Five Things: What students are telling us about online courses at K — Rick Barth

We’ve had one term of practice with online learning at K College. The lessons learned will be needed right away as we plan for a future of hybrid course design and delivery that we hope will be robust in the face of uncertain public health environment in this time of Covid-19. Throughout the spring quarter, we heard feedback from students about what was working for them. Much of their feedback fits into five big categories:

  1. Social Presence in a time of Physical Distancing
  2. Frequent Assessment with Rapid, Detailed, Personal Feedback
  3. Multiple instructional modes
  4. Transparent and frequently-repeated explanation of course structure and requirements
  5. Explicit attention to the new ways of learning students need to develop in order to achieve learning at a distance

Not surprisingly, the things that worked best for students are in many cases consistent with and predicted by work in the pedagogy literature. Here we weave together summaries of student feedback with a piece by Michelle Miller: “Online Learning: Does it Work?”

A 7.5 minute video by Rick Barth

1. Social Presence:

Throughout the spring term, we heard feedback from faculty about their sense of uncertainty in the absence of in-person face-to-face feedback from students. At the same time, students who reported positive experiences in their spring online courses comment again and again about instructors who found ways to create a sense of community and connection despite the distance learning format.

In her 2017 chapter “Online Learning: Does it Work?”, Michelle Miller writes:

Social distance is the flip side of the “social presence” concept first
articulated in the early days of telecommunications. It has to do
with the exchange of social cues and the feeling that one is authentically interacting with another person in the virtual environment. Creating social presence is another thing that online instructors need to pay special attention to, for example by encouraging students to offer personal information, eliciting supportive communications between students, and using communication tools that transmit facial expressions and vocal tone. Going the extra mile to do this doesn’t just make the class more pleasant, but is also an important predictor of success in the course.

The social feedback instructors get from students is also radically
altered in an online environment. In a traditional classroom setting,
students’ faces give you an instant read on confusion, disengagement, and other important problems. Students stop by before or after class to clear up muddy points or talk in-depth about topics that caught their interest, and the give-and-take of an interactive lecture gives you a good grasp of students’ level of understanding, at least for the ones who speak up. Online, these interactions are usually heavily time-delayed and mediated by text, particularly e-mail and discussion posts — two communication formats that have a well-known propensity to misrepresent emotional tone. To compensate, online instructors need to make formal inquiries to students about how the class is going, as well as keep a close eye on data such as frequency of log-in, late assignments, and assessment scores so that they can form an accurate picture of how students are faring.

Miller, M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

2. Frequent, Rapid, Informative Feedback

Students who reported the best experiences with online courses at K often singled out their appreciation of prompt, frequent, detailed and personal feedback on their work products. They often call out as a challenge those courses in which work that was graded as simply “credit” or “complete” without thoughtful formative feedback. In a format that brings challenges in traditional social connection, students found it very powerful to interact with their instructors through assessment products. Quizzes, short written pieces, class discussion forum posts, as well as longer more integrative work. As we put thought into the design of our fall courses, it will help instructors and students to develop assessment tools that allow for this deep engagement. For this to work, the balance of instructor time likely shifts from activities traditionally associated with “in class” to an intentional workflow of managing frequent, rapid, informative feedback. In addition to written feedback, some instructors at K this spring found found that Moodle’s audio recording instructor feedback tool lightened the burden of providing detailed feedback while simultaneously providing a socially present alternative mode of interaction with students.

Miller writes:

This traditional “best practice” is widely cited as one of the things
instructors should spend as much time and thought on as possible.
Teaching experts Eric Mazur and Carl Wieman have been passionate advocates of providing a more dynamic, feedback— rich experience in traditional lecture classes. Similarly, rapid feedback is a key feature of the best online learning experiences. There are myriad ways to accomplish this online, including peer feedback, auto-graded quizzes, and branching lessons that present varying content based on student input.

M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

3. Multiple Modes of Instruction

Students gave feedback that was, widely varied and on the surface contradictory: “Readings were perfect”, “impossible amount of reading”, “Loved asynchronous video lectures”, “Video Lectures were the worst”, “Loved synchronous class meetings”, “Synchronous classes were awful”. A more careful reading of this feedback suggests to us that students found success with many modes of instruction, but with some caveats:

  • 75 minutes isn’t what it used to be: Whether live or recorded, shorter (up to say 20 minutes) lectures were much more likely to be reported as helpful to students’ learning than attempts to “fill” the traditional class meeting period.
  • Variety was greatly appreciated: detailed instructor emails in a course structure containing other forms of interaction were highly appreciated. As the only form of interaction, students frequently reported with vehemence about the unsuitability of a “course by email”.

