Digital tools and online learning can and should be more than just a substitute for in-person instruction--and COVID proved why.

Antiquated online learning failed COVID’s test


Digital tools and online learning can and should be more than just a substitute for in-person instruction

It’s been about two years since many faculty first shifted their physical classrooms and labs online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For almost everyone in academia across undergraduate and graduate levels, the pandemic sparked a disruptive shift from face-to-face instruction to distance online learning.

Online teaching has evolved through emergency phases, from the original pivot to remote teaching, to a hybrid return model on many campuses, to how faculty are teaching today. The switches back and forth between in-person, hybrid, and remote learning are challenging as is; for students studying complex STEM subjects, these shifts can be even more difficult.

Many students aren’t getting the support they need to truly master the subject matter online. In a 2021 study, of the 78 percent of students who had already declared a STEM major,15 percent have or were considering leaving STEM for other disciplines and 26 percent reported the pandemic was impacting their degree completion.

Improving online learning experiences in STEM courses should be prioritized so that students have the support they need to reach their full potential in these fields. The pandemic forced educators to innovate and teach in new ways. It simultaneously provided an opportunity to reexamine the role of technology and learning tools in teaching. Digital learning solutions and online platforms can and should be more than just a “substitute” for in-person instruction, but instead, tools that help faculty to enhance learning and outcomes whether students are learning in-person, in hybrid environments or online.

Modern digital learning platforms can help faculty to measure students’ knowledge, provide opportunities for students to practice concepts throughout a lesson at their own pace, and provide new types of assessments that provide more immediate feedback with a variety of types of questions. Here are some ways digital tools can be used to improve learning experiences and outcomes for higher-ed STEM students.

Online learning tools need to be engaging for the learner while simultaneously supporting the faculty. Students learn by doing.

Many are aware that the most serious barrier to successfully teaching STEM courses online, as reported by respondents, is a perceived lack of student engagement with online coursework.

Advanced digital learning platforms can better engage students by allowing them to learn by doing. Learning by doing, rather than by theory, equips students with a solid foundation in fundamentals that they can build on and apply in future coursework and beyond.

There’s no doubt faculty want to improve online teaching, but they often have limited time and resources to do so. Engaging digital learning tools should help faculty by providing:

  1. High-quality multimedia visualizations that can bring difficult STEM concepts to life
  2. Varied modes of assessment to support academic integrity and allow students to demonstrate true understanding of concepts
  3. Gamification and other alternative activities online such as simulations, the use of kits, or other laboratory experiences
  4. Opportunities to measure students’ understanding of concepts before assessments so that targeted support can be offered before students fall behind.
  5. An engaging, adaptive, virtually immersive experience. Digital learning tools can provide an interactive learning environment where students receive immediate, meaningful feedback that engages them as they learn while also allowing students to practice at their own pace and in a comfortable atmosphere. Employing the use of AI/machine learning to tailor the knowledge to a person’s specific needs helps avoid the one-size-fits-all approach.

One of the many advantages of online courses is that assessment can become a more continuous process – from lesson delivery and topic discovery to homework, practice, and assessment. This is beneficial for all STEM students because interspersing multimedia content and learning materials with formative and summative assessment presents opportunities for enhanced learning experiences for students to stay more engaged.

With online learning, students have more control over the learning process as well as the opportunity to revisit the training as needed. When students are provided an education tailored to their talents, goals, limitations, and engagement patterns, they excel.

So, why should digital learning tools be utilized in more than just online courses?

Strategically integrating new digital technology into higher education courses has the potential to increase student success and knowledge of key concepts. Adopting digital tools offers additional opportunities for student learning with practice exercises and support. Digital learning platforms can also help schools better support faculty by offering automatic grading and content that faculty can easily customize to their individual teaching, so they can focus on what they do best – teaching and working with students. Ultimately, when students perform better in STEM courses, it helps schools advance student enrollment, retention, and graduation rates in STEM programs.  

Digital learning is here to stay.

Digital learning tools can help schools support and meet the needs of every learner. At many institutions, digital learning platforms and tools were implemented out of necessity during the pandemic. There is now an opportunity to look at how those tools can provide value for in-person classes and be a part of the long-term efforts to support student success.

Temporary pandemic measures have become more permanent with more online and blended education models at many schools. In 2020, higher education braced for the impact of COVID-19 and as a result, 98 percent of institutions moved the majority of their face-to-face classes online. Looking ahead, by 2023, the global online education market is expected to grow to $287 billion, up from $159.52 billion in 2017.

This disruptive shift in educational structures and delivery models has compelled educators to implement new and innovative solutions to help students master complex STEM material no matter where they’re learning. The solutions that schools implemented during the pandemic have moved education further into the future and allowed for many schools to reexamine the role of technology in helping to support student success. 

eSchool Media Contributors