For decades, colleges and universities have struggled with making online and blended learning courses as meaningful and engaging as in-person classes. At least momentarily, the COVID-19 pandemic has put many students and instructors on a level playing field. More courses than ever, including those that have historically been offered exclusively in person, are being taught through a remote or blended model.
The current environment represents an enormous opportunity for higher education institutions to step back, take stock and seek out solutions to increase the quality of their remote and blended learning approaches.
Here are three ways that technology can help.
More Effective Use of Video
Video collaboration tools have become ubiquitous in both online learning and the corporate world during the pandemic, with brand recognition of Zoom skyrocketing over the past year. However, it is still common for students to participate in synchronous learning sessions with their cameras off, which makes it impossible for instructors to track engagement. By implementing policies around video participation, schools can instantly boost student engagement — and, by extension, course quality.
Instructors and students should also be encouraged to use video collaboration features designed to limit distractions. Virtual backgrounds are a simple solution that can prevent people from being distracted by messy offices or strangers walking through the frame of a video meeting. Software and certain headsets can also limit background noise.
Finally, it is critical that instructors not simply deliver lectures over video. Students can read over a slide deck on their own time, and video meetings are better used for in-depth discussions or activities. Breakout rooms give instructors an effective tool to make video meetings more dynamic and engaging.
Better Integration with Learning Management Systems
Learning management systems have grown tremendously in quality in recent years. However, I see opportunities for far better integration between LMS environments and external learning tools. To the extent possible, schools should strive to integrate outside learning materials and virtual laboratory settings with their LMS to create a unified, holistic experience for students.
In the early years of online instruction, remote and blended learning courses tended to follow a familiar model. Each week, students would read chapters from an assigned text and post responses to the reading material on an LMS discussion thread. Then, each student would be required to thoughtfully respond to two or three other students’ comments.
This was an attempt to replicate the free-flowing discussions that happen in college classrooms, and there were some real benefits. For instance, shy students who may have sat silent during an in-person discussion were forced to come out of their shells and participate. However, these threads could sometimes feel perfunctory, without the sense of a lively back-and-forth that is the hallmark of a good classroom discussion.
Advances in tech tools now enable co-authoring, which allows for a more dynamic exchange of ideas. When learners turn in work, their peers and instructors can make comments or even edits directly on the document, giving students the chance to rapidly incorporate feedback and improve a project through several quick drafts.
Students today have more options than ever before when deciding where and how to obtain their education. By making online and blended courses as effective and engaging as possible, colleges and universities can demonstrate their value to students and begin to recruit across a wider geographic area.