According to Intelligent.com, over 40% of college students say their ability to learn, mental health, and social life have gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Professors report that students are disengaged, so much so that it’s even hard to get them to take advantage of free support services. Many faculty and staff members say they feel burned out and demoralized. And college enrollments are down overall.
A recent New York Times opinion piece by Jonathan Malesic entitled “My College Students Are Not OK” published in May 2022 reflected on the initial return to in-person classes. Malesic noted that “students just aren’t doing what it takes to learn.” He realized that, appropriately and commensurate to the challenges being faced, “over the past two years, compassionate faculty members have loosened course structure” and these loosened structures contributed to the challenge of students forgetting about the effort and responsibility it takes to learn. He ushers an important charge: "it won't be easy, but universities need to help students rebuild their ability to learn." However, in proposing a solution, he epitomizes the desire to return to “normal” by positing that “[we all] must insist on in-person classes and high expectations for fall 2022 and beyond.”
“Normal” has never been optimal for a majority of students. In helping student rebuild their ability to learn, we must begin by insisting on high expectations for our institutions by expecting them to apply the learnings from our unplanned “evolution in digital literacy,” as described by Sean Hobson, assistant vice president, and chief design officer of EdPlus at Arizona State University, by “adapting systems to students rather than the other way around. [Systems] that take into consideration how students learn best and are personalized to their needs.” While this is not easy, it is a great opportunity for education to evolve alongside the workplace for which we’re preparing our students to enter and thrive. Instead of reverting back to the local maxima we had achieved pre-pandemic, it’s time to apply the hard-fought learnings of the past couple of years towards achieving a new global maximum.
So much changed when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. It moved us into a deep minima. Looking back to “before times,” we see that local maxima and are lured into thinking we need to go back to that threshold. But, if we look closely at what happened during the pandemic, there are local maxima within that dip.
There are bright spots where students, who in the past needed flexibility to participate or didn’t have access to classes, were able to be part of the classroom, spots where students got the confidence to ask questions due to newfound anonymity, and spots where instructors got additional insights through data available via online teaching.
Those bright spots are the hard-fought lessons we need to remember and bring together to move forward and create the new standard global maxima, instead of going back to the last local max.
Bright spots from remote, collaborative learning are not new. In 1971, Jim Gibbons was studying the efficacy of tutored video instruction, or TVI. Stanford honors co-op students working for Hewlett-Packard would gather locally in Santa Rosa each day to watch a recorded lecture with an onsite tutor; anytime a student had a question during the lecture, the tutor would stop the tape and facilitate discussion until an answer was reached. This experiment was the first in what is today called collaborative learning -- and it found that the TVI student outperformed the vast majority of those who took the standard, in-person class, evidenced by an average GPA of 3.71 vs 3.37, respectively.
The past few years have shined a spotlight on tech-assisted learning. For the good of students, we'd all be well served to build from these learnings. In our conversations with leading, forward-thinking universities and colleges across the globe, we are seeing the development of strategic priorities aimed at exactly this: reaching and creating the next max. Innovative academic leadership is invested in enhancing student engagement, which has proven to increase learning outcomes.
Data-rich digital environments allow educators to see exactly where their students are and how to best support them. They can see who is active, what is the student’s level of understanding, and who needs extra help. They can create intentional teams that optimize students’ progress, group mentors and mentees together, or facilitate rich and diverse conversations for peer learning with the click of a button.
Students can take meaningful notes that are integrated into their learning environment and linked to class recordings and content. Shy students or those who usually don’t participate in the in-person classroom can now easily interact, engage and participate without feeling exposed or vulnerable through interactive polls, chat, Q&A, collaborative documents, whiteboards, and seamless content sharing options. Students can also naturally interact with their peers without disrupting the class flow with Engageli’s unique table groups. Just like in an in-person classroom, students can ask each other questions or get to know each other as they “sit together” around a virtual table.
While the opportunity to return to in-person classes is welcome, remote instruction should not now be cast aside or stigmatized as “less than.” Academics should continue to harness the benefits remote learning can bring to student engagement and flexibility alongside in-person teaching.
Instructors aim to be sensitive to what is and isn’t working, but in a physical classroom, that visibility is often lacking. Instructors can try to look at the gazes of the students and see if they're paying attention. Still, it's a weak signal of whether they're actually learning, especially since many students take notes on their laptops (or are shopping online) and never look up from their screens. Looking at the pedagogical research, it’s also clear that having instructors who care and who reach out to their students is one of the most important factors in their success, and has been shown to be true at the college and post-college levels. But similarly, how can instructors know who to reach out to if they're teaching 150 or more students, and all the faces blur together in the classroom?
In the past, it was challenging to improve and iterate on the teaching and learning experience in physical classrooms since the cycle time for getting information about engagement could be as long as a semester or year. Instructors would only get a complete picture at the end after students had submitted their course work, taken their exams, and moved on. At that point, going back and trying to figure out what could have been done better was almost impossible. And the next class cohort could be different, so even if teaching insights could be gleaned, they may not be what’s needed for a new group.
Digital platforms enable an incredible data stream that lets instructors know whether students are paying attention and learning. With Engageli, there are non-invasive ways to measure engagement, so instructors don't need to force students to keep their cameras on or do gaze tracking to see if they’re actually following online. All data and engagement is tracked, and instructors can get granular insight into attendance, thumbs up, hand raises, class talk time, poll/quiz participation, reactions and session feedback, as well as chat and communications.
This real-time feedback can not only help instructors gauge whether their teaching methods are resonating; but can also help identify students who could benefit from a timely, warm word of encouragement or an explanation of a concept that they seem to be struggling with.
Education is evolving, and so must the tools to enable the teaching and learning our students need today and in the future. Thanks to the rapid advancement in educational technology, educators can move away from the negative assumptions of online learning as a passive and subpar solution, and instead harness the flexibility and reach of online learning to create accessible, collaborative environments that prioritize inclusivity, engagement, and student success.
To do so requires continued growth from the movement that began before the pandemic, towards active and applied learning, alongside the integration of hybrid environments to provide students with guided flexibility that has proven so valuable through the pandemic. While there is a learning curve on each of these fronts (active learning and hybrid environments) for both educators and students - the improved learning outcomes are worth the effort. Through effective active, collaborative learning, students work harder and learn more. Via hybrid learning environments, more students can access, participate and learn.
In 2020, the involuntary digital transformation was rushed and overwhelming, painfully showing that making deep connections and providing meaningful collaboration at a distance requires more than a video feed and faculty perseverance. But with these challenges came hard-fought learnings. We have seen higher education institutions embrace technology to create seamless, educational experiences. One that provides not only an adequate crisis response but a true transformation towards a more flexible and inclusive environment that enables valuable learning in-person, online, and in blended and hybrid modalities. As we move into a new school year, we know now there are ways to provide and enable purposeful peer-to-peer interactions, vibrant learning communities, and engaging experiences that effectively prepare students for their professional futures.