In an otherwise empty classroom on the ground floor of Gould Hall on Monday, Rick Mohler leaned back in a chair and addressed his class of graduate students through a big screen TV.
On the right side of the screen was a live feed of moving faces — University of Washington students in their apartments, homes or dorm rooms, tuning in from around the city. Most of the screen was taken up by architectural renderings, as students in the class Architecture 507 displayed their drawings electronically and took turns talking about them.
In the span of just a few days, this has become the new normal at the UW, the first large university in the country to switch to online classes because of the coronavirus outbreak. By Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee had restricted all of the state’s colleges and universities to online-only classes through at least April 24.
Universities across the country had already announced similar actions at breathtaking speed: Harvard. Stanford. Penn State.
Even for a technology-rich school like the UW, putting classes online for what’s likely to be at least part of spring quarter is a daunting task.
Research shows that students who are less well-prepared for college don’t do as well online as they do in face-to-face classes. But there are ways to help: by redesigning courses to emphasize interaction, letting students know what it’s like to take a course online, and providing virtual online resources that mimic what’s available on campus.
A 2013 study of online classes at Washington’s community colleges illustrates the challenge. The study by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center compared online to face-to-face learning, and found all students did worse online — but especially students of color, students already struggling in school, and male students.
The state community college system says that study was based on 2004 data, and since that time, they’ve closed the gap. But a 2018 study — this time conducted at California community colleges — showed disadvantaged students were most likely to flounder in online courses, said Di Xu, an associate professor at University of California Irvine’s School of Education and a co-author of the original Columbia study.
“Younger students, male students, minority groups, and academically underprepared students tend to struggle more in an online setting,” she said.
Online classes “work quite well for students who are well-resourced, who do well in school already,” said Audrey Watters, a Seattle education writer who has studied and written extensively about online education. “But for everyone else, not so much.”
Xu, whose California campus is moving everything online, is rushing to finish a website that will pull together everything her school has learned about why students struggle with online classes, and how to make them better.
Three factors play into the challenges of learning online, she says:
– Online classes work best for highly organized, self-directed students who tend to be good students to start with. “Self-motivation is really critical to success,” Xu said. “If you don’t have those skills, you struggle.”- Humans are social creatures, and it’s more difficult to establish meaningful relations through a computer screen. Students feel more isolated, Xu said, leading to worse performance.
– Campus resources like tutoring or counseling are often limited online. Providing those services on the web is “a huge investment,” she said.
Making virtual classes as effective as the real thing
Xu and other researchers say that in addition to providing online resources for tutoring and counseling, several other practices can make online teaching more effective, including letting students know what to expect and designing courses that stress interaction.
Working with a college system in Central America, Xu and others at UC Irvine developed a series of videos featuring students talking about the challenges of going online, and what they needed to be successful, including time management, reaching out to others and communicating when things went wrong. Students who watched the videos and were required to reflect on what they needed to do improved their persistence rate by 10 percentage points, Xu said.
“In many community colleges, we see up to 50% of students withdraw from online courses, which is horrible, because you can prevent it,” she said.
Designing classes that provide good interaction is also important. It’s critical for faculty to answer student questions in a timely fashion, and have online office hours, for example.
If you want students to learn, “you have to give them a lot of things to do — design really effective discussion boards, give them a lot of feedback — possibly more than you otherwise would,” said Linda Nilson, professor emerita at Clemson University and co-author of “Online Teaching at its Best,” a favorite of UW faculty members.
Building a better online classroom
Setting up a good online course takes time, said Nilson, “because you just don’t take what you’re teaching in the classroom and somehow dump it online. And everything you have students do, you have to hold them accountable for that.”
Nilson says it takes about three months to design a good online course. Most colleges and universities won’t have that luxury.
But the higher education system isn’t starting from scratch. WSU has extensive practice at teaching online; its online bachelor’s degree is rated #23 in the country by U.S. News & World Report. The UW doesn’t offer an online bachelor’s degree, but it has been training faculty how to teach online for the last eight years, and many classes are offered online.
“If you can say the word ‘luck’ with a pandemic, it’s lucky it’s happening in 2020,” when the technology is robust and many faculty members already know how to use it, said Beth Kalikoff, the director of the UW’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
Using modern tech, “students can be engaged the same as with face-to-face, and many times, there are advantages,” she said. For example, online learning can help draw out shy students who wouldn’t raise their hand to participate in a big classroom.
Kalikoff offered this advice to faculty: Start with what you want your students to learn, rather than asking what the technology is capable of doing. “Tech is the tail, and it shouldn’t wag the dog.”
No substitute for learning face to face
There’s a reason why distance learning has never caught on the way experts predicted a decade ago: It’s just not the same as in-person teaching, said Brock Craft, a senior lecturer at the UW’s Center of Human-Centered Design and Engineering. Craft has become practiced at using videoconferencing to teach some lessons. Still, he said, it’s hard to build relations, and for faculty, “it’s not less work — it may be more work,” he said.
One of the UW’s most successful online courses is an alternative program for teachers who want to earn their certification while working full time. The program, which started in 2013, is now offered all-online, said Megan Kelly-Petersen, director of the program. New technologies, like videoconferencing, allow students to work together remotely in ways that mimic face-to-face learning — such as breaking out into small groups, and calling the instructor over for help, just as if the same work was being done in a classroom.
In recent years, online and in-person classes at state community colleges have similar success rates; 82% of students pass a face-to-face class, 81% pass an online class, said Laura McDowell, director of communications for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. “It’s a completely different world of online learning now” than when Columbia University did its study, she said.
But some courses will be hard to replicate. Hands-on vocational technical courses like welding or machining, and science and engineering classes that require lab work, don’t lend themselves to online study.
If classes go all-online next quarter, chemical engineering students can use data from previous experiments to write up their assignments, said Jim Pfaendtner, UW professor of chemical engineering and chair of his department. But there’s no substitute for practicing on-the-fly, real-world troubleshooting in the lab.
And it’s going to be a challenge to build community in a seminar class, said LaShawnDa Pittman, an assistant professor of American ethnic studies at UW. Next quarter, she’s teaching an 18-student seminar class on health disparities and African American women. It’s a course designed for intimate discussions.
She’s already thinking ahead to how she might create community online — perhaps by asking her students to “come with your coffee, come in your pajamas, come with your pet.”