Online courses can be designed with an emphasis on alternating text with other forms of delivery, such as animated narration or Skype conversations, but it is difficult to get around the need for a great deal of written communication. This contrasts with the typical face-to-face course in which lecture, audiovisual demonstrations, and spoken discussion are a major part of the learning activities.

Students who aren’t strong readers, or who just prefer non-text
modalities, are at particular risk of falling behind in a text-heavy
environment. Unfortunately, we don’t have many solutions for these
less-proficient readers. Minding the reading level of material, keeping it to the level of a newspaper or lower, is one basic strategy.
When using synchronous, fast-paced activities like real-time chatting, it’s also important to weigh any potential benefits against
potential difficulties for slower readers. Building in lots of those
aforementioned alternate forms— narration, audio, and video— can
also give a boost to less-proficient readers.

M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

4. Transparency about Course Structure and Requirements

When students gave negative feedback about their experiences with online courses, it was often in the form of comments about not have a clear idea about what they were meant to be doing and when they were meant to be doing it. Frequent assignment with rapid feedback is only as effective as the students understanding of the details of the assignments.

This factor might fade as more students get experience with online
coursework and as online-course designers begin to converge on
commonly accepted conventions for course structure. In the meantime, though, students often come to online coursework with a less developed sense of how things work than they would for a traditional course. Traditional courses superficially resemble high school classes, in that they are organized around set times and places for meeting, textbooks, and schedules of deadlines— so even students with little or no college experience can fall back on this familiar script to figure out what to do next. Just showing up for class can assure these less-experienced students that they will probably get by. But how do you “just show up” for an online class? In an online class (or the online parts of a blended or combination online/traditional class), it may not be clear where to start, how to spend one’s study time, or when the work is due. Good design, of course, offsets the problem of orienting students to the layout of the assignments— but even in a well- designed online course, students as well as teachers have to work harder to establish a basic understanding of how the course will work.

M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

5. Help students explicitly develop the new learning approaches they’ll need for online courses.

A number of students who gave positive feedback about their experience in online courses at K in the spring reported a growth experience in their awareness of their own learning processes: The shift to online courses was difficult in the beginning and became more manageable as the students began to examine their own role as independent learners in environments that offered much less structure and many more distracting features.

Miller has a very thoughtful account of this:

More so than in the traditional classroom, students can seriously underestimate how much time and effort is required to succeed in online learning. Part of this problem may have to do with the much- vaunted “flexibility” of online coursework.

If the idea is that online learning fits in between family time, paid
work, travel, child care, and everything else in life, it likely ends up
an afterthought tacked on after all those other life activities are
addressed. And as we all know, exhausted, distracted, time- pressed students are unlikely to achieve stellar intellectual gains in any instructional format. Some experts argue that online learning’s tendency to become a “third shift”— i.e., something tackled after work and family duties are done— places a particular burden on female students, given their greater responsibility, on average, for the “second shift” of family work. Furthermore, in face-to-face teaching, you can ensure that some bare minimum of time is devoted to classwork (by policing attendance), and you can schedule classes when students are likely to be fresh (i.e., not in the middle of the night).

Neither of these basic strategies for ensuring maximal engagement
is easy to do online.Like many other quality issues, the third-shift problem can be addressed through forethought and savvy design choices. One good place to start is with a heavy dose of socialization at the beginning of the course about your expectations for student time commitment. Simply exhorting students that they will have to work hard and put in time has limited impact, but at least you can get your expectations out into the open early. Following through on your stated expectations, by having some small-stakes work due early in the semester, is another good practice for getting students into the right mindset.Beyond laying out your expectations and following through on them,
you can consider scheduling some synchronous-style work if you are concerned that students are just squeezing in little bits of work at odd hours. This approach has costs (such as potentially disadvantaging slower readers, as mentioned previously) and may be perceived as user-unfriendly by students, but it’s a clear way to exert more control over the pacing and timing of work.

M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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