The surprise benefits of remote instruction

Expert Insight

The surprise benefits of remote instruction

The reality is starting to sink in that some form of social distancing could be needed into the fall term. Instruction-as-we-know-it might be disrupted for longer than anyone initially planned. Students and academic staff are acclimating as best they can to necessary measures forced upon us by difficult circumstances.

This isn’t a great time for anyone to be resistant to change. We can’t allow ourselves to embrace a defeatist (and reductionist) belief that remote instruction can only be a worse experience for students. It’s time to shift the narrative.

Universities cannot afford to put the brakes on aspirations for multi-modal learning, long seen as central to improving student outcomes. Instead, universities need to help academic leaders and staff understand the surprise benefits that remote instruction, done well, can provide for students.

Enhancing opportunities for equity of class participation

Whether a class has ten or one-hundred students, it’s often a small few who are most active. Challenges for women, underrepresented minorities, and first-generation students persist when it comes to classroom dynamics. Identity aside, quieter voices can be drowned out, if they even raise hands to speak.

Responding to these challenges, many instructors have honed techniques for reducing barriers to face-to-face class participation. Use of technology can provide unique opportunities. Those who teach distance courses for the first time often report that more active use of asynchronous discussion boards provided them ways to get to know students and hear more frequently from a broader range of students than they would have otherwise. Virtual office hours (such as through social media or chat platforms) may be more convenient for students balancing work and family responsibilities. None of these techniques are exclusive to remote instruction, and many professors have long incorporated technology in this way to enhance in-person instruction. However, a silver lining in the current transition to remote may be that a broader range of instructors will adopt these approaches faster than they would have otherwise.

Structuring peer-to-peer collaboration that prepares students for the professions

Group projects are highly controversial among both students and the instructors. On the one hand, teamwork remains one of the most essential professional skills in any industry. Meaningful peer-to-peer collaboration can enhance student engagement and success, hence the value of co-curricular activities. On the other hand, everyone has experienced the challenge of groups that do not gel or where there’s uneven distribution of work.

Here again, discussion boards can provide unique benefits. Instructors can set guidelines for how peers interact with one another’s ideas in terms of how many comments are expected, but also in terms of the types of comments or questions deemed helpful. Meanwhile, peers are more likely to take engagement with one another seriously when it’s on a public forum (while ideally also forming connections that they pursue on their own).

Even before the current public health crisis, remote work has been growing among employers, and many organizations have long had staff in multiple locations. Knowing how to work productively as part of a virtual team is becoming an increasingly critical 21st century professional competency.

Exposing instructors to rigorous research and methods around learning

Distance learning professionals frequently report one of their greatest satisfactions is seeing academics who, after their first experience teaching online, report translatable lessons that improve their face-to-face courses. Most professors receive little to no training and support when teaching face-to-face. Distance courses, however, typically come with instructional designers and curriculum development experts that consult on the best course activities, sequencing, and more to ensure students learn. Historically distance learning has provided many instructors their first opportunity to engage deeply with the methodological rigor and robust intellectual discussion inherent in the scholarship of pedagogy, and in learning science.

In the early stages of the current crisis, not all academic staff have had access to the same levels of instructional design support, and there has been little time for reflection. However, as more formal and informal networks emerge, and as universities find ways to scale continued support, we expect to see more robust discussions around distance learning. These discussions will support students not only in the current crisis; they will also improve student success in future face-to-face and multi-modal courses.

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