“I don’t say ‘reading’ anymore. I say ‘absorbing.’” It was late February, and an old acquaintance and I were sharing dissertation plans and comparing notes on the world’s current state of affairs which was, when matched to today, mild. Admittedly, my knee-jerk reaction to her verbiage was to roll my eyes.
But after months of further consideration against the backdrop of the Covid-19 global crisis and the typhoon of demand for remote learning, I find the point she was making to be glaringly critical. After all, ‘to absorb’ speaks to a transformational experience of multidimensional growth, a far cry from mindless transactional encounters or those in which the learner is the one ‘to be absorbed.’
There’s little argument that the trend toward online education didn’t just undergo a massive acceleration. Colleges and universities have been thrust into exclusively online environments, and many will likely continue to offer these experiences even after the social distancing demands of Covid-19 no longer require them to do so.
As they do, however, they will need to account for the social and emotional development that is an essential part of the on-campus college experience, both inside and outside the classroom. Just because more of our personal and work lives are likely to move online in the coming years, experts agree that the need for soft skills will continue – if not grow. But as higher education experiences move into exclusively online environments, the dissection of these two juxtaposed concepts – to absorb vs. to be absorbed – will be essential in creating highly attractive collegiate experiences.
And while there are myriad benefits from this virtual learning shift, including more flexible scheduling and potentially more personalized learning content, online environments will add complexity to existing challenges and birth new ones. As this critical piece in Salon examines, the onslaught of lawsuits piling up from students who feel jilted from the collegiate experiences they were paying for during the 2020 spring semester is a clear indication of the sometimes gargantuan gaps students can feel in an online environment.
Take our collective recent video conferencing experiences, for example. Compared to a few hours of in-person work, the challenges of video delays, pixelated imagery, and audio distortions can create an exhausting and often unsatisfying interpersonal experience. Author Kate Murphy wrote recently in The New York Times of the psychological hazards related to the dramatic uptick in video conferencing, “Our brains strain to fill the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy, and tired without quite knowing why.” Surely students experiencing such challenges aren’t absorbing the learning experience, but rather being absorbed by it, and such fatigue doesn’t bode well for either student performance or university reputation.
With all this in mind, university leadership will need not only be cautious of this dynamic, but also provide top-tier course development training for faculty and construct feedback loops to ensure the holistic efficacy of student advancement in virtual classrooms. And they will have to foster and account for the social interactions between peers that bond students with each other – and to institutions.
Again, the goal is to cultivate an experience in which students are absorbing the full fruits of their digital learning experience, not being absorbed by it.
To understand the best ways to create that kind of experience, I spoke to experts across academia, industry and tech ethics about how higher education institutions can bridge the social and emotional connections between on-campus and online educational experiences.
Build an Online Community
The experts I spoke to were adamant that creating a successful online learning experience requires recreating that sense of on-campus community online.
“Higher ed should be doubling down on community. But how do we build a sense of community in an online environment?” asked tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar, founder of All Tech is Human.
Polgar said universities should think of online education as the 2.0 version of the traditional in-person experience, with a wide variety of social interactions baked in – and that professors are crucial facilitators of those engagements.
“Professors should be stimulating conversations and connections that are unrelated to the class material, serving as a substitute for the important social interactions in a physical college setting that can form social bonds, offer stress relief or spark curiosity,” he said.
But the burden of fostering peer-to-peer interaction can’t fall solely on professors. It has to be built into the structure of the program and enabled by the tech platform, said John Kerner, chief marketing officer at Yellowbrick, which creates online learning platforms for schools and brands.
“There are some elements that should be built into any good online learning environment to keep students from feeling as if they are isolated on a ‘self-serve’ island,” said Kerner. “These include facilitated community interactions among students, private groups for them to connect and support each other directly, and some kind of ‘live’ engagement – whether guest lectures, office hours, etc.”
Let people know that they should expect, and even welcome, awkward silences. The natural pauses people take in conversation can feel difficult on camera unless people are prepared for them.” – Lucy Suros, Articulate
Ultimately, students do much of their bonding in environments – and through conversations – unrelated to academics, and schools need to create those opportunities in virtual settings.
