Life for the traditional college student looks very different today. What can we learn from studies done in remote learning environments that can help address challenges and create positive experiences for students while normal life remains in suspension?
At Mad*Pow, we’ve done extensive research with college students who go to school online, in-person, or in a blended environment. This research can help inform colleges and universities that are facing the challenge of supporting traditional college students who now must conduct their learning online due to the current public health crisis. These institutions must focus on meeting students’ needs in this new online environment, providing a sense of community without a physical campus, and reassuring students and parents that the school will still provide exceptional value for their tuition dollars.
Based on data gathered, it’s clear that colleges and universities must identify and address resource and access needs that have been provoked by the changes in the learning environment. They must assure their students that they can still provide a supportive learning experience, and they must help students tackle new challenges and develop critical skills that will help them succeed in an environment that’s likely to have a strong remote learning component for the foreseeable future. Academic institutions that take these essential actions will succeed, and more importantly, so will their students.
Address Resource and Access Needs
Many college students were abruptly sent home this spring to participate in the rest of their semester remotely. This sudden change resulted in significant upheaval for students and a host of new concerns. How could they afford the unexpected transportation expense of getting themselves and their belongings off campus? What would happen to on-campus jobs or planned internships? What if “home” doesn’t have a quiet space for learning or reliable internet access? Schools had to scramble to help solve these unanticipated challenges, and in many cases the solutions were temporary. Now, however schools now have time to plan for the challenges students will face as long as remote learning is the safer option. For the upcoming semester and beyond, in a remote or blended environment, schools must help all students succeed, including ensuring access to technology, internet, and a safe space to learn and study.
There are proactive steps schools can take to help their students succeed. Schools can enlist the help of academic advisors, who likely have a personal relationship with their students, to reach out and work to understand individual levels of need so that students can be put in the best position to succeed away from the physical campus. Pending need (including definitions of need adjusted to account for the economic impact of COVID-19) schools should provide students with a device on which they can attend class, study, and interact with other students as needed. Advisors can also direct students to free hotspot and home WIFI resources, or reallocate scholarship funds to cover those costs as necessary.
Create a Supportive Learning Experience
The classroom environment and the rules by which students’ performances are judged cannot remain the same when the landscape shifts so drastically. Schools should consider redefining what successful class participation looks like in this new remote environment. In addition, they should implement plans to foster a supportive learning experience while students cannot physically be in the same space. Plans should focus on supporting the well-being of students, fostering community in spite of the isolation, and leaning into the relevance of the current public health crisis to seize it as a learning opportunity.
First and foremost, schools should recognize that the whole community is under extreme stress, and the well-being of both students and staff should be a top priority. Schools should work with their health insurance provider to offer telemedicine options, with an emphasis on supports for mental health. The uncertainty of the current situation is anxiety-provoking, so schools should provide relevant COVID-19 updates on a regular basis. It will help students to know when they can expect to hear from the school so they can emotionally and logistically prepare to hear it.
Recognizing that the current situation is extremely isolating, especially for students who expect to study and live amongst hundreds of their peers, schools should facilitate spaces for students to share their thoughts and feelings on the experience of living and learning a socially distant environment, and allow classmates to connect and support each other. Create opportunities for students to connect outside of class, rather than asking them to do so on their own. Given that the digital environment is arguably just as important for professional networking, bolstering students’ online connection- and relationship-building skills will not only support them now, socially and emotionally, but also prepare them for the future as they build a career.
Coursework also offers an opportunity to work with, rather than against, the cognitive load students bear as a result of constant news and information about the virus. Rather than trying to pull students away from thinking about the virus, pivot coursework to address topics relevant to the events at hand. Sociology, for instance, can talk about the social disparities brought to the forefront by the healthcare response to the virus; political science can talk about how the virus is shaping public discourse and campaign strategies. Nearly every subject can address topics relevant to the virus so that students can continue learning without needing to do the extra labor to compartmentalize what they are thinking about at all times. Tying students’ learning to the current moment can enrich their experience, as well as help them cope with the uncertainty as the situation evolves.
Help Students Tackle Challenges and Develop Critical Skills
Traditional students that enrolled in college prior to spring 2020 had done so with the understanding that they’d be learning face-to-face with their teachers and peers. The sudden change to their reality comes with unanticipated challenges to their success in the classroom. Colleges and universities should help students adapt to the challenges (distractions, exhaustion, comprehension barriers, etc.) presented by the new remote environment, and redefine what it means to be successful in the classroom.
Schools should focus on helping students develop critical skills that they can carry forward when they are able to return to the physical classroom. For example, many students come into college without having mastered the skill of effective note-taking—students we spoke to experienced a paradox where they wanted to capture every word the professor said, but did not want to use a computer (the easiest mechanism for taking rapid notes) for fear that the professor might think they were focusing on something other than coursework, and so spent the entire class trying to hand-write verbatim quotes. Providing students with the opportunity to learn better note-taking tactics will help them in remote learning situations, as well as when they return to the classroom.
School administrations should also be sure to insist on regular, scheduled break time during class so that students can look away from their screen or give their minds a rest. Teachers and administrators need to recognize the exhaustion that staring at a screen all day can provoke, and work on strategies to help students clear their heads and reset so they can learn effectively. In addition, professors and administrators need to give students strategies for combating distractions, which can be plentiful for student trying to learn in a busy home environment.
Finally, colleges and universities must recognize that some students will have difficulty comprehending new material in an online environment in ways that would not happen if they were in a classroom. Students struggling with comprehension in an online learning environment must be given extra support—and understanding what kind of support they need must come from conversations with those students.
Supporting Students Through Remote Learning Will Lead to Success in The Classroom
No one could have anticipated that challenges for colleges and universities that were brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, but now that the initial shock has passed, the path forward is clearer. Remote learning is likely to be part of the college and university experience for at least another year or two. While schools took rapid steps to address the change in environment during the onset of the pandemic, the advance notice for the conditions in which students will learn during the fall semester requires a more permanent set of solutions. Here, we’ve talked about what we learned through our work with students; but to create a solution that will effectively and successfully meet the needs of each schools’ student body, the students’ voices must be heard. Conversations about the mental burden of the virus, the challenges students are facing while learning off campus, and the new needs they have are a necessary part of co-creating any solution. Supporting students through remote learning with help them develop skills that will allow them to succeed, not just during remote learning, but also when they return to the physical classroom.