Saturday, September 19, 2020

Online learning in the time of COVID-19. Part I: A student perspective

Due to the lockdown spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, most educational institutions around the world were forced to close their campuses and switch to online education and e-learning with no definite date for a complete return to physical classrooms. Despite many universities being able to successfully transition to online courses in a short period, there are still many challenges to overcome to achieve effective digital teaching/learning. In fact, this dramatic change in education has brought, in many cases, confusion, concern and frustration among educators and students.

To assess how students felt about the sudden switch to online lessons, Professor Nuria Acevedo of Iowa State University gathered opinions from multiple graduate students attending Universities in the Midwest region of the country. Their thoughts are based on different aspects they brought up regarding this new digital pedagogy they experienced:  

How digital learning cannot replace in-person classroom activities:

  • When our university closed down in March, I was halfway through a course called “Sensory Evaluation of Wine.” While I was able to continue learning the course content, the in-person experience of sensory evaluation and the conversations with peers as we try to decipher subtle tasting notes was completely lost. The same is true for many of our lab courses. It’s like a soccer player trying to improve their game by reading about soccer. It might help conceptually, but the only real way to improve is through in-person practice.
  • As an aspiring educator, I consider in-person teaching to be extremely important. It is difficult to engage with and elicit participation from students remotely. Moreover, verifying class attendance by requiring web-cameras to be on feels like an intrusion of privacy.
  • I felt the benefits and value of hands-on experiences that are so valuable for my development as a young professional have been completely taken away from as a result of the pandemic.

Student perceptions of the remote learning experience:

  • Personally, online courses have been a severe detriment to my learning experience. I have found that it is challenging to focus at home and that classes lose their gravitas. I strongly oppose remote learning and only deem it acceptable for non-STEM courses.
  • Virtual meetings are a nice addition to remote learning because they are still scheduled meetings that force me to stay up-to-date with classwork and I still get the benefits of class discussions for classes that are dependent on sharing experiences and opinions.  We still have productive class discussions every time we meet. It also takes the edge off class participation when I am able to speak to the class in a place that I am comfortable in.  
  • I would strongly prefer a hybrid model as opposed to asynchronous learning. In a hybrid model, face-to-face sessions would best be used to reinforce difficult concepts or administer exams. 
  • The shift to remote education has had a minor impact on my learning. As a visual learner, I retain information best from use of diagrams and color-coded labels and notes. Online teaching has forced many of my professors to create additional visual aids and handouts to better organize and distribute lecture notes. For this reason, I have had a much easier time following along in lecture and keeping up with the material. 
  • It has taken some time for me to adjust to being productive at home. I do not mind listening to lectures or seminars online. I actually find it kind of nice because it allows me to pause the video to take careful notes and rewind the video when I need to hear something again. I think I learn just as much, or even more, with remote learning when I am consistent in watching the content and keeping up with classwork.  
  • Overall, I think I am adapting to remote learning well. During the latter part of the spring semester, when remote learning started, I was still able to maintain my GPA and perform well in my classes. I hope to do the same this semester.

How digital learning can foster improved learning solutions in higher education:

  • I believe COVID-19 presented academia with a vital opportunity to advance and develop the ways we teach and learn. It would be a shame if we squandered this opportunity. For example, by offering an asynchronous option for viewing lectures, graduate students are able to plan their research better and aren’t subject to the university’s course schedule for that semester. It’s still important to offer opportunities for discussion and collaboration but added flexibility would greatly help many of my graduate student peers. 
  • Though it is unfortunate it took a pandemic to spark creativity and innovation with coursework, I believe we have a great chance to enhance learning outcomes, provide educational opportunities to more people, and streamline the on-campus experience as well. I hope that our colleges and universities take advantage of the lessons we have learned this year.

How remote learning can allow accessibility to a broader audience:

  • I think more remote learning opportunities would allow people who are unable to live near a university a larger variety of educational options. 
  • I consider online teaching to be very important. Not only is it a way to keep everyone safe during this pandemic, but it also sets a precedent for students who will prefer online schooling in the future. 

How digital education has affected students’ schedules: 

  • For me, the hardest part of remote learning has been separating work time from personal time. I found that no longer needing to commute between academic buildings or make time to attend in-person meetings has given me a surplus of time during the workday. This extra time has allowed me to call in to office hours and meet with my professors more frequently.
  • When I do not have designated appointments or expectations to be somewhere, it can be hard to stay focused and goal-oriented.  
  • I have also started creating online workspaces where I video chat my friends and we all work on our respective tasks in the same Zoom room. If we keep our mics muted, it’s a great way to stay in touch with friends and also have someone present to keep you on task.  

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