“Don’t limit these moments of connection to formal learning experiences,” said Lucy Suros, president of Articulate, which creates online learning courses for corporations. “Try organizing social hours and games that students can participate in digitally, using the platforms that are already so integral to their lives.”
Formal and informal communication is a critical component of any higher-ed community, and Suros believes schools can’t communicate with their students too much – but that they have to be precise and thoughtful in how they do it.
“There are no water coolers, no hallways, no dining halls and no chances to gather information by osmosis when you’re working, studying or learning remotely,” she said. “Everyone – administrators, instructors, and students alike – needs to be intentional about communication in a virtual learning environment, deciding what kind of information needs to be shared, who it needs to be shared with, how it will be shared, and when it will be shared. And please, consolidate your communication so students aren’t always hunting and scrambling to find one of 10 daily emails they get from your institution.
Foster Classroom Engagement
In traditional campus settings, there are often a variety of ad hoc safety nets available to ensure students are progressing academically, from a professor reading a student’s body language in the classroom to spontaneous interactions with administrative staff in hallways. Without these same solutions available in online formats, professors can help bridge the gap by interacting with students directly in one-on-one sessions, and by mandating group projects with their peers.
“We need to first change our language from ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing.’ We don’t want social distancing. We need physical distancing.” – Bernadette Melnyk, Ohio State University
Cindy McCauley, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School Online Master’s Programs, believes that programs with small class or cohort sizes that emphasize peer-to-peer and student-faculty interactions are essential to closing the social-emotional gap in online programs. This approach creates close, long-lasting connections between students that rival any on-campus program; Tepper even boasts two students who met in the online program and eventually married.
Of course, classwork doesn’t just happen in the classroom. Much as on-campus students get together at the library or student center to work on group projects, online students need their out-of-class spaces to connect. That can include setting up group chats and Zoom-based discussions that take place outside of scheduled class time for more informal discussions.
And while there is no replacement for face-to-face interaction, video chats – however imperfect – are as close as schools can get because they let users read the facial expressions and reactions of the people they’re speaking to. To make them those interactions effective, schools must set ground rules and common expectations for video interactions, said Suros.
“Tell them you expect them to be on camera, and clearly visible,” Suros said. “Mute everyone unless they are talking. Set ground rules for how people should signal they’d like to unmute and talk. And let people know that they should expect, and even welcome, awkward silences. The natural pauses people take in conversation can feel difficult on camera unless people are prepared for them, and simply accept their awkwardness.”
Build (or Buy) User-Friendly Platforms
Students will only engage with each other and their professors – whether in or out of the virtual classroom – if the platforms they’re given work well, and are tailored to the tasks at hand. Programs that succeed will blend strong curriculums with great UX design in their platforms that will foster student engagement.
“Students will tune out if they are learning on a clunky, ugly, hard-to-use learning platform that delivers static, text-heavy content,” Suros said. “The right platform should be able to include videos and images, interactive activities that offer lean-forward moments, scenarios that help draw students into real-world situations they can relate to, and knowledge checks that reinforce key concepts.”
Colleges and universities would do well to look to private industry for examples of digital platforms – Amazon, Netflix and Spotify, among others – that put the user front and center with customizable interfaces that enable engagement, said Ann Marie Sastry, CEO and founder of Amesite, which creates AI-driven educational software.
“First you break down, or eliminate, barriers – designing easy-to-use systems – and then you add value with customization,” she said. “So there is a very, very clear path – use design cues in experiences that integrate tools and channels effortlessly like videoconferencing and streaming, and integrability with social media, and also use AI to customize user environments.”
Monitor Student Wellness
Online higher education may well continue to grow in the coming years, but many students have been thrust into it not by choice, but necessity; the sudden requirements of social distancing induced by the coronavirus outbreak were challenging and even traumatic enough for students, who are now subsequently grappling with monumental social and political upheavals.
Faculty and administrators need to keep a close virtual eye on the wellbeing of their students. Loneliness contributes to depression and is a major problem for college students even when they’re physically surrounded by others. That anxiety may be exacerbated in online learning scenarios, so universities need to be prepared to support students emotionally from a distance, said Dr. Bernadette Melnyk, VP for health promotion and the chief wellness officer at Ohio State University.
