LEARNING IN A PANDEMIC
If you are entering university in 2020 or 2021 you are facing a unique set of circumstances in post-secondary education. Your courses will be taught by faculty who are trying to do their best to teach in a pandemic environment. Before we talk about what this means to you I’d like to quickly review the kinds of learning you may encounter:
Face-to-face: This is what you’re most accustomed to. Face-to-face (F2F) can mean large lectures with a hundred or up to a thousand students in desks watching a prof at the front of the room. It can also mean smaller seminars or tutorials where you may be asked to interact or discuss topics at issue. It can also include laboratories where you might be asked to conduct some procedures.
Online: Here we are talking about a situation where the lectures and exams and discussion are all held in an online environment. There are actually two broad types of online courses; what we call synchronous is when the students and the prof are all online at the same time. In contrast, asynchronous classes include situations in which your professor and their students may be online at totally different times. A common manifestation is when you play pre-recorded lectures at a time that suits you. For both synchronous and asynchronous, another option is for the professor to intentionally record lectures specifically for online presentation or they may record a face-to-face lecture for you to play later.
Hybrid: These are courses where there is some combination of online and face-to-face elements. One particular type that we call flipped is when you watch the lectures on your own time and then get together with others in a face-to-face format to discuss the content and ask and answer questions. Another version of a flipped classroom is when the lectures are face-to-face but the exams and tests are online.
Most of your courses will embody one or more of the above and for both you and your profs this is going to be a somewhat novel experience. Some of your profs who may be fabulous face-to-face teachers may have a hard time transitioning to online and vice-versa. Believe me, teaching online is different from teaching face-to-face. Over the last few years I have taught about 16,000 students in totally online courses; about 2,000 in hybrid courses and roughly 5,000 face-to-face. Teaching online is more difficult and more time-consuming IMHO because you need to plan everything in advance. In contrast, many of your professors in face-to-face classes will just “wing it”.
Since you will be learning and not teaching, why do you care about this? You care because this situation will demand more of you and will ask you to exercise some different skills and you also may have to adjust the expectations of your learning. Let me explain.
Have you ever played with your phone in class? Talked with a friend? Fell asleep? At one time or another most of us have done something that might be considered unacceptable in school. We didn’t misbehave all the time because we might get disapproving looks from our teachers or we might have felt guilty bothering other students who were trying to participate. Unfortunately learning in an online environment means that the rules that would ordinarily help to govern our behaviour will be missing: we can fall asleep during a recorded lecture, we can go and play a video game or just do something on our phones. You can absolutely do all of these and more but you will probably not do very well in that particular class as evidenced by your grades. One of the key secrets to success in an online learning environment is that you have to motivate yourself! You have to police yourself! You have to force yourself to re-do a lesson because you fell asleep the first time! Put a slightly different way, for you to be successful in a pandemic learning environment you are going to have to learn the material and you are going to have to manage yourself a lot more than you might have pre-pandemic. Understood? Elsewhere I talk about some of the tools you might use to help yourself with this task.
Your professors may also be trying some classroom experiments that may not be entirely successful. As I said above, they are probably doing this for the first time too and so give them some slack in terms of ideas and concepts in their teaching that just don’t work out. Maybe it’s trying to conduct a seminar entirely via text or a video meeting with 500 students, you might be seeing some spectacular fails in your classes.
In addition to learning the content of your courses, you are also going to be expected to utilize whatever technology your school has adopted. Most universities use a software called a Learning Management System (LMS) on which many of your online courses will be hosted. The most popular are Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle but there are many others. Your LMS will look like a website but in all likelihood, you will view your course lectures through it, contact your Teaching Assistants or professors using it, possibly engage in online discussions, and probably view your grades in the LMS. Unfortunately, the LMS is not the friendliest piece of software in the world. In addition to the above, it has been designed to help professors post-tests and assignments, grade them, and to also be very secure and private as well. Unless you are comfortable with your school’s LMS you will be at a distinct disadvantage with respect to your learning. Also, because an LMS can be customized to some extent by each individual professor, often each course may behave differently even though they are all posted on the same LMS. If there are instructional videos or other learning opportunities to help you get comfortable with your LMS take advantage of them otherwise you may find yourself up against a deadline with no idea how to access the relevant assignment!
A related issue has to do with your own personal technology. You are probably going to need a desktop or laptop computer with enough Random Access Memory (RAM) to handle lecture videos. You will also need a wireless connection that is reliable and fast enough to download those course videos. Many of us forget how unreliable our connections can be. If all we’re doing is watching funny cat videos some pixelation and downloading problems can be forgiven. However, if you’re relying on that video to tell you about some key part of your next exam you may find that your internet connectivity isn’t as good as it needs to be. As a simple test, make a note of how often the videos you stream freeze or cause your computer to crash. If it happens too often you may need to do some upgrades before school starts. I know some students try to get away with just a smartphone but you are really putting yourself at a disadvantage. I really feel sorry for anyone who tries to type a 5,000-word essay on their phone! Optionally, some courses may require you to have a working webcam and/or microphone. Make sure you read the course outlines carefully to determine requirements and leave room in your budget to acquire the necessary tech.
