Virtual Learning Will Be Better This Fall. Right?

As colleges head toward the remote fall they dreaded, they must deliver a more compelling learning experience than last spring's. Most think it will be better, but it may not give students what they crave.

July 29, 2020
 
istock.com/martinwimmer

Whether they like it or not -- most of them don't, and some of them are still insisting it's not the case -- I'm convinced that the vast majority of American colleges and universities are headed toward a mostly or entirely virtual fall. Those that don't start out that way will, as they did in the spring, have to pivot. COVID-19 will almost certainly demand it.

Early in April, about three weeks after most colleges physically closed their campuses because of the coronavirus, I (with trepidation) wrote a column headlined "Preparing for a Fall Without In-Person Classes."

At the time, most college officials I contacted weren't prepared to talk publicly about the possibility that the coronavirus could keep their campuses shuttered in the fall. It's not that they weren't thinking about it; they just didn't want to freak out students, parents and their own colleagues by conjecturing about a scenario most of them dreaded.

My conversations with those officials led me to posit three things in that April column:

  • The kind of emergency remote learning that most campuses delivered on the fly during this spring's crisis may have been sufficient for the moment. But it was not nearly as good as the instruction most colleges normally deliver in person or that's available to students in many high-quality online programs.
  • What was sufficient to get through the crisis of the spring is unlikely to be seen as adequate in the fall, given that colleges will have had more time to prepare. The expectations will be higher, and colleges that don't deliver will risk angering students and parents and, importantly, potentially failing their most vulnerable students.
  • Delivering higher-quality online or virtual instruction by the fall will take a huge amount of planning and work -- and it should start soon, if not now.

Almost four months later, we find ourselves here. With each passing day, more and more colleges reverse the plans they originally announced in April or May (as incoming students were deciding whether and where to enroll and submit their deposits) to bring significant portions of students and employees back to their campuses this fall. Yes, some continue to say that they plan for a physical reopening, and some may even believe it themselves. But as the COVID-19 spread continues, I believe few will actually do so.

Which means most instructors and students will find themselves in a remote environment they overwhelmingly found to be dissatisfactory last spring, as numerous surveys have shown. Colleges have spent significant time and money in recent months trying to bolster their ability to offer (more) effective virtual learning, recognizing that even if they brought some or many students back to campus, some learners (and some instructors) would need to participate remotely.

Questions abound:

Will it work? Will the quality of the learning experience be better this fall than it was last spring? Will it be enough better to satisfy student (and parent!) expectations?

Or are the elements of the experience that students said they missed most -- classroom engagement, interaction with professors, socializing with other students -- difficult if not impossible to inject into online learning in ways that can satisfy students and parents?

I solicited perspectives from an array of people, including some advocates for online education and some haters.

Their consensus: virtual instruction will be better this fall than it was last spring, because colleges have invested heavily in faculty training and in improved technology (though many spent, and possibly squandered, countless dollars and hours reconfiguring campus classrooms and training professors to prepare their courses for both in-person and virtual delivery).

But fundamentally, students and parents will find the experience wanting, because it can't possibly meet their expectations for the socialization that they most want from a college education.

***

Students and professors were generally dissatisfied with their emergency remote learning experience last spring.

Among the reasons:

  • None of them chose it, and many experienced a deep sense of loss in the transition.
  • Instructors and students (like all of us) were dealing with a deeply unsettled and unsettling personal situation.
  • Faculty members, at least half of whom had never taught online (many out of enmity for virtual learning), in most cases had barely a week to prepare for the shift.
  • And overwhelmingly, students and instructors alike cited a lack of interaction and strong feelings of isolation from professors and peers.

In recent months, colleges and universities have invested enormous amounts of money, time and energy into trying to improve the quality of the online learning they deliver this fall.

Quantifying that investment isn't easy. Up to half of the federal funds that colleges received through the CARES Act -- the portion they weren't required to allocate to students -- was restricted to "cover any costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction."

Many colleges used it to invest in new teaching tools and in faculty training. A survey of college online learning leaders released last week by Quality Matters and Eduventures found that slightly more than half of colleges were requiring faculty members teaching online this fall to participate in training, while most others were making it optional. The quality of that training surely varied from institution to institution.

Individual colleges have expanded their own training through their teaching and learning centers, and others have turned to national professional groups like the Online Learning Consortium and Quality Matters as well as vendors for help. As just one example, Deb Adair, president of Quality Matters, says her group has provided paid training to nearly twice as many faculty members thus far this year than it did in 2019 (21,840 versus 11,310).

