All is Not Lost: Online Education in an Era of Social Distancing

By Patrick J. McDonald, Robert G. Moser, and Sarah Reed

The pandemic triggered by the spread of COVID-19 is rapidly changing the social, political, and economic landscape of the world.  We are just beginning to feel these consequences in higher education. Public health guidance associated with social distancing has created a nationwide push to move most instruction online.  This shift will disrupt classrooms as instructors and students adjust to a significantly different learning environment while simultaneously coping with the broader everyday anxieties posed by this pandemic.

In light of this shock, we would like to share some of our experiences—both successes and mistakes–associated with our large-scale transition to online instruction at the University of Texas at Austin.  Since the Fall of 2014, we have taught an online topics course on American Government (U.S. Foreign Policy) that meets a general education requirement. Our annual enrollment in this course across the Fall, Spring, and Summer sessions now approaches about 4,000 students.  We have offered multiple variants with individual class sizes ranging from 175 to 1900. One includes synchronous instruction that asks students to log in to our learning management system (LMS) at a common, set time to watch a video feed and interact with us. Other asynchronous versions make all instructional content available to students via an on-demand basis so they can “attend” class when it best fits their schedule.  We have successfully incorporated graded, online discussion sections of 15 to 25 students into these classes. And we have used a range of assessments including live quizzes, short writing assignments, longer essays, take home exams, live in-person exams in a common room with hundreds of students, and online exams proctored through a third-party testing service.

Benefits and challenges of online courses. While it is difficult to see a bright side to a sudden shift to online courses in the middle of an academic year, some attributes of online courses can offer real advantages. Even in classes that exceed one thousand students, attendance in our online class is surprisingly high. More than 90% of students watch recorded lectures and complete lecture quizzes on time. This participation rate substantially exceeds standard attendance rates of our large in-person courses with several hundred students. Many of us are legitimately concerned about the loss of direct personal contact in the online setting. However, online discussion sections and interactive question-answer exercises allow more widespread participation in our course, particularly by reserved students who will submit comments or questions online but not speak up in a live class. Online courses with recorded lectures also preserve course material for students that is lost in live, in-person lectures. Students that miss a class can easily recapture that content by watching the recording.  They can also control the pace of a lecture by pausing to take notes and rewatch segments they find challenging.

Despite