Embracing the Unknown: Why Online Postsecondary Study Is Worth the Risk

min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown much of higher education into disarray, but amid this storm are opportunities to redesign teaching and learning in dynamic, student-centered, and empathy-rich ways, with a mind to the skills that students will need to succeed now and in the future.

six images each showing a different way someone is using a computer to learn and work.
Credit: studioworkstock / Shutterstock.com © 2020

Recently, a group of provosts from BC research-based universities wrote an open letter to students, acknowledging student concerns about online course delivery for the fall.1 I'm not a provost (thank goodness), but I work at a university, in a teaching and learning center. My colleagues and I are frontline workers in the call to move postsecondary education online for the foreseeable future, supporting and guiding professors in this remarkable redesign. Although I'm not a student, I can imagine that this is an extremely difficult time for many, a time of great uncertainty and maybe even a bit of madness. I think we all wish we were returning to different circumstances this fall. Following are my observations, as someone who is working to support this transition on the ground, to help inform the conversation from the instructional design perspective.

Students Are the Focus Right Now

When I meet (in Zoom) with instructors these days, some of our conversations are about the nuts and bolts of online learning and the tools that can support this transition. We talk about our learning management system (LMS), how to create dynamic and engaging screencasts, and how to balance synchronous (Zoom) and asynchronous (LMS) learning time. But many more of our conversations, and the ones we pore over, are the conversations about how this new mode of online and hybrid delivery is affecting students. Those conversations spiral around issues of equity, connectedness, and feeling at ease in online environments. During the numerous sessions, workshops, and consultations I've engaged in since March, faculty grappling with these issues have uncovered a number of key strategies that aim to help students feel safe and connected in the online environment.

  • Making time for one-on-one meetings and virtual office hours: Instructors who can carve out meaningful one-on-one time with students will have increased opportunity to uncover potential issues that students are having with technology or course content and to support them as needed. Of course, one-on-one opportunities with students will need to replace in-class time or usurp other activities, and for many instructors, this is a call they are willing to make at this time. Without face-to-face meetings, where it is easier to gauge student understanding and identify potential challenges, instructors interested in teaching in online environments will need to rethink how they find meaningful ways to connect and talk with students.
  • Conducting (even more) formative assessment: Formative assessment—the various low-stakes ways instructors give and get feedback from students—becomes essential in online teaching environments, where students and instructors may feel more disconnected than ever. Without being able to connect in person, instructors moving online will have to be even more intentional and thoughtful in embedding formative assessment strategies. Doris Cheung has written an excellent article on tools for formative assessment in online environments.2
  • Having and communicating clear expectations and communication plans: I'm often surprised when I see syllabi that have a vague 10–20% "participation" mark. Firstly, I advocate changing the term to "professionalism" and then being very clear about what that means. Also, I like when students can contribute to the co-creation of the expectations around professionalism. And I think laying out this criterion now—more than ever—is helpful for students and instructors to understand clearly what is expected of students in synchronous and asynchronous environments, how they can communicate with instructors and colleagues, and what they should do if they are struggling with technology challenges. Having students contribute ideas to this criterion not only builds community from the onset but also creates a greater sense of agency and buy-in.
  • Posting short, instructor-facing videos: Students adjusting to online environments, especially those situated in primarily asynchronous worlds, may struggle not "seeing" their instructor. For this reason, many instructors I've spoken with are interested in recording short, instructor-facing videos weekly for students. These videos can function as a quick check-in, a review of the previous week, and a taste of what's coming up this week, and they can include any reminders that may be helpful to students. A short talking-head video can go a long way in helping humanize instructors.
  • Providing feedback with technology: One of the offshoots of digging into educational technology tools has been that many instructors have discovered new options for providing feedback. Acknowledging their own workload stress and looking for ways to bring that down, some instructors I've worked with are now learning how to give feedback using LMS annotation tools or audio tools. The offshoot of the offshoot is that audio or video feedback, in addition to saving time in marking, functions to connect students to instructors in a more human, less notes-in-the-margins way.

The Counterintuitive Effect of COVID-19 on Pedagogy

Everyone is talking about how COVID-19 will change the way we teach forever, the implication being that we will be more digitally oriented. But I think another dimension of this change is emerging: postsecondary teaching may evolve to be, somewhat counterintuitively, even more student-centered, wellness-based, and empathy-enriched. In my experience, many instructors are not just dumping content into online platforms, walking away, and calling it a day. Rather, because of COVID-19, many professors are now deeply contemplating the effects all these changes are having on students and are committing to mindfully and empathetically redesigning courses for students at this challenging time. Again and again, many instructors want to know how to stay connected to students, how to design courses to maximize a sense of community and connectedness, and how to use the tools in a way that aims for more equity. And I don't think my institution is alone in this. Resources such as Pedagogies of Care: Open Resources for Student-Centered & Adaptive Strategies in the New Higher-Ed Landscape are focused on supporting all students in online environments as effectively as possible. Although anxiety surrounds learning and using online systems, just as much anxiety comes up about student needs and wellness. Never before have I had this many conversations about safety, empathy, and accessibility in higher education, conversations seeking solutions and best practices for all students, including our most vulnerable.

What's Hiding in This?

We still don't know how this pandemic will all shake out, once COVID-19 is eradicated or there is a treatment for it. But we know it will change us and the ways we live and learn. Just as education transitions to an online model, so goes the world. In addition to engaging with course curriculum and content, students participating in online postsecondary studies this fall will be exposed to and develop key online learning and communication skills, two areas that I believe will not disappear post-pandemic. This cohort of students will emerge into whatever new world order exists, comfortable navigating Zoom meetings, accessing material online, creating a variety of alternative assignments using multimedia tools, and collaborating and communicating virtually. Whereas many of us struggled to learn these new skills rapidly, students will be supported through courses in a way that will imprint on them many of the very skills and abilities a post-pandemic world will be relying on. Choosing online learning at this pivotal time will most likely set many students up for success when the world finally reemerges. In this way, postsecondary studies at this time could provide an on-ramp to the post-pandemic world and the skills and abilities it will most likely seek.

Any way you spin it, postsecondary studies will be different this fall. And students and instructors alike have a right to mourn the loss of what was. But despite the trauma of the past few months, the world is dusting itself off and moving on. And that includes education. Instructors will be spending their summers learning, redesigning, calming their nerves, and rising to this challenge with empathy, creativity, and student-centeredness. Postsecondary students are positioned to sit squarely in the midst of this incredible moment, this remarkable time of change, and to benefit from, and contribute to, one of the most phenomenal educational shifts in history. It's a thrilling time. What if we embraced it?

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and Student Success web pages.

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  1. Andrew Szeri, Jon Driver, Valerie Kuehne, Dan Ryan, William Holmes, Christine Bovis-Cnossen, and Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, "An Open Letter to New and Continuing University Students in B.C.," Vancouver Sun, June 12, 2020.
  2. Doris Cheung, "Optimizing Student Learning with Online Formative Feedback," EDUCAUSE Review, April 4, 2016.

Kathleen Bortolin is Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Specialist, Vancouver Island University.

© 2020 Kathleen Bortolin. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.