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Rutgers: 5 Ways to Improve Remote Learning

According to a recent study out of Rutgers University-New Brunswick, students need a sense of community and connection in order to thrive in remote learning experiences. In a national survey of more than 3,000 undergraduate students across 31 universities, the researchers found that the majority of respondents "craved the human connections they lost when leaving their schools amidst the pandemic." About two-thirds of students said they had trouble keeping track of deadlines or understanding expectations; 55 percent felt they could not communicate with their professors enough; and 71 percent struggled with concentrating on coursework due to at-home interruptions.  

"Faculty may need to develop connections in different and more conscious ways than they have in the past," noted Vikki Katz, an associate professor at Rutgers' School of Communication and Information and co-lead on the study, in a statement. "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. What students miss most tells us what they value most."

Based on what students shared in the survey, the researchers came up with 5 recommendations for remote teaching and learning:

1) Assume students are "under-connected." Students' access to quality internet and digital devices is often limited. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents said their internet connection at home was slowed by having too many people online at once; 27 percent had to rely on a device in poor working condition; 25 percent could not livestream reliably; and 24 percent could not download large files, the study found. It's important for faculty to acknowledge students' connectivity struggles and plan for accommodating their needs, the researchers stressed. For example, recorded lectures should be kept short — under 15 minutes — so that the video files are not too large to download on a slow connection. Likewise, synchronous class meetings should be optional, brief and held on a consistent day and time, to help students manage the connectivity required to attend.

2) Avoid information overload. In the spring, students often found themselves accessing different apps and platforms for each class, making it difficult to keep up with assignments and deadlines. To mitigate the "overload" in a digital environment, the researchers recommended limiting the number of digital platforms used as well as restricting course communications to a single medium (such as e-mail or announcements within the learning management system).    

3) Build student community. The researchers cautioned against assigning group projects, which can breed resentment between students even in the best of times — and are made more problematic by the challenges of remote learning in a pandemic. Instead, encourage collaboration in short-term, low-stakes projects with clear instructions and explicit expectations. In addition, make the most of real-time class meetings, said Katz: "Zoom is great for enabling the class interactions that build community. Knowing students cannot manage long meetings, need strong internet or may share a computer, faculty shouldn't waste precious interactive time by lecturing live. Instead, build breakout sessions into live video sessions, so that students can connect with one another."

4) Foster new learning rituals and routines. Many survey respondents reported missing the routines of campus life and struggling to stay on track remotely. The researchers recommended three techniques for reinforcing a sense of routine in a course: First, commit to a specific schedule for releasing recorded lectures and readings each week. Next, establish the pace by releasing learning content in stages, rather than all at once. Finally, set the tone by creating opportunities for students to interact with their instructor at specific times.

5) Develop evaluations that feel fair. Traditional timed exams may no longer work, the researchers pointed out, due to connectivity issues or technology hiccups. Instead, open-book exams "that require students to apply key course concepts, rather than merely provide definitions for those concepts," can be more effective, they noted. Also, it's important to reevaluate the course syllabus in light of the potential for academic dishonesty. "Are there graded assignments that make for easy cheating? If so, how can you remedy that to protect students' integrity? Also consider whether a curve still fairly reflects student learning in relation to their peers in a remote environment; many [survey respondents] worried that curves incentivized dishonesty in the spring," Katz advised.

The researchers have compiled their survey findings and insights in series of posts on "Left To Their Own Devices," a web resource devoted to "lessons for how to redesign remote instruction to be more equitable, foster community, and help students thrive." The project is co-authored by Katz along with Amy Jordan, a professor and chair of Rutgers' Journalism and Media Studies department, Alyvia Walters, a Journalism and Media Studies doctoral student, and Luna Laliberte, an undergraduate in communications. They plan to add new content to the site as the semester continues.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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