“We need to first change our language from ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing.’ We don’t want social distancing. We need physical distancing,” Melnyk said. “Wellness assessments that include engagement questions as mental health screening should be routinely offered. Mental health problems are the major reason that students are no longer in college. We must equip our students with cognitive-behavioral skills and mindfulness as well as other resiliency attributes, such as connection, before serious mental health problems arise.”
“The pandemic has exposed the importance of the user experiences in higher ed.” – Ann Marie Sastry, Amesite
The need for that kind of monitoring and outreach is particularly acute right now, said Polgar.
“The extraordinary circumstances with Covid-19 – financial concerns, health concerns, and major disruption from not being able to plan for the future – mean that learning can often seem secondary in importance,” he said. “Higher ed should constantly remind itself that many students now placed in an online learning environment may have a deficit of community and self-efficacy.”
Polgar said schools need to check in with their students regularly – even daily – right now, and must create cultures that emphasize self-care as a gateway to successful learning, a sentiment that Melnyk echoed. The payoff for schools that can do this is that happy, healthy students are also more engaged students, said Melnyk.
“If students are socially/emotionally engaged as well as in optimal mental well-being, they will perform better academically,” she said.
Measure Your Success
No program in any sector can succeed without effective metrics for monitoring progress. As higher ed moves toward more widespread adoption of virtual learning, it will be critical that schools devise ways to measure the success of these programs. The experts I spoke with said that would ideally be a mix of digital engagement metrics, feedback via surveys and other, less tangible indicators of student sentiment.
“One way to measure whether your online learning experiences are engaging is to, well, measure engagement,” said Suros. “Your learning platform should include analytics that show how much time students are spending on a lesson and how they’ve performed on quizzes, for example. These can serve as proxies for how engaged your students really are.”
“Universities and colleges should be asking more questions, more frequently, related to user experience: ‘Did you understand the course rules? Were you able to access materials? Did you have the opportunity to form communities or networks? Were you treated well, and respectfully?’” – Ann Marie Sastry, Amesite
Kerner said schools can use metrics to measure the engagement with the platform, not just the coursework. These can include tallying the number of interactions students have with each other, the percent of the online student body interacting on the platform, and measuring the sentiment of student comments and feedback.
“If students are happy enough with the overall experience that they will recommend it to friends, that is a good signal that they are socially and emotionally engaged in the learning experience,” Kerner said.
Sastry said that asking students directly is essential to evaluating the performance of online programs.
“Universities and colleges should be asking more questions, more frequently, related to user experience,” she said. “‘Did you understand the course rules? Were you able to access materials? Did you have the opportunity to form communities or networks? Were you treated well, and respectfully?’”
McCauley, of Carnegie Mellon, said direct feedback is invaluable – but it doesn’t just have to come through surveys.
“There are also measures like the Class Gift in which the graduating class donates to the school upon finishing the program,” she said, “Our last graduating class had 100-percent participation in the Class Gift, which is a strong measure of engagement and satisfaction with their overall experience. ”
Sink or Swim
While there may be a near-endless list of deeply troubling occurrences taking place across the national and global stage at the moment, education is sitting on an exciting – if challenging – precipice. Change is always painful, and colleges and universities didn’t plan to adopt online learning programs at such a large scale, at least not this soon.
The higher education institutions that thoughtfully employ learning technologies to create meaningful community and high-impact experiences that students can absorb will be catapulted into a riveting new frontier, crafting the next generation of leaders at all levels.
Those, however, that move into the virtual space with more transactional offerings based on information exchange alone and that fail to implement holistic feedback loops are sure to fall to the wayside quickly.
Sastry said it’s a good thing this is happening because it means that, ultimately, more people will have access to higher education.
“The pandemic has exposed the importance of the user experiences in higher ed,” she said. “And that is a silver lining in all of this, because learning is the most important thing that humanity does and our goal should not be to ‘weed out’ and disqualify learners, but rather purposefully engage and advance more learning.
Sarah Parker Ward
Sarah Parker Ward is a doctoral candidate at Boston University's Emerging Media Studies program.
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