-person instruction, more than a few have cited dissatisfaction with virtual learning as a factor, along with significant financial and cultural reasons.

As is often the case, though, a more thorough and nuanced look tells a somewhat different story.

Two new studies out today add to our understanding of how students and professors viewed their experiences with remote learning last spring after colleges were forced to close their campuses in response to COVID-19.

The nationally representative surveys of more than 1,000 undergraduate students and 4,000 instructors from 1,500 colleges reinforces the prevailing view that many instructors and students were not happy with how the spring went. The proportion of students saying they were highly satisfied with their experience in a course important to them fell from 51 percent pre-COVID to 19 percent post-COVID, and three-fifths of instructors said they struggled to keep students engaged.

But as is true of classroom instruction, too, not all courses are made the same. As instructors abruptly adapted their in-person courses to be delivered virtually over a matter of days in March, some more than others incorporated a set of practices widely embraced as contributing to high-quality virtual learning. And when courses were designed or delivered using significant numbers of those practices, students and professors alike were much likelier to express satisfaction with their experience, to feel engaged.

As I'll try to explain in more detail below, the implications for fall -- especially if, as seems likely, large proportions of students will be learning virtually, whether they're on campus or not -- are significant: making virtual learning better isn't an insurmountable mountain to climb. It's about making each course a little better, a bit more based on proven practices and a little more likely to keep students feeling connected and engaged. (And to put it in language that campus administrators might appreciate, maybe, just maybe, less likely to demand a tuition refund or to drop out.)


The studies released today by Digital Promise and Tyton Partners, both of which are part of the Every Learner Everywhere network, are arguably the most comprehensive surveys to date of student and faculty perspectives on the spring's remarkable and abrupt transition to remote learning by the vast majority of the country's colleges, students and professors.

The surveys were conducted independently, and each has freestanding findings worth exploring on their own. For purposes of this column, though, I'm most interested in where they intersect and how those findings can inform how professors, instructional staff members and campus administrators approach instructional delivery this fall.

(An up-front bias I'll admit right here: while I understand why many students, parents and college leaders are eager for students to return to physical campuses this fall, I fear it's not going to go well and that, for COVID-19-driven reasons, many if not most students will end up studying heavily if not entirely online this fall. Now back to our originally scheduled programming.)

In "Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic," Digital Promise and Langer Research administered their “Survey of Student Perceptions of Remote Teaching and Learning” to 1,008 students in credit-bearing courses that were delivered in person at the start of the spring and remotely by March. Respondents were asked to focus on one course for purposes of the survey -- either a science, technology, engineering or mathematics course if they took one (because "STEM courses are typically the most challenging for students") or the course "they thought was most important for their future goals."

Key findings of the student survey include:

  • Despite the widely caricatured sense that all professors did this spring was sit in front of their computer camera and lecture to students on Zoom, nearly two-thirds of students reported that their online course included live sections to ask questions and discuss content (67 percent), recorded lectures (65 percent), and frequent quizzes and assignments (64 percent). Three in five said their courses included live lectures, and a quarter (25 percent) said their course used breakout groups during live classes.
  • Student satisfaction absolutely dipped after the move to remote. The vast majority of students described themselves as either very (51 percent) or somewhat satisfied (36 percent) with their courses pre-COVID, and just 59 percent said they were satisfied (19 percent "very") after the move. In general students didn't blame their instructors: 76 percent said they were satisfied with their professor's preparation (37 percent very satisfied) and 68 percent with the quality of instruction, but 57 percent were satisfied (17 percent very) with their overall learning. Asked to say specifically what diminished their experience with the remote courses, students were most likely to cite lack of interactivity, with 65 percent saying that "opportunities to collaborate with other students on coursework" were lacking in the online course.
  • Hispanic students were disproportionately challenged by the shift to remote learning. Students were given a list of potential problems stemming from the transition, and Hispanic students were more likely than their peers to characterize them as major in almost every case, as seen below.

More to the point of this column, the student survey asked respondents which of a set of 11 instructional approaches their chosen course had used (see the list in the table later in this article), and compared those answers to their judgments about course satisfaction.

The results were probably not surprising: students who said their courses had utilized at least six of the eight practices that Digital Promise (based on a review of pedagogical research) deemed "recommended" were far likelier (74 percent) to say they were satisfied with their remote learning course, 35 percent very satisfied. By comparison, 43 percent of students who said their course used two or fewer of the eight practices said they were satisfied, only 9 percent very much so.