Another change you are going to have to navigate involves your expectations. This plays out in several ways: the quality of the teaching you experience is likely to be much lower than you would otherwise. As I pointed out earlier, your profs will probably be teaching online for the first time and/or they really do not like the online format and/or they are still very early in their experimentation with the online format. As a result, you may find yourself with very poor quality video lectures or with formats that are not very interesting or engaging. Some of your profs may have simply recorded their regular 3-hour lecture without considering that most of us have difficulty staying alert and attentive for that long (unless we’re binge-watching our favourite series!)
Another way your expectations may have to be altered is in terms of your communication with your profs. Inevitably more of your questions and comments are going to be communicated by email and we tend to expect that even if we’re posting a question at 3:00 am we should get a reply by 3:05. Sometimes that will happen but please don’t count on it. A different kind of expectation is what your profs might expect of you. Please don’t start your email with the words “Hey!” Instead, start your email with the more respectful “Dear Professor Smith” or “Hello Dr. Jones”. Your professors are a different generation from you and they have expectations around the degree of respect that you should be exhibiting towards them. Unless you want to deliberately piss them off try to be respectful in your written and verbal communications with them.
The pandemic may also challenge your expectations with respect to course difficulty. Several large surveys have suggested that many students believe that online courses are easier than face-to-face ones. At the same time, many of your professors are aware of this perception and are also acutely sensitive to the idea that cheating may be easier to do in an online course. For that reason, many universities and colleges will be taking special precautions to alleviate the problem. Some will be using different kinds of remote proctoring solutions that may ask you to turn on your webcam before starting a test or exam. Another approach is to use specialized software that compares the content of your assignments and essays to a large body of similar essays. A third approach is to use the logging abilities of your school’s LMS to capture things like your Internet Protocol (IP) address and compare it with other students who may be writing their exams at the same time as you. The idea of trying to use technology to beat cheating is a fast-moving field and there are likely many more solutions on the horizon. I deal with the topic of cheating in a little more detail in another section. Suffice to say, your online courses will be about the same level of difficulty as the same face-to-face versions and your professors will be doing their best to prevent you from cheating.
A lot of professors have the mistaken belief that since many of you spend a lot of time on social media that you are completely comfortable with all technology. In reality, both you and your professors will be dealing with some technology that neither group will be entirely comfortable with.
Both you and your professors will be outside of your comfort zones in another way too. It is very likely that you will feel more disconnected taking a bunch of online courses than you might otherwise. The opportunity for you to casually meet and maybe socialize with your classmates immediately before and after a face-to-face class has traditionally been a great way to meet people. In the time of COVID-19, that opportunity will be taken away from you. We also know that many students in their first year of university or college suffer a decline in their self-esteem and often report elevated anxiety, stress, and depression. Being physically disconnected from your classmates is going to make that bad situation even worse. However, I hope that by being aware of it you might be better equipped to deal with it.
As I’ve said before most of your professors will be teaching online for the first time. That means that their expectations and beliefs will be challenged as well. A professor who has been getting rave reviews for their teaching may be quite surprised that the version of his or her online course falls flat. Just be aware that you are probably going to be seeing situations like that arise.
Good, Better, Best Online Courses
There are many different factors that you should take into account when selecting your courses. Obviously, many degree programs have particular requirements and you should consult with your undergraduate program advisors and follow their advice closely. However, as I have hinted elsewhere the quality of your online courses is a new factor that you may wish to take into account as your award-winning professor may not have had sufficient time or resources to put together an award-winning online course. A different kind of example may help make the point. Do you have a favourite piece of music or song but where you absolutely hate the video? You may encounter a similar problem in some of your online courses. It may take some detective work but you should try to read course outlines or syllabi, talk to people who may have taken that course from that particular professor before, and the administrative staff in the department that offers a particular course. You could even email or phone the professor involved. So what should you look for?
Interactivity: Is there a 2-way flow of information between you and the prof or is it entirely 1-way? Can you do things on your own? For example, online quizzes or flashcards that you can use to test your own learning?
Presence: Do you get a sense that the prof is going to be actively engaged with students? Do they have online office hours? Have they incorporated social media into the course?
Flexibility: How much flexibility seems to be baked-in to the course?
Technology requirements: Are the technology requirements of the course stated explicitly?
Tests & exams: Courses with a final exam worth 50% or 60% are a throwback to an exclusively face-to-face classroom era. In an online environment, there should be no test or exam worth more than 15%.
Equity: Do you get any sense that the professor is aware that some students may be living in different time zones and/or with different technologies available. Is there any sense that the professor is aware of the potential diversity of students in their courses?
The course syllabus or outline is one of the most convenient ways of assessing the above. If that document isn’t clear and concise you should consider it an early warning sign that perhaps the course itself won’t clear and concise either. Another thing is checking with the undergraduate advisor(s) of the department in question. For example, if you’re concerned with a psychology course you should be able to find the undergraduate advisors responsible for the psychology department. You also might try phoning or emailing the professor themselves or do a google search for their names. Be advised though that RateMyProfessor and other faculty rating sites are notoriously inaccurate.
Want to know more?
Veletsianos, G. (2020). The seven elements of a good online course. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/the-7-elements-of-a-good-online-course-139736. This paper has a slightly longer and slightly different list than mine. Nonetheless, most professors who are really familiar with online learning will generally agree on what makes some online courses very mediocre.