E-learning as part of the toolbox

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Much has been written about the lessons of the Covid-19-induced pivot to distance learning in higher education, but a recent article in the New York Times titled “My students are not doing well,” caught my attention. The author – a university teacher – shared his experience of low attendance, substandard work, disengaged students and lower achievement, noting that many colleagues had seen the same trends. He advocated for more in-person classes and engagement, demonizing online learning. “You can’t learn to use a microscope online,” he writes. Although the author noted that even now, with many students back in live classrooms, they are still not functioning at pre-pandemic levels.

Many studies and anecdotes point to the deterioration of student performance during the pandemic and cite distance learning as the reason. There seems to be a causal movement that a strict online learning regimen is bad for students at all levels and a return to in-person teaching is the answer.

I have spent over 15 years in academia and industry driving innovation in education, developing K-12 applied learning and at Coursera, delivering courses in instructors and leading institutions to all students, regardless of location or opportunity. I studied pedagogy and analyzed the results, learning from my mistakes and my successes.

My conclusion ? Students need the best tools we can give them, in tandem, all the time, in combinations that work for them. These tools include remote and online instruction.

Why? On the one hand, students learn at different speeds. Some students master something new the first time they try it. Others will need a lot of repetitions. It’s hard to accommodate both in a live classroom where the real-time demands of the majority of students can dictate how many repetitions can be done for those who don’t grasp a concept. For them, the ability to learn at their own pace and to repeat difficult exercises is vital. Additionally, the provision of online learning options recognizes that some students are embarrassed to admit in front of their peers that they “don’t understand” when everyone else seems to understand. Yes, they can make an appointment with their instructor but again, the possibility of “rehearsing if necessary” may be limited by availability.

Conversely, students who pick things up quickly may want to move on to more difficult tasks. They will look to their instructor for ways to challenge them and lead them in directions that build on their interest and curiosity.

We have a generation of young people who have grown up with personal devices that allow them to personalize everything that is important to them: playlists, blogs, chats. They successfully communicate with friends, family, and partners, expressing their passions and interests through remote devices. For the most part, they understand how to use these devices effectively for their needs. Why shouldn’t it be the same for learning?

E-learning as part of the toolbox

I will be the first to admit that our rapid shift to distance learning, driven by Covid-19, was not a resounding success, but was necessary given the situation at the time. Online instruction is not the problem. Ineffective online instruction is.

So rather than debating whether remote learning is good or bad, we should focus on how we combine it with in-person teaching to make the overall education offer better for each student.

Instructors, researchers, administrators, and students have spent the past two years analyzing what worked well, what didn’t, and how to identify areas where technology can most effectively amplify the good while minimizing the evil. What’s the right mix of live, instructor-led and distance learning, technology-enabled teaching and pedagogy to take us to the next level?

The exact distribution will depend on the student and the program. This individualization is only possible with technological tools that provide equitable access and engagement, regardless of when or how the student engages.

So far, we’ve learned that community is important to students and that forcing them to learn through the two-way mirror of an online meeting with minimal engagement leads to isolation. There is no shortage of communities on the internet, full of people who have never met in person, so we know that online-only environments can breed engaged people.

We also learned that instructors and students need flexibility, with guardrails. We should work towards an “anywhere, anytime” approach, using digital tools to connect students in both synchronous and asynchronous learning modes, to bring out the best in everyone. A clear definition of how each mode, in-person on campus, online, and hybrid (online students joining a class on campus via video) is used is needed, with asynchronous learning being the glue that holds the learning together online together.

We know that edtech tools can support active learning with collaborative documents, virtual whiteboards, group discussions and presentations, and puzzle activities. Frequent knowledge checks are made possible by real-time quizzes and polls integrated into online course materials, helping to keep students engaged.

Distance learning is not the problem, nor the message; it’s just the medium. It is up to us to ensure that each student gets the message so they can learn, in their own way, at their own pace. This is the potential of remote learning – and it would be a giant leap backwards to abandon it now.

Andreina Parisi-Amon is Vice President for Learning and Teaching at Engageli.

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