The coronavirus pandemic has forever changed educational systems worldwide, impacting 91 percent of the world’s student population. In the United States alone, at least 1,100 colleges and universities have closed their campuses and moved all classes online.
This sudden change has left students feeling unsure of how to keep up with their academic work, how to stay connected with their classmates, and how to get one-to-one feedback from professors on their assignments and exams. All of these are valid concerns. But they’re also indicative of a glaring problem in the educational system: many colleges and universities are unprepared to digitally adapt their operational processes in the event of a crisis.
The good news is that virtual learning can be just as informative, engaging, and impactful as physical learning. The key to success will come down to acknowledging the need for change and a willingness to adopt new processes and tools that could make remote learning less stressful and more impactful.
Change is never easy, and I completely understand that. For that reason, I wanted to share a few examples of how virtual learning can be a good thing during these uncertain times.
1. Students aren’t bound by rigid course offerings and limited schedules.
Normally, students don’t have any control over their class schedule. Classes are only offered once or twice a week at limited times. If students have a previous commitment or another class already scheduled during one of those times, then they’re simply out of luck. For some students, this could impede their ability to meet the requirements of their chosen major/degree.
But as all classes have now moved online, students aren’t bound by rigid class schedules and can take part in classes they might not have been able to attend previously due to scheduling issues. With the use of remote meeting tools, students also have more freedom to study and learn wherever and whenever they want. If they need to help take care of their younger siblings (while their parents work from home during the day), they can reschedule their class for the evening (between 6 and 9 p.m.) or even over the weekend. That’s a good thing.
2. Remote learning frees introverted students from their participation anxiety.
People who are introverts tend to be focused on inward thoughts, emotions, and feelings. They tend to be more quiet and reserved. Unlike extroverts, introverts find it difficult and uncomfortable to interact socially. In the context of learning, introverts often excel and receive good grades on their coursework and exams. But participation is a completely different story–it’s often an overwhelming, anxiety-ridden experience. Despite having a variety of creative ideas and thoughts swirling around in their heads, introverted students tend to push them down and not speak up because of their own self-doubts. This could, in turn, negatively affect their overall performance, especially if participation is required and used to assign final course grades.
With online classes, introverted students can participate in myriad ways, without feeling overwhelmed or fearful of being judged by other classmates. For example, if students in a modern literature course are required to provide constructive feedback on other students’ essays, doing so verbally (and in front of their classmates) can be both daunting and intimidating. But in an online learning environment, introverted students can provide their feedback in a different way by posting online comments. The interaction can still happen, but within the safe and walled confines of the online world.
3. Students can get immediate feedback and more direct access to professors.
Most students in colleges and universities range in age from 17 to 22, which puts them into the Gen Z category. Commonly referred to as the ‘smartphone generation,’ Gen Zers are big fans of media, including videos, social media, music, and gaming. And they consume almost all of this media online, on their laptops and their mobile devices. Given that digital is such a central component of students’ lives, it makes sense that 81 percent of US college students say digital technology helps boost their grades.
No matter how much we as a society have adopted digital tools, mobile devices, and social communication into our lives, colleges and universities are still quite traditional in their processes. Most professors, for example, still post physical signup sheets for office hours on their office doors and sit in their offices for hours at a time waiting for students to come in and ask for guidance and feedback (on assignments, exams and their larger educational goals). If you think about this process, it’s not very efficient and doesn’t match the digital-first behaviors of students who are glued to their mobile devices 24/7 and consume most of their content online. Although professors can’t physically be present for office hours, they can still make them happen virtually.
Due to social distancing rules, many students are likely feeling a bit isolated and craving human interactions. This is where digital tools can be incredibly helpful to allow students and professors to connect with each other, see each other’s faces (even if they can’t be next to each other) and ask any questions they might have. One-to-one meetings can be an excellent way to alleviate the stress and anxiety students might be feeling, as well as offer a safe space to vent their fears and concerns. Knowing that, professors and faculty need to make a concerted effort to check in with students, both in group classes and individually, on a regular basis.
Set up weekly one-to-one meetings with each student in your class, even if it’s only for 15 minutes, to ask how students are coping emotionally and managing their workloads. One thing I’d recommend is to shorten the duration of these weekly one-to-one meetings to 30 minutes or less. Remember, these Gen Zers can be easily distracted and are accustomed to engaging with shorter, digestible bursts of information. By doing so, professors can strengthen the bond with their students as well as capture the attention of their students, which means students will absorb more information and be able to translate that into their work.