Students and instructors are migrating to online learning as a global pandemic shutters campuses

Transitioning to online learning in higher education

Students and instructors are migrating to online learning as a global pandemic shutters campuses

Remind faculty that the most important thing in the academic process is to continue to keep the spirit of learning and discovery alive in their classrooms, and they have control over this. The first session of a course that has been shifted from face-to-face instruction into virtual instruction may not be perfect as the students and faculty adjust to the new environment, but this is also an opportunity to engage in a learning process of change management and working through adversity. Additionally, students still crave the knowledge from our valued faculty, and even though these classes may not be in the physical environment, the words and knowledge we share still have power regardless of the avenue we use as long as we make our focus on our students and their learning outcomes. During this time faculty should remember to be both empathetic to themselves as they are adjusting to a change, and as well to extend empathy to students as they are in a transition process together.

For students who don’t have experience with online learning, where’s a good place to start?

The best place to start with students (like faculty) is with sound change management principles. First make the students aware of the “why” behind the change, and why the specific online or virtual tools at your disposal are the best fit for students to continue to learn during this timeframe. Next, provide information about “how” they will use the online instructional tools and resources to increase their knowledge around the functions that exist in the online learning environment. From there, you want to let the student know “what” to do if they have any additional questions and what resources exist that are surrounding them as support during this transition.

To assist students with the adjustment process, schools may also want to leverage students’ pre-existing digital literacy competencies to help ease the transition process. For example, many students have used synchronous teleconferencing tools and social media applications that often mirror functions in the online learning environment. Providing students this frame of reference as a corollary can assist with the adoption process as you find analogous examples to your online learning environment. Ultimately, the process of learning requires the exchange of thoughts, ideas, and information with an avenue for assessment; and focusing on these aspects and a virtual environment still allows for this to occur.

How can schools make sure their students with accessibility issues are being taken care of?

There are two parts to ensuring that the needs of students with disabilities are being met during the transition to digital courses: accommodations and alternative access plans. First, students may need different accommodations in an online or virtual class meeting than they do for in-person class meetings. Both closed captioning and ASL interpreters may be needed for students who are deaf or who experience hearing loss, but other accommodations may include notetakers, more frequent breaks to account for increased screen time and fatigue, as well as navigation assistance with unfamiliar technology. It is important that institutions make students aware of how they can request accommodations should they need them and publish this information with updates regarding the transition.

Institutions that use technology that does not meet accessibility guidelines will need to think through alternative access plans for students affected. This may mean developing alternative assignments and different ways of demonstrating learning. Doing this starts with a review of the learning objectives and goals of the course to determine what is an essential element. Keep in mind that some concepts were taught on college campuses long before educational companies developed tools and programs that do it for us now. Faculty may have to go back to the basics, provide additional resources outside of the inaccessible technology, and think creatively about developing alternatives. Those alternatives can range from documenting (in writing or via audio or video) what a student would do to complete a task without actually completing it with inaccessible technology to discussing practical applications that demonstrate the mastery of the skill or competency being assessed. Institutions may also provide assistants, readers and/or scribes to their students with disabilities to meet the learning needs. All of these alternatives will need to be discussed with faculty, disability services, and the student to be sure that learning and access needs are met.

Should universities and colleges worry about finals or major projects during this period?

When working on a transition like this, it is important to not worry, but rather take a moment to analyze and assess the goals of the learning outcomes. Generally, in an online learning environment, students can take exams or submit major projects with similar fidelity as physical classroom courses. Although this may not be an exact duplication, with some thought and consideration, many learning objectives can be still assessed in a virtual environment. Although many topic areas can be assessed in a virtual manner, there are some subject areas or skill-based assessments that may not be able to transfer well to an online environment. In those cases, faculty and administration should try to determine if there is a way to adjust the assessment to still validate that the student’s learning goals have been met. If not, administration should look to move the assessment and incorporate into future courses other alternatives to validate that the student has the appropriate knowledge and skills to proceed with their program and meet the outcomes you have designed for that degree program.

How can universities and colleges better support their faculty through this transition?

The best way to support faculty through this transition is to ensure resources exist in both a self-service/on-demand fashion, and to give them real-time support services through live training sessions. Support during a transition like this requires us to use multiple channels of communication.

Most of all, it is ok for faculty to not be perfect during this timeframe– let them know that this is ok. Learning is a process for all of us, and as we adapt to change or a new system, it is the spirit of discovery that sustain us, and not the fear of failure that will overwhelm us.

Is there a silver lining – online teaching practices that can improve courses even when they go back to face-to-face?

The world of work today demands adaptability and an unprecedented skill set with digital tools and collaboration. There are definitely silver linings that exist in a transition like this, including:

1. Digital Literacy – A transition like this has individuals adapt to the digital literacy change curve quickly. In a knowledge and information- based society, having skills in digital literacy is essential, and the use of these tools to learn and collaborate gives us a real world application tin increase our abilities.
2. Enhanced Feedback – In an online or virtual environment, students and faculty quickly learn that clear and concise feedback is king. When making a change like this the requirements to hone one’s ability to give good feedback will become very apparent. This change will give the opportunity for both faculty and students to assess the ways they communicate with each other and provide feedback, which could make for improved communication in the classroom when they return to face-to-face instruction.
3. Change Management Skills – Necessity is called the mother of invention, and a transition like this one forces us to look in the mirror at our ability to handle and manage change. This kind of experience can improve our abilities to pivot in a unique situation, which can help students adapt to change when they return to their physical class environments. In fact, this can be used as a learning opportunity to discuss the concept of change when students return to their physical classes as a self-assessment and discovery process for a rich in-class discussion opportunity.

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