But numbers alone don't tell the story, Adair says. "A lot of the people in these courses are the ones who said, 'I'll never teach online,' but a lot of them have a good attitude," she says. "They know this is happening, they care about their students, and many of them want to be online in the fall, because they don't want the health risks" of being in the physical classroom.

Still, many struggle, she says. "A lot of them are not competent in the online space, and they feel it, they know it. They have a lot of expertise that now probably feels less relevant because they can't figure out how to get it across."

"There has never been this kind of investment in pedagogy in American higher education in my lifetime," says José Antonio Bowen, author of Teaching Naked and a frequent speaker at faculty professional development institutes. "There are unprecedented levels of faculty uptake -- they want to be better at this and want to learn. I'm getting good questions I never would have had from the curmudgeons."

Surpassing a 'Low Bar'

Will that training and several months of preparation result in better teaching than last spring?

"I’m confident it will be better than spring 2020 -- a low bar," acknowledges Seth Matthew Fishman, assistant dean for curriculum and assessment at Villanova University's College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. Faculty members will have had more prep time, so fewer should fumble to push the right buttons technologically, and many should be more confident than they were in the spring.

Most trainings will have focused on both technology use and effective pedagogical practices, so "the use of technology will be a little better, and most professors should have some new active learning and other techniques that work well online," says Bowen, a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges & Universities and former president of Goucher College. Some colleges may encourage faculty members to use course templates so students know where to find key resources or academic help no matter which course they're in, says Adair.

The degree of improvement will depend, of course, on how effectively colleges have prepared for the fall, says Whitney Kilgore, co-founder and chief academic officer at iDesign, which helps colleges design online academic programs.

"Whether we like it or not, this is what we are going to do."

"For institutions that have done the planning, laid the groundwork for the fall and taken time to provide training for faculty and proper supports for fall, the quality should be improved in a number of different ways," she says. "Courses will be better structured, and the cadence of assignments and assessments will be clearer so students know what's expected."

Professors' communication with and feedback for students should also be significantly better, Kilgore says. Rather than just getting on Zoom and talking to students, or red-lining a written submission, a good training might have shown professors how they can use the rubrics in a learning management system like Canvas to "give students more detailed granular feedback," or to use a voice feedback tool to supplement written comments on a student's paper so he or she can "hear and understand your intent."

"Something small like that humanizes feedback in a way that’s deeply meaningful to students" and partially responds to the many students who say they yearn for more interaction and connection with instructors.

'Whether We Like It or Not'

Even some professors who once fell into the "I'll never teach online" camp that Adair described above say they've learned things this summer that could improve their courses this fall.

"The two most useful parts of the training for me were learning how to do stuff in Canvas and how to use Google Suite," says Peter C. Herman, an English professor at San Diego State University whose Inside Higher Ed essay last month, "Online Learning Is Not the Future," summed up his students' views of the transition to remote learning this way: "They hated it." (Herman wasn't shy about saying he did, too.)

And yet, like most other professors, he will be teaching again virtually this fall (San Diego State is part of the 23-campus California State University system, which was among the first universities in the country to say it would remain remote). "To my mind, there is no doubt that online education has very, very significant drawbacks," he says. "But whether we like it or not, this is what we are going to do."

Herman wasn't a complete technophobe before March's forced pivot online; in previous years he asked students to write short blog posts in Blackboard about readings before class discussions, and he had their peers to respond to those posts, "all completely independent of me."

When "everything blew up" last spring, Herman's focus was on "making the online class as close to the experience of a traditional face-to-face classroom as possible," he says, leaning heavily as many professors did on synchronous discussions via Zoom. (Herman will "not do the asynchronous thing" -- posting "video of me giving a lecture that students can access whenever they feel like it," he says -- "because it completely eradicates the one-to-one connection that students value.")

Herman is going to try to make his courses better in the fall, though, he says: "I'll try to take advantage of certain opportunities that are open to me through Canvas [San Diego State is switching from Blackboard] and Google Suites to make the learning experience better, more effective for the student."

For instance, instead of telling students in his introduction to literature course, "you go off and do this writing on your own," he plans to split the students into groups and have them collaborate on "creating a document on this problem or that problem in literature," to tap into the "sort of collaboration and community building" that such technology tools enable.

"I can't tell you whether I'll be successful in that, and it's possible that this experiment will fail miserably," Herman says.

