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Remote Learning in the Pandemic: Lessons Learned

The shift to online learning in response to COVID-19 has revealed pedagogical benefits that will carry on into the future. 

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The education field is always changing as curriculum evolves and new teaching styles are introduced. However, what has historically been considered the preferred mode of classroom instruction — in-person lectures — has gone primarily unchanged over time. Teachers instructing students in a traditional in-person classroom setting has been viewed as the industry standard for lesson delivery, while online learning was viewed with skepticism and stigma. That hierarchy was thoroughly challenged in early 2020 when online education became the only safe option in many areas of the United States — and the factors that once cast a shadow on the medium, such as excessive flexibility and a lack of in-person interaction, now become its prime features.

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic created opportunities for almost every institution of higher education to re-evaluate its priorities related to what constitutes quality teaching and learning, and in many cases offer proof of concept supporting the widespread adoption of more non-traditional andragogy. The shift is revealing that online learning can be as effective as the traditional classroom when its qualities are embraced as opposed to scorned.

As other institutions have been thrust into online education with little to no time to prepare themselves to meet the challenge, Westcliff University, a private university offering bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in Irvine, CA, has been offering both synchronous and asynchronous online learning options since before Zoom conferencing even hit the market — and has been fine-tuning its model for over a decade.

Positive Impacts

Here are some of the benefits Westcliff has seen from offering live online instruction.

Productivity. Students and faculty alike have been able to realize increased productivity as common inconveniences — such as a commute, preparing to get ready or finding a sitter — are removed, allowing more time and focus for studies.

Real-world preparation. As the rest of the world has shifted to remote workplaces, online learning prepares students for real-world experiences. With an online class, students develop the necessary discipline that is essential for remote work, a growing feature of a globalized economy. When students are not required to be in a physical classroom environment, they must take more ownership over their learning experience in order to succeed — even more so in asynchronous formats. This ownership leads to the development of valuable skills and attitudes that will serve them well outside the classroom when they are developing or advancing their careers.

Improved access to education: Online learning reduces barriers, such as cost and limited options within a region, and increases widespread access to a large variety of education providers. Allowing students to learn remotely not only makes education more accessible from anywhere around the world, it also allows students more leverage in negotiating their academic, familial, occupational and recreational obligations and interests.

Lessons Learned

As more universities and students see these benefits firsthand, the trend of online learning is likely to continue well beyond the pandemic. That said, not all online learning is created equal. Here are four lessons Westcliff University has learned on its journey to ensuring both short- and long-term student and faculty success.

Provide resources to support students. Access to tutoring is important to help students succeed academically in any setting. As a matter of protocol, these resources should be available in online programs in much the same manner as they are offered to students who attend in-person classes to ensure an equitable educational experience — and during the pandemic, being able to offer online options has been critical. Westcliff University not only shifted its Academic Resource Center (ARC) to an online model, the dedicated staff and faculty also expanded offerings to go beyond curriculum support by providing campus-based students guidance and resources through the conversion to fully online learning. This guidance included providing students with tools for time management, training on effective study habits and platforms for peer collaboration. Even though students had access to the ARC pre-pandemic, the university saw a dramatic increase in the numbers of students tapping into these valuable resources — up three-fold after the U.S. COVID-19 surge beginning in March 2020.

Educate your educators. While faculty often bring years of experience in their respective fields, many have not been provided extensive training on teaching methods. Or vice versa, we see educators with extensive experience in academia and little real-world experience applying their knowledge in the industry. Regardless, with more seasoned faculty, there is a high likelihood that online learning was not even in existence when many were completing their own education. Therefore, it is important to provide education and support to help faculty shift from an onsite learning environment to online. Westcliff University's Learning, Innovation, and Teaching Excellence (LITE) Center was originally started to help harness the value of its faculty's deep professional experience. Training from the LITE Center provides faculty with the skills to help deliver this knowledge in a way that would resonate with today's digital native students' more modern and tech-savvy learning styles. With the shift to fully online learning, Westcliff expanded its LITE Center offerings with an increased focus on technology and interaction. This included seeking out and implementing innovative solutions for an increasingly digital world and helping educators understand the tools available that make online teaching more engaging. The appetite for this education was high at Westcliff. Pre-COVID the LITE Center served about 15-20 faculty members per month, but during the height of the pandemic it had an average of 48 attendees a week.

Online learning does not have to be impersonal. One of the reasons some teachers and learners may have opposed online learning may be related to an assumption that lectures were taped or delivered in writing and thus did not allow for live interactions. While an asynchronous model can be helpful in allowing students to learn anywhere at any time, Westcliff University's primary model for online learning includes regular, synchronous class meetings over Zoom. This allows students to be online with their peers and a faculty member at a specific time — offering an experience more closely mirroring how they would interact in a traditional in-person classroom setting. Westcliff University has limited synchronous class sizes to an average of 11 students per classroom to maximize the interactions between teacher and students. In this environment, class sessions are filled with natural, free-flowing discussions as students grapple with concepts while faculty provide examples and applications. Despite not being in the same room, online learning can be far more intimate than the type of learning that occurs in a large lecture hall.

Invest in technology. Making teaching stimulating is often a challenge for educators, and even more so when online. However, new tools like polls and gaming functions can help engage students and allow faculty to better measure progress. Incorporating these tools throughout lectures minimizes the opportunity for students to become distracted and disengaged. This is just the tip of the iceberg though, and it is important to continue exploring new pathways to create effective online instruction. Emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR) enhance the stimulation of student senses and have the potential to create more meaningful learning experiences in the online environment. Innovative tools and techniques are increasing in adoption daily and are dramatically shifting the reality of what is possible in online education.

The pandemic has revealed an immense appetite among students to have more options for how, when and where they learn. To help meet that ever-growing need, universities must continue to offer both online and onsite learning and create relevant combinations of these modalities. The benefits of online education, including increased productivity, stronger student preparation for real-world experiences and improved access to education, can be realized at those institutions that embrace the opportunities found in remote teaching and learning.

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