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Students Want Online Learning Options Post-Pandemic

The experience of learning remotely during the pandemic left students with a positive attitude toward online and hybrid courses, a new survey suggests.

April 27, 2021
 
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When colleges switched to emergency remote instruction last year, some online learning advocates feared the hasty transition would leave students with a negative impression of online learning. While more pre-pandemic online courses resulted from months of careful planning and significant financial investment, few instructors enjoyed these luxuries last spring.

Despite the challenges and shortcomings of this emergency transition to remote instruction, a majority of students want the option to keep studying online, according to new survey results.

The Digital Learning Pulse survey, published today, is the fourth in a series of surveys published by Bay View Analytics in partnership with Cengage, the Online Learning Consortium, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

The survey includes responses from 772 teaching faculty, 514 academic administrators and 1,413 students who were registered at a U.S. higher education institution for both the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters. The results will be discussed in a Cengage webcast tomorrow.

The majority of students, 73 percent, "somewhat" or "strongly" (46 percent) agreed that they would like to take some fully online courses in the future. A slightly smaller number of students, 68 percent, indicated they would be interested in taking courses offering a combination of in-person and online instruction.

For in-person courses, 68 percent of students strongly or somewhat agreed that they would like to see greater use of technology. The use of digital materials and digital resources was also popular, with 67 percent indicating they would like to see an increase in usage of these materials.

For the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, the survey also asked students, faculty members and administrators to award a letter grade, from A to F, for how well courses at their institution were meeting educational needs. Students were not as critical of their experience as Jeff Seaman, director of Bay View Analytics, expected.

“There were a very small number of students who gave their courses failing grades,” said Seaman. “But generally students were more positive about their courses than faculty or administrators.”

Over all, students, faculty and administrators awarded a B for courses taught in the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semester. These grades reflect a mixture of teaching modalities, including fully online, hybrid and face-to-face instruction.

Students, professors and administrators all ranked the same top three challenges impeding student success in the last two semesters, said Seaman. Topping the list was "feelings of stress," then "level of motivation" and, thirdly, "having time to do homework."

Students, faculty members and administrators are rarely so aligned in their responses, said Seaman. He thinks that faculty and administrators may feel more in tune with the struggles students are facing since this has become a bigger area of discussion during the pandemic.

Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, agreed. "The pandemic has given us the unique opportunity to pause and listen to each other, and we are beginning to discover all the ways our experiences overlap," she said.

Every Learner Everywhere offers free coaching to faculty and administrators around issues related to digital learning. In addition to the challenges facing students that were highlighted in the Bay View Analytics survey, faculty often ask questions about how to keep students engaged in virtual learning spaces, said Rowland Williams.

The challenge of keeping students engaged was echoed in Every Learner Everywhere's Student Speaks report, which was based on interviews with 100 marginalized students across the U.S. about their experience of learning during the pandemic.

"As our campuses become more diverse, we must also acknowledge that the challenges our students face will be diverse and may also be unique to student populations. The next step we need to take when evaluating challenges is to disaggregate data to explore how different populations may be disproportionately impacted by the stressors listed," said Rowland Williams. "I am hopeful that as we continue to uncover points of connection, they will serve to keep us grounded and curious as we also explore the ways our journeys and experiences are unique."

Rank

Students

Faculty

Administrators

1

Feelings of stress

Feelings of stress

Feelings of stress

2

Level of motivation

Level of motivation

Level of motivation

3

Having time to do course work

Having time to do course work

Having time to do course work

4

Support from my academic institution

Having a suitable workplace to do course work

Internet connectivity (e.g., Wi-Fi)

5

Internet connectivity (e.g., Wi-Fi)

Internet connectivity (e.g., Wi-Fi)

Having a suitable workplace to do course work

6

Having a suitable workplace to do course work

Support from my academic institution

Access to a learning device (laptop, home computer, tablet)

7

Access to a learning device (laptop, home computer, tablet)

Access to a learning device (laptop, home computer, tablet)

Support from my academic institution

Students and faculty members both reported that their attitudes toward online learning had significantly improved in the past year. A majority of students, 57 percent, said they felt more positive about online learning now than before the pandemic. Close to half, 47 percent, said their attitude toward online exam proctoring -- a topic of some controversy due to privacy concerns -- had also improved.

A similar proportion of faculty members, 58 percent, said their attitude toward online learning had improved.

A lot of the resistance to online learning and teaching that was expressed before the pandemic was due to “unfamiliarity rather than distaste,” said Clay Shirky, vice provost for educational technologies at New York University.

“What COVID-19 and the shift to emergency remote instruction did was burn off the fog of unfamiliarity,” said Shirky. 

At NYU, discussions are already underway about how to take the good parts of remote instruction and keep them going, said Shirky. Students want choice and flexibility, and so do faculty members, he said.

In some ways, transitioning out of the pandemic is harder for institutions in terms of organizing how classes should be delivered than it was going in, said Shirky. Some students and faculty may be in a position where they could return to in-person instruction, but not everyone has been vaccinated or can be vaccinated. Additionally, there are ongoing visa restrictions that may prevent international students from entering the country for some time.

That students indicated a desire to continue learning online in the future, despite less-than-ideal circumstances, is positive, said Shirky.

The tendency in online education is to think that by spending more money, you will end up with a good product, said Shirky. He believes that there are two types of online education -- good and bad. But these are not dependent on months of preparation or a healthy budget for flashy videos.

“The most important thing is that faculty are engaged and care that their students learn something,” he said. 

There is still concern that emergency remote learning practices do not exemplify quality online instruction methodologies, said Jill Buban, vice president of digital strategy and online education at Fairfield University. Many students continue not to know the difference between emergency remote instruction and online teaching, she said.

“My hope is that many faculty come out of this experience, after much-needed rest, with new skills that they can use when they return their traditional learning environment,” said Buban.

The changes could be as simple as bringing guest lectures into the classroom remotely, utilizing a learning management system or increasing use of digital textbooks and open educational resources in courses, said Buban.

“If the past year can open more eyes to effective online teaching and learning practices, it will be a net positive for the future of postsecondary teaching and learning environments and will allow universities to be more agile,” Buban said.

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