Is online a good option? Villanova leader discusses merits of virtual learning

As faculty hone techniques, student engagement rises.
By: | August 19, 2021
Kevin Waters, assistant teaching professor of civil and environmental engineering, instructs students in class and on Zoom. (Photo courtesy of Villanova University)

How well received has online learning been at Villanova University during past year? Students and faculty are likely to say very well.

Randy Weinstein

Yes, there were expected blips in the transition to virtual in the months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But by the end of the academic year, the delivery and the experience were pretty darn good, so much so that Villanova is continuing to explore the merits of virtual, especially as it augments traditional class learning.

Though Villanova has returned to “100% in-person learning” —93% of its campus was vaccinated as classes began Tuesday—there will be opportunities to see what the future holds for online instruction.

“It’s going to be part of life moving forward,” says Randy Weinstein, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at Villanova and a professor of chemical and biological engineering. “I think it can be done really well, even at a residential college. We should not go back to exactly the way we were. That would mean that there was nothing we did in this past year that was better. Not one single thing.”

There were many, many things that did go right … in fact a post-COVID task force made 100 recommendations for changes, everything from online delivery to food trucks and fire pits on campus. Weinstein was one of the early adopters of flipped classrooms many years ago and he saw firsthand this past year the successes of hybrid and fully virtual learning. At various points, 75% of Villanova’s students operated either completely online or face-to-face plus virtual. While there is some relief from faculty to have those live connections again, there remains a curiosity about the digital options available.

“We were very successful with the teaching side of the house, but I also think there’s a lot more that you can do in person for particular classes that you can’t do online,” Weinstein says. “There’s a good chunk of the faculty that is really excited to be back in the classroom, able to do things that they couldn’t do online, or that were not as good online. There are faculty that are disappointed that we’re not allowed to be fully online because they believe they could do it better. That’s what we’re trying to figure out over the next year or two: What are those classes with the right faculty and the right subject matter that could actually be done better online than in person? We don’t want that to be a huge number because of all the other stuff that the students get from being on campus.”

Assessing the online experience

In order to get a pulse on how well the university was meeting instructional needs online, Villanova surveyed more than 2,000 students about what they thought worked and what didn’t at two points during the year. Weinstein offered some insight on what they liked:

  • Online office hours. “If a faculty member was willing to hold office hours at 9 o’clock on Zoom, the students would go. That’s when are doing the homework. That’s when they have questions. A faculty member could go home an hour early, play with their kids, put their kids to bed, and then do that hour’s worth of work later.”
  • Recorded material. “We set up a lot of recording capabilities around campus because we thought we’d have a lot of students that were too sick to participate online. Luckily, that didn’t happen. The students really loved the ability to go back and listen to material that they didn’t quite understand and study for exams by watching lecture videos … or use their note-taking and comprehension time differently. Because they’re not frantically writing notes, they can actually listen and comprehend.”
  • Moving final exams online. “… which we’re never going to do again unless we have to. We know that most of our students have integrity, but there’s a handful that doesn’t.”

As for faculty, Weinstein says they benefited from the banter of online learning and especially students’ willingness to be involved far more in conversations. “Some of the best discussions they had were online because people felt less embarrassed to talk sitting in the Zoom room, rather than sitting in the classroom staring at all their friends,” he says.

However, they “thought that their online instruction was better than the students perceived.” Some fumbled with technology and delivery, but Villanova did provide training and resources to help “fill those holes.” He admitted there are barriers with certain classes online; for example, highly mathematical courses such as chemical engineering that require a lot of handwriting and equations with Greek letters. “Moving that completely online, I would have more of a challenge as a faculty member to see what the students were working on.”

But, he says, the lectures themselves “were totally great online. Some of them haven’t changed in 100 years. The equations are the same. A fundamental course in engineering, science, math, I think would be perfect online.”

Can the shift happen?

One of the tricky parts of shifting to online that Villanova will be assessing over the next year is the allowance for some students—sick or with excused absences—to be able to Zoom in and take part in classes. “You’ve got to design the class to allow people to Zoom in and participate, not to listen, and watch the recording later,” he says. “If you step back and design it right, you can do it really well. And that’s the key. It takes a lot of effort to design it right. Do not just do what you do in the classroom and repeat it online.”

Weinstein believes there are areas that should be front of mind for institution leaders and faculty as they ponder the use of materials and course delivery—both online and in-person—especially as the COVID-19 situation continues to fluctuate:

  1. Continual faculty training. “Don’t wait until it’s too late. Faculty should spend some time planning for the ‘we might have to move online for two weeks or move online for this semester.’ What assessments would I change moving online? What educational activities in the classroom would I move online? Maybe use a couple of them while you’re in person. Practice. Get some feedback. Find those sweet spots that can be really good online to augment your in-person classes, so you kind of learn some things that you could take forward if you have to flip online.”
  2. Clear communications to students. “Don’t hide it. Say, ‘we all know this is rough, but cases are rising.’ Do your part. Wear your masks. Social distance. Keep good hygiene. We might have to move online, so I’m going to practice this online assessment with you this week while I’ve got you here so we can work out the technology together in the classroom and make sure you understand how to upload a homework assignment into the learning management system.”
  3. Make yourself available to just chat. “Everybody’s going to be anxious: ‘Are they’re going to stop all of our activities? Are they going to kill the basketball season, which is huge at Villanova? Are they going to send us home early?’ Just let them know, this is what we’re thinking. This is what we need help with. This is what we’re nervous about. Be upfront and honest.”
  4. Get your technology in order. “The one thing we saw is how strained the pipeline can be [in getting technology].”

No matter how the semester turns out, Villanova will be prepared.

“If we had to send everybody home again and flip to totally online, I think we’re in a much better place,” Weinstein says. “The challenge is if you design the course for in-person, how do you change that on the fly? That’s the harder part. I think we solved the technology. But if you’re running a class like this, you can’t just run that online necessarily. You may have to change what you’re doing to make it work.”