Connection, routine and equity: What students need when learning online

Rutgers researchers surveyed students for their perspective of remote leaning. Here’s how faculty can improve it and university leaders can support such efforts.
By: | September 11, 2020
Photo by Samantha Borges on UnsplashPhoto by Samantha Borges on Unsplash

Findings from a nationwide survey of college students’ remote learning experiences indicate that faculty should make conscious efforts to help fulfill cravings for more human connection. “This is not just about tech support, but rather about creating a sense of trust and connection, evaluating in ways that feel fair to students, and understanding that many have chronic issues of digital inequality,” says Vikki Katz of Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information. “What students miss most tells us what they value most.”

She co-led the survey, conducted in April and May and administered to more than 3,000 undergraduates at 31 U.S. universities, along with Amy Jordan, a professor and chair of Rutgers’ Journalism and Media Studies department.

They are sharing evidence-based recommendations for educators in their newly created platform, “Left To Their Own Devices.”

Roughly two-thirds of survey participants had trouble keeping track of deadlines or clearly understanding what was expected of them; 55 percent couldn’t communicate with their professors as much as they would have liked; and 71 percent had trouble concentrating on schoolwork due to at-home interruptions.

By signaling awareness of digital inequality—or, what Katz calls under-connectedness—faculty can build student trust.

Take Zoom, for example, which Katz says is great for enabling community-building in a class.

“Faculty shouldn’t waste precious interactive time by lecturing live,” she advises. “Instead, build breakout sessions into live video sessions, so that students can connect with one another.”

Undergraduates also struggled without their routines such as picking up coffee before a lecture or meeting friends to study in the library.

According to the researchers, faculty can provide structure by setting a schedule and committing to a specific weekday to release lectures and set the pace by holding back content instead of releasing the full semester at once.

The researchers created the new platform so that educators could quickly benefit from their recommendations and adapt lesson plans as needed. The site will be updated with new content as the semester continues.

Supporting faculty

Institutional leaders can help faculty provide what students need, says Katz.

To start, they can acknowledge that not all students have high quality, consistent internet and a high-functioning laptop—and help provide that technology, such as by sending them prepaid WiFi hotspots or pressuring local internet sevice providers to provide free or lost-cost high-speed broadband. Students should know where to go for assistance if their device malfunctions, their connectivity becomes compromised, or they need assistance with using the learning platforms for their courses, says Katz.

“Laptops that are currently on campus, in labs or on class carts, should be on semester-long loan to students,” she adds. “It’s time to treat these devices like library books (and an iPad/tablet is not a substitute for a laptop).” By providing these foundations for addressing digital inequality, leaders help ensure that faculty do not have to become tech support for students.

She also recommends providing faculty with a consistent, simple set of best practices/requirements for high-quality remote learning. “Faculty should not be inventing the wheel themselves, course-by-course. It’s inefficient, and it doesn’t serve students when the requirements and learning platforms/applications vary class by class,” she says. “Less is more for all—as long as it’s the right set of components.” More info on this can be found in this lesson on Left to Their Own Devices.

University leaders should ask themselves what the remote equivalent is of the accepted ground rules for face-to-face learning. How are learning spaces like classrooms organized? How is time within a class period traditionally used? What is the proportion of time that faculty should speak versus students working in groups?

She also hopes to see administrators demonstrate empathy for faculty, as they are asked to show it for students. “University leaders can set the tone,” she says. “Their faculty are as anxious and over-extended as the students they are caring for. Like their students, they are balancing children learning at home, caring for elders and immunocompromised loved ones, and a loss of personal space and uninterrupted work time. This is the time to model a whole-person approach to faculty, as we ask them to see students as whole people in this moment.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.