Perusing the list of practices that students (and instructors, incorporating data from the Tyton Partners survey of professors) say their courses used (and didn't) makes it clear why many students found their remote learning experiences lacking in interaction and engagement.

Just a third of students (33 percent) and instructors said their courses allowed for group work and only a quarter broke students into smaller groups to allow for interaction among them during live classes. Only about a third of students and instructors said they broke course activities into smaller units.

Instructional Practices Students Instructors
  2-Year 4-Year 2-Year 4-Year
Live sessions for asking questions/participating in discussions 59% 71% 67% 72%
Real-world examples 64% 67% 49% 53%
Recorded lectures 54% 69% 55% 58%
Frequent quizzes 72% 60% 53% 44%
Live lectures by the instructor with students watching 56% 62% 44% 46%
Videos from external sources 57% 53% 59% 47%
Personal messages from the instructor 66% 49% 79% 72%
Assignments having you express what you had learned 54% 46% 45% 40%
Breaking course activities up into shorter pieces 40% 32% 34% 38%
Group projects 25% 37% 22% 31%
Breakout groups during a live class 24% 25% -- --

Note: Practices in italics are those deemed "recommended" by Digital Promise.

"Issues of motivation and engagement came through really strongly in these studies," said Barbara Means, executive director for learning sciences research at Digital Promise. "A strong part of that comes from a sense of contact with their instructor and their peers. Peer contact is really important."

The Instructor View

Students weren't alone in having their own satisfaction with the remote learning experience depend on how their courses were taught. More than 60 percent of the 4,798 instructors who responded to Tyton's survey, "Time for Class: A National Survey of Faculty During COVID-19," cited "keeping my students engaged" as their biggest challenge as they transitioned from face-to-face or hybrid courses to remote learning this spring.

Instructors who varied their techniques and used more of the practices listed above were more satisfied with the learning their classes enabled for students, as seen below.

Here's the catch, though: "Only 20 percent of the faculty were in the group that used the largest range of instructional practices," and therefore were most satisfied with the learning, said Kristen Fox, a director at Tyton.

Those instructors were about twice as likely as the other 80 percent of professors to have had prior experience teaching online, and they were significantly likelier to say they had access to a campus-based teaching and learning center or other meaningful form of institutional support.

Looking Ahead

Given where we are in the calendar, assessing what unfolded in the spring is useful mostly to the extent it can guide colleges, faculty members, instructional staff and administrators as they prepare for a quickly approaching fall.

Consistent with the findings described above, three-quarters of instructors surveyed by Tyton cited "increasing student engagement in class" as an instructional priority for the fall, followed by "building a course that can be transitioned between face-to-face and online environments and ensuring accessibility for all students," both chosen by under half of them. Like the Digital Promise survey of students, the faculty survey underscores several ways that already disadvantaged students were further disadvantaged in the shift to remote learning.

The list of faculty priorities for fall suggests, Fox said, that the remote spring not only made instructors more aware of the challenge and importance of engaging their students in remote settings, but "opened their eyes to the challenges of students day to day," and the centrality of the online professor's role as the "tip of the spear" helping students find support.


A couple of plugs for some new features and Inside Higher Ed content:

  • This week marked the launch of a new blog about teaching and learning. In "Peaks and Valleys: A Journey Back to Class," Astrid S. Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, will describe her experiences returning to the classroom to teach a hybrid leadership course this fall. In her first post, Tuminez describes the competing demands on her time (minor things like helping her campus deal with a global pandemic and responding to the antiracism movement gripping the country) and questions the wisdom of choosing this particular fall to teach again. The journey should be an interesting one.
  • If you are responsible, in one way or another, for your college's strategy for online or hybrid learning, I'd encourage you to check out our most recent special report, "Taking Colleges Online: How Smart Institutions and Their Leaders Can Approach Online Education Now and in a Postcoronavirus World." The report, which I co-wrote with my terrific Inside Higher Ed colleagues Lindsay McKenzie and Lilah Burke, was conceived long before COVID-19 transformed the learning landscape this spring. And while it discusses how the pandemic has altered colleges' near-term approaches, the report is designed to provide practical help for administrators and faculty leaders involved in crafting their institutions' long-term strategy for sustainable technology-enabled education. Based on interviews with dozens of experts, the 68-page report may help you navigate this fast-changing landscape. Please let me know if you have questions about it, and thanks in advance for checking it out.

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