COVID-19 did not initiate the movement to online learning – that’s been happening for decades. But it sure has accelerated it, with academic departments scrambling to procure delivery software and IT infrastructure to move live courses online and help instructors and students adapt.

Possibly lost in the kerfuffle is consideration of the one element that interconnects everything else: facilitating a positive student experience in online examinations and academic work.

Related content: Best practices in online proctoring

In times of disruptive transition, what makes that student experience positive? The answer is simple to state, and, honestly, difficult to accomplish – ensuring fairness, transparency, and trust. Although they may seem so, these are not subjective concepts, but they are challenging to get right.

Accomplishing fairness

It would seem that everyone being online would create an even playing field. But really, with varying degrees of skill and experience in online learning among administrators, teachers, and students, fairness is not a given and must be at the center of pedagogical decisions. That’s not easy because so many of us are doing things for the first time. For example, one recent survey by Cengage showed that more than half (56 percent) of all institutions that moved courses online “were using teaching methods that they had never used before.”

How does this apply to fairness? Think through assessments as an example. Assessments taken in classrooms during exam periods are proctored live with faculty in the room; projects and papers are evaluated by an instructor in campus offices or presented by students during class sessions. Personal presence and attention are the historical benchmarks for ensuring assessments are fair and objective.

But what happens when we put our exams and project/paper assessments online? How do we ensure the administration is fair for all students, and that the system has integrity? Many do this through live online proctoring.

Since 2008, StraighterLine has used online proctoring to ensure the integrity of the courses we offer. In fact, we found this pedagogical innovation so positive to the student experience that in 2012, we required all StraighterLine assessments to be proctored online. In April 2020, we had 3,300 assessments proctored, and not one student said, “I shouldn’t have to do this.” Proctoring assessments for online education has been the standard for assessment quality, authenticity, and student fairness since online proctoring has been available.

Accomplishing transparency

A second cornerstone of positive student experience is transparency. During this time of transition, students will have thousands of questions. Questions about deadlines, content, synchronous class sessions, and of course, assessments. That’s a good thing; embrace the dialogue these questions create. Transparency means to clearly communicate expectations and standards, being sure to address every question asked.

Make your policies easy to find, including those for assessments, and share them preemptively. Make sure students know whom they can contact with questions. Nine times out of 10, just knowing the rules is sufficient for students – and having the rules be visible and easily obtainable gives instructors and administrators confidence on how to proceed in what may be a new world for them.

Trust, transparency, and fairness in the new normal of online learning

The new release of a Student Bill of Rights for Remote and Digital Work, recently published by ProctorU, is a good example. It outlines “seven essential rights students should expect while participating in online learning and assessment.” It’s a great starting resource for schools and institutions to evaluate and use for their programs. With millions more students now going through the process of remote testing, it’s essential to set some baseline standards for what students can expect. (Full disclosure: StraighterLine gave input and advice during the drafting of the Student’s Bill of Rights and I have endorsed it.)

Accomplishing trust

Ultimately, a positive student experience is a constant endeavor to build trust between the student and the institution. There are so many ways to build trust and implementing the fairness and transparency measures described above go a long way towards its foundation. As with brick-and-mortar education, outstanding faculty, well-crafted courses, and easily-accessible resources are necessary to build trust with students online.

Trust also comes from ease of use, a clear understanding of how something is going to work, efficiency, and speed. Whether it’s test assessment or something else, education leaders would do well to not “test drive” technologies that students use. Instead, find providers and systems that have been in use for some time, where the kinks are ironed out and the process is optimized. Trust breaks when technology breaks.

With over 20 years of online experience, the one precept that has helped me keep everything in perspective is to frequently ask: What’s best for the student experience? In this light, remember that integrating a positive student experience with fairness, transparency, and trust will make the move to online more successful for everyone.

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About the Author:

Amy Smith is the Chief Learning Officer at officer at StraighterLine, a provider of online college courses. She has taught and led online higher education for over two decades at several high-profile institutions.


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