Higher Ed Facing Critical Challenges in Adopting Online Learning

Higher education institutions are engaged in a massive and rapid transition to remote learning. This is plunging a new cadre of faculty and students with no prior online teaching and learning experience into digital learning techniques, and although they are making great strides, there are still many hurdles to overcome.

While the institutional response to the COVID-19 pandemic was at times disorganized, a recent study of those involved reveals a flexible professoriate readily adapting to change and keenly focused on the best interests of its students. It also shows that this transition left faculty with a more positive perception of online learning, however key challenges remain including instructor and institutional readiness, inconsistent student experiences, gaps in student access and readiness, and the ability for the institutions to fill those gaps.

“We think that this is a moment in time that represents a significant shift for our field,” said Gates Bryant, Partner at Tyton Partners, who presented along with Tyton Director Kristin Fox during the REMOTE: The Connected Faculty Summit. Tyton Partners, along with Every Learner Everywhere and Digital Promise conducted a "Time for Class Covid-19 Edition" of 4,000 faculty members representing 1,500 institutions to uncover their concerns, challenges and how they plan to evolve their teaching practices in this new online environment.

“Our goal for this study was really to measure the changes in instructional practice and the use of technology during the remote learning semester to understand the impact of that experience on the coming academic year.  And to begin to read the tea leaves on how institutions and faculty will be making lasting changes to their instructional practice,” Bryant said.

One of the most important findings from the survey was that the shift to remote learning left faculty with a more positive sentiment for online learning than those who previously had a negative experience. In fact, 45% of respondents exited the spring semester with a more favorable attitude of online learning in comparison to their experience prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bryant said.

“This represents a significant opportunity and openness to change. We think it is remarkable that faculty made this transition in such a rapid way. We've heard from faculty, the changes that they've made, and we've found that institutions have provided significant infrastructure and support,” he said.

There are three key practices adopted by institutions that attributed to success of moving to an online learning environment, according to the survey.

  1. Providing a centralized online learning unit
  2. Providing access to an instructional design staff
  3. Creating a peer-to-peer collaboration

COVID-19 has created a new teaching model in an effort to create live instruction with redesigned courseware and evidence-based teaching practices, Bryant said. However, many instructors were not prepared to evolve so quickly, and neither were many students.

“We're concerned about the level of student support required to accomplish the learning objectives for a given course in a highly flexible modality, where students are given the choice to how they want to engage, when they want to engage ,and in what modality they choose to pursue their studies on a day by day, week by week basis,” Bryant said. “We think that there are emerging and longer lasting implications for instructional practice pedagogy and the importance of digital learning infrastructure going forward.”

The biggest challenge instructors are facing is keeping students engaged in the learning process, said Fox. “Despite best intentions and efforts to do so, students were not engaged. And of course, this [past] Spring was exacerbated by financial stress [and] by personal stress,” she said, adding that it was exacerbated by the fact that students were not prepared to learn online.

According to the survey:

  • 74% of faculty said increasing student engagement in their class is a priority
  • 61% of faculty said that keeping students engaged is the most challenging part of the transition to remote

The second key area involves the adoption of 10 online instructional practices. The survey showed that there is a direct connection between how successfully students learn with how many of the instructional practices were adopted, Fox said. “[There] is a really clear connection between the breadth and diversity or the number of instructional practices used, and the percentage of faculty satisfied with student learning,” she said.

Only 20% of the faculty were engaged in seven or more of the 10 instructional practices and that was the group that was most satisfied with the outcome, Fox said. Two main factors attributed to their success was if they had prior online teaching experience and having access to resources including technology instructional design, peer-to-peer collaboration and centralized online operations, Fox said.

“So clearly this just emphasizes the importance of providing these resources and support at scale to drive better student outcomes,” Fox said. There is also a direct connection between certain teaching practices and better student engagement and outcome, she said.

  • Creating and incorporating small group assignments into the coursework
  • More frequent student self-evaluation
  • Incorporating real world examples in teaching
  • Providing personal messages to students