3 principles for safeguarding student success in the transition to remote instruction

Expert Insight

3 principles for safeguarding student success in the transition to remote instruction

EAB is currently expanding its resources and research on remote instruction during the current health crisis. Please check this page often as we will be adding new posts in the days and weeks to come.

Many faculty report that the shift to remote instruction has felt (understandably) chaotic. Instructional designers, online learning units, and teaching and learning centers (CTLs) have heroically marshaled together resource guides in short order, but often these guides include lists of dozens–even hundreds—of things that faculty could do. Amidst the noise, instructors aren’t sure if they’re making the right decisions. 

Both faculty and students are afraid: what will be lost in the transition?

The stakes of getting remote instruction right grow by the day as it becomes more apparent that COVID-19’s impact will last through the remainder of the school year, if not longer. While most institutions have committed to only a few weeks of remote instruction, we expect that to shift. UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Georgetown on Friday announced that remote instruction would continue through the entire spring term; others will likely follow as they finalize contingency plans. Further extending timeframes for remote instruction will come with even more challenges. 

The transition to remote instruction is likely to take longer than anticipated and there will be glitches along that path. Colleges and universities should acknowledge the strain this will place on students and heed three guiding principles for student success through the crisis.

1. We cannot rely on synchronous instruction during a pandemic

Many universities are recommending faculty use collaboration tools like Zoom, Adobe Connect, or Blackboard Collaborate. It’s tempting to do so, as simply moving courses to webconference may feel like the least disruptive option. We think a strategy based primarily on synchronous instruction is a mistake.

We at EAB use Zoom frequently and appreciate Zoom’s commitment to provide free access right now to K12 educators. But many students don’t have fast internet or reliable laptops/tablets at home. Even for those who do, it’s unclear whether multiple members of one household will be able to videoconference at the same time. And even if the internet can handle the surge, there is the practical question of how COVID-19 will impact schedules of students, who may be in different time zones or have to care for younger siblings or sick relatives, or possibly be sick themselves. Universities do not need to abandon synchronous instruction altogether, but it may become difficult for synchronous to be mandatory for students. Faculty may not be able to stick to synchronous schedules either, due to parental or other caregiving responsibilities.  

Consider using screencasts, videos, or podcasts with captioning or lecture notes for accessibility. Such resources can be accessed at any time and paired with asynchronous peer-to-peer discussion forums (on the LMS, or on social media, such as Facebook groups). For office hours, faculty should offer both synchronous (Zoom breakout rooms, Google Hangouts, social media) and asynchronous options (“Ask the Instructor” discussion boards, social media, and email).

2. Prioritize remote student engagement and support

We’ve long known that academic performance issues can stem from non-academic causes. Higher education was already facing an escalating demand for mental health services, and COVID-19 has created increased fear, stress, and uncertainty.  This will be true for all our students. Even more worrisome is that our most at-risk populations, including first-generation and low-income students, are especially vulnerable to the loss of belongingness that may come from isolation, as well as the financial burdens that go along with the loss of campus jobs or a reduction in family incomes resulting from COVID-19 disruptions. Without proactive intervention, these students are particularly at risk of not returning to campus after the hiatus. 

Within the classroom, instructors can structure activities and content to build engagement. Duke University, which moved its Kunshan campus to remote instruction in February, created this succinct blog on how to build community in asynchronous online course.

Universities will also need to build up remote student support service, outside the virtual classroom. A two-question stress questionnaire, asking the student to rate their stress level and describe what factors are leading to stress, can do wonders for identifying who needs proactive intervention. Schools that long ago embraced distance learning have deployed online student groups and virtual events to help establish campus community and pride. One example of this is using social media hashtags to facilitate student sharing of photos showing where they are studying and learning, in campus gear or colors.

3. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel—use open source resources

By and large, faculty don’t create all their instructional materials, utilizing textbooks, corresponding instructor’s guides, and shared lesson plans and ideas among colleagues and friends. Despite this, open source material for distance courses has always been controversial—like online education itself, causing faculty to worry that their role is diminishing.

Our priority now needs to be student learning. We need to give students the best chance we can at strong outcomes for courses designed on the fly. We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel right now.

MIT Open Courseware and the California State University’s MERLOT are two of the best-known sources and can be a good place to start. There are also many useful discipline-specific resources, such as the ChemCollective, which provides free, online chemistry lab simulations. Coursera has made its courses free during the crisis, and faculty should consider using these paired with their own facilitated discussions, supplementary materials, and peer-to-peer work.

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