As students have incorporated it into their workflow, engagement with the resource has expanded. It is now a thriving community of students sharing ideas, finding times to work together, and getting support from experts. We learned that creating a self-sustained group of learners may require a minimum number of participants. Below that threshold, the communications platform might need to be subsidized by instructional staff to reach critical engagement.
Creating study pods
To better foster peer learning, and to address an initial lack of discussion in Zoom breakout rooms during lecture, we created “study pods.” These are curated groups of students who have the same lab, recitation (optional), and attend the same lecture. They are given a private Slack channel to collaborate and will always be grouped together in Zoom breakout rooms.
This consistency has helped foster a familiarity that gets students engaging more. It is still a challenge to get students talking sometimes, but that is not a new problem unique to online learning. We find giving them a direct goal that includes a deliverable, no matter how small, helps move the conversations forward. Much of our online curriculum is about small digestible steps, where students work together to move everyone forward.
There are two key lessons we’ve learned thus far through our experience with Ecampus.
• There is a need to create real community because remote students already feel disconnected. They need to know there is a structure out there that they are an integral part of. Everyone has a role and their own personal goals, but the community shares a common thread. We have created a multi-level support system that provides students with a variety of people and spaces to interact with–they have a study pod to ask questions, a class channel, a lab and recitation TA, a host of LAs, and the instructors.
• We have to provide as much flexibility as possible. We have stopped being strict about deadlines on almost every aspect of the course. The percentage of late work has not increased appreciably and the amount of positive affect expressed by the students has been inspiring. They feel respected when we acknowledge their other obligations and priorities. Add a pandemic and extreme weather events and the “life happens” category becomes very real. Combine respecting personal lives and access to more diverse and free study materials, and you have a flexibility that works for more learners.
There are also (at least) two great challenges that we still face.
• We need to find better ways to make connections between students. Despite all our efforts to get students connected, busy schedules, a diverse population, and varying time zones still leave room for improvement. We would like to build a system we call AsyncSync, where students working on the same assignment are automatically suggested to work together and provided video chat and a shared whiteboard. With nearly 600 students, there is always someone else working on the same thing and we just need to find a way to connect them.
• We have had signs of academic dishonesty in our formative assessments during the pandemic, the only part of our curriculum where collaboration is not allowed. We have learned that synchronous events, no longer than 30 minutes each, prevent answers showing up on sites like Chegg.com, but they do not prevent students working together. And while short synchronous events may decrease cases of academic dishonesty, it is at direct odds with our goal of increased flexibility.
Before the pandemic our Ecampus students took two midterms and a final exam at physical testing centers. This was expensive and a logistical load. Almost all of the students prefer the weekly quiz model we’ve adopted in lieu of exams, and we’d like to keep this model, but integrity of the events is not secure. We solicit ideas from the community on this matter.
Looking back, we were well prepared for the pandemic. When on-campus students moved to remote learning, only two things changed: 1) students attended lecture from home rather than the lecture hall and 2) we had to find an at-home lab solution that didn’t require a physical kit (we couldn’t pivot fast enough to provide 500+ physical Ecampus lab kits).
When we go back to in-person operations, the flexibility and online community that was designed for Ecampus students will continue to support all students.