***

Most learning experts interviewed for this column are far less worried about the possibility that professors' pedagogical experimentation in virtual learning will fail than that there won't be nearly enough of it. They also fear that some colleges and universities may have set their instructors up for failure by focusing on a physical return to campus.

Bowen says he was distressed that so many institutions invested so much time and energy into encouraging professors to build "flex" courses that could be delivered to students in person as well as virtually -- and by instructors remotely as well as in person.

"Most of the summer stress and activity has been about the 'flex,'" he says. "That's basically building two courses rather than one, and it's a very hard thing for faculty to do -- it was not going to be done well."

And "if your investment this summer was in Plexiglas [in the physical classroom] and streaming your faculty in remotely," says Kilgore of iDesign, "you were probably investing in the wrong thing."

Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, has a different worry. Her organization focuses on the use of technology to improve learning for first-generation and other students historically underserved by colleges and universities, and she acknowledges that disadvantaged students on balance struggled more than their peers with the shift to remote learning -- given inconsistent access to computers and high-speed internet, greater likelihood of having caregiving or work responsibilities, and lesser access to quiet and comfortable places to study.

That doesn't, however, mean that online learning is by definition a worse option for those students, as some educators suggest, Williams says. "What we have to do instead is actually design learning experiences for the students that are struggling, that we have not served well in the past.

"If we design a course for students who have internet, and students who didn’t have internet did much worse, it's not those students' fault -- it's ours," she says. "Whereas if I told you you need to design a course for students with no internet access, you would design the course very differently. That's how we need to think."

That will not be easy work, she says. "We have to acknowledge that we've never it gotten it right in the hundreds of years we've been educating people -- we're certainly not going to in four months this summer … In moving things online, we've essentially digitized the discrimination, all the other things in the classroom" that make first-generation and low-income students and students of color struggle, Williams says.

Undoing that will be a challenge, but also a "fantastic opportunity," Williams says. Marginalized students most need the sorts of things that all students say they want (and missed this spring) in their virtual learning: one-on-one engagement, clear communication, mentorship, a sense of belonging.

So if "you intentionally design [learning experiences] for the marginalized student, you're not somehow leaving out the other students," Williams says, "you're building something that all students say they want. It starts with listening to your students, not making assumptions about what they need, and finding a way to understand their perspective."

***

Another possibility is that there may be no way for colleges and instructors to meet the expectations of students and parents.

"Learning will improve this fall, after all of the investment colleges made, but I do not think it will translate into more satisfaction," says Bowen of AAC&U. "When you send your kids to college, you know that you're paying for networking and socialization and other things. Parents say, 'You've transformed my son and daughter,' and we take credit for it.

"If your investment this summer was in Plexiglas [in the physical classroom] and streaming your faculty in remotely, you were probably investing in the wrong thing."

"Now, we're stripping away so much of the growth that happens in the friction outside of classes, and people are going to demand more evidence of learning because the other stuff has vanished." (In the near term, colleges are facing significant expectations from parents to lower the cost of tuition, for what they view as a product or service that is "less than." (Another whole conversation, for another day, exists around whether and how colleges and universities are preparing to replicate or approximate virtually the much wider range of socializing and bonding experiences that residential colleges relish in providing.)

Noel Radomski, senior policy analyst at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions and a longtime official at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, suggests students and parents should adjust their expectations for the changed circumstances around them, just as they have in other aspects of their lives.

"You go to a restaurant now, and yes, we know we can't do everything like we used to, and you probably don't like them as much, and you hope they will change soon," says Radomski. "But why do they think we can create an environment where everyone is safe any more than any of these other organizations in our society can? Do they think we can outsmart COVID-19?"

Radomski's comment is a reminder that as is true in just about every aspect of our lives right now, no matter how good or bad we have it, there is rarely a great option, let alone an ideal one. (I write this from a position of significant privilege, I fully acknowledge.) That's true for colleges, higher ed employees and students and families alike, weighing the pros and cons of continued remote learning versus the risks and rewards of a certainly diminished form of learning in socially distanced classrooms on campuses.

Herman, the San Diego State professor, summed up this landscape as you'd expect a literature professor might: quoting writers. Early in our conversation, as we discuss the spring's emergency remote learning, he cited a line from a Robert Frost poem to cast aspersions on online education compared to its in-person counterpart: "What to make of a diminished thing?"

Near the end of our discussion, as he talked about the work he has done to improve his courses for the fall as part of his obligation as an educator, he channeled Sir Thomas More from Utopia. "What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can," Herman says.

"That’s what we are all trying to do," he adds, and that might just be the best we can expect this fall.

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