The COVID-19 pandemic turbocharged universities’ remote learning model. But as social distancing moderates, should more students be returning to campus? NJBIZ spoke with some educational institutions to find out.
“COVID showed us that us our faculty can do whatever’s needed,” according to Joan Ali Scocco, interim vice president academic affairs, acting chief academic officer, at Brookdale Community College. “We quickly adapted to a mix of offerings, including remote sessions, asynchronous, live, and hybrid.”
In a college or university setting, “remote” generally refers to Zoom or Teams and other videoconferencing sessions, where lectures are delivered at scheduled times, and students and instructors interact in real-time, with the option of being visible to each other. “Asynchronous” sessions, in contrast, feature prerecorded lectures, readings, presentations and assignments that students can access at a time that’s convenient for them. “Live” sessions refer to a traditional in-class experience, while “hybrid” involves a mix of live sessions and either asynchronous or remote sessions.
“There are advantages to each type,” Scocco continued. “Zoom sessions let students interact with the professor in a ‘live’ manner, regardless of where they are; while asynchronous gives them the ability to access the material on their own time, which may be particularly important for students who work or have family and other obligations. Hybrid offers some flexibility, while in-person teaching enables much more direct student-to-professor and student-to-student interaction. Based on their behavior, our students appear to prefer in-person learning, but they also want options. The goal is to deliver a content-rich experience for students regardless of the delivery platform.”
Brookdale Business Management Professor Phyllis Shafer said she takes steps to ensure that students are getting the most from her classes, regardless of how they’re delivered. “I began offering fully online (asynchronous) before the pandemic, because of our diverse student population; a lot of them are working so they may not be able to make it to a course at a time that works for me,” she said. “My basic teaching style is the same, live or otherwise, but I do have a discussion forum for each (online) unit, so if a student has a course-related question, they can put it in the discussion forum — this way everyone will benefit from the back-and-forth.” Students can also email her if they don’t want to make their question public for some reason.
Shafer said that her students appear to be doing equally well across the learning formats. “I get a lot of mature students online, and sometimes they’re more willing to speak up when they’re not in visual contact with each other.
At Caldwell University, “prior to the pandemic, we were already comfortable with digitally sharing documents and other material, so we were already offering some online, asynchronous courses,” before COVID forced institutions to come up with alternatives,” said Virginia Rich, associate dean at the School of Business & Computer Science.
“Teaching and learning can vary widely based on the modality but can offer comparable rigor in course materials and expectations of student work products,” according to Monica Amadio, a Stockton University professor of business studies and management. “Many online instructors do a good job of building community and fostering interactivity through breakout sessions, discussion boards, and other engaging activities”
When her courses went digital, “I had to be comfortable with things that I never had to think about before, like lighting, background, and microphones,” Amadio recalled. “Now, when I upload a lecture, I want to be careful about presenting content so students will continue to be engaged. Maybe I’ll include some personal stories. I also develop authentic learning experiences that connect the class with the workplace, and I try to connect students with workplace leaders, and with each other. We start the class by having students create videos and memes of themselves — it lightens things up and helps to create connections.”
Flexibility is key, she added. “You have to identify technical limitations and alternatives ahead of time, because invariably there will be glitches. One time, my Zoom connection worked perfectly until I got a black screen when I tried to share video. The system worked perfectly before and after that, so I always keep other resources up my sleeve.”
Like other institutions, Caldwell offers a mix of learning environments. Rich, who has a postdoctoral master’s degree in teaching, noted that “we had to examine each course and determine the learning objectives and where we were. Some students, for example, love asynchronous courses, but they must be very organized and self-motivated. Other may need the interaction that comes from being with others: they enjoy socializing and going off topic a little when they’re face-to-face, and a video environment does not lend itself as easily to that. So we’ve created content and exercises to help students connect to each other and to the professor—like breaking into teams so those connections happen. I believe that these hybrid forms of education are here to stay.”
Caldwell University interim Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Education Ellina Chernobilsky, who taught online and hybrid even before the pandemic, noted that “Higher education keeps changing, and the pandemic showed us that good online learning is possible, with many faces. While many students still benefit from a ‘face-to-face’ live model, we’re seeing more demand for hybrid classes and self-paced online, too.”
A “remote” model, like Zoom or Teams, has the advantage of live action, “at least when everyone’s camera is on,” she observed. “If students turn their camera off, they’ve got more opportunity to be distracted. Our faculty ask a lot of questions to keep students engaged, and as a way of judging which students may be drifting off.”
Some activities, though, are best done in person, she added. “An artist may need to physically interact with clay or another medium, while a musician wants to hear how notes sound in individual venues. But it’s all a learning process and each day we know a bit more about what needs to be done to be successful in online and hybrid teaching.”
At Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business, Dean Joyce Strawser has seen businesses, students and faculty grow to embrace multiple kinds of teaching modes. “We do exit interviews with graduate students who are working, and we found that before the pandemic, many employers would only reimburse tuition that was associated with in-person instruction,” she said. “But after the pandemic, when employers themselves used Zoom, Teams and other remote services, they became more receptive to reimbursing for remote courses. “
Strawser, who is an associate professor in the university’s Department of Accounting and Taxation, noted that, at her institution, the teaching mode appears to be linked to students’ age group. “At the undergraduate level, we’re pretty much residential and in-person, but our graduate program students tend to be working professionals, so there we are more online and hybrid.”
Her personal preference is for in-person education, “because there’s more interaction between faculty and students, and networking flows more easily in person; after a class you don’t just sign off, instead you can meet with each other for a few minutes.”
But she acknowledges that “people have challenges so they may not be able to make it to in-person classes. So, a robust set of choices opens up opportunities. When I’m teaching a remote, synchronous class, I use tools like whiteboards and PowerPoint slides to share information and show calculations. I can also respond immediately to questions, so it’s closer to an in-person class experience. But we have some fully online programs, like an MBA in Accounting, that can be completed in person, or fully online, asynchronously.”
Strawser said she does change her teaching style for the asynchronous program. “When students are watching a video, it’s more difficult to keep their attention for 75 minutes, so I break those classes down to smaller, more-digestible chunks; perhaps segments of 15 to 20 minutes each. I also place my online students into groups and have them meet a certain number of times each week, so they’re more motivated and connected.”
Do students get as much from remote and online classes as they do from a traditional classroom setting? “We’re still figuring out the best mix, how to do hybrid better, online better, and when face-to-face is critical,” explained Leamor Kahanov, Stockton University’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. “For example, a chemistry lab can be done online, but it may not be optimal.”
Undergraduate courses are “mainly done face-to-face, but we also offer asynchronous and synchronous classes, because that is what students will face at work,” she added. “I think that eventually we going to see institutions that address different kinds of student populations, and perhaps some will focus on particular types of students, especially with demographic changes as we head towards 2030.”a