During a virtual discussion last week, New York University’s (NYU) Learning Analytics Research Network (LEARN) highlighted data from its most recent study focused on students’ experiences with remote learning during the 2020 spring semester.
Almost 300 undergraduate and graduate students from 50 universities participated in the “College in the Time of Corona” survey between late March and early May.
As the COVID-19 pandemic shifted in-person courses to virtual platforms, claims were made that it was a “great experiment for online learning,” said Dr. Yoav Bergner, a core faculty member of LEARN.
However, he disagreed.
“This was hardly a well-designed experiment to see the potential of online learning,” said Bergner, who is also an assistant professor of learning sciences and education technology at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “What it was, was a rather abrupt and shocking event that forced people into a place that they weren’t prepared to be in. So what we wanted to understand was not ‘is this a good alternative method for learning’ but ‘what is the experience that’s happening?’”
The presentation began with pictures of sweatshirts that read “Zoom University,” a joke created by students across social media.
“As someone who works in online learning, I was quick to say, ‘well, online learning isn’t all about Zoom,’” said Dr. Alyssa Wise, director of LEARN and associate professor of learning sciences and educational technology at NYU Steinhardt. “There is a lot of other things we can do. But the truth is, what happened this spring, really was mostly about Zoom. That both couches what is possible with Zoom and what it allows us to do. [But also] where it falls down and where we need to think about other tools.”
According to the study, students felt that courses relied “heavily” on video conferencing. For example, 88% of participants used Zoom and 57% utilized their school’s learning management system (LMS).
Students found Zoom to be beneficial for lectures and classroom interaction through breakout rooms. Tools such as GoogleDocs and GoogleSlides also helped with collaboration.
While working remotely, 96% of students used their desktop or laptop while only 14% worked using their mobile devices, the study reported.
However, some challenges with remote learning included slow internet connections as well as students lacking a private space in their home to work. Additionally, students found scheduling group project meet-ups was difficult due to different time zones.
Prior to the pandemic, students rated their overall learning experiences as a 4.47 on a five-point scale. In March, at the start of the transition to remote learning, students rated their experience a 3.11. However, the number grew to 3.67 by May, according to the study.
“What is interesting though is that is still above ‘okay,’” said Wise. “That’s still above neutral. So on the whole, people weren’t enthusiastic but everybody wasn’t screaming. Certainly though, there were some people who were.”
In terms of feelings, students experienced frustration, a lack of motivation due to changing schedules and anxiety about missing deadlines. Students also missed in-person interaction, the study found.
“We think of technology as sometimes being a substitute for face-to-face but not necessarily trying to emulate face-to-face because that’s not always what technology is best at,” said Bergner. “It does some things differently. But a theme that did reoccur is missing that face to face experience. It changes the idea of what the perceived ideal technology is.”
Not all reactions to the transition were negative. Some students felt that online learning provided opportunities to develop greater understanding of topics by reviewing available resources or recorded lectures. Online learning also gave students more freedom with their time.
Feelings shifted as online learning continued throughout the spring semester. Originally, 24% of students reported feeling nervous, which dropped to 6% by May. Additionally, 38% of students eventually felt “okay” with remote institution compared to the 20% that felt “resigned” to it, according to the study.
During class, students appreciated faculty who communicated as well as offered structure and flexibility. They also valued professors who tried to provide high quality education and engaged students with the material even if issues occurred, the research found.
“There was a lot of need to be seen as a person and not just a brain,” said Wise.
Courses such as dance, art, music and science labs faced the most difficult adjustment to online learning. As did classes involving problem solving such as math and engineering.
Wise said, as this continues, everyone needs to be able to get more “tech savvy.”
“Thinking about how we do that when faculty have a lot on their plates, I think is a real challenge,” she said. “It’s a heavy lift for people who have been teaching one way for a very long time. Even for those of us who are tech savvy, it’s not straightforward. So how do we create the time and space to do that and how do we engage students in that process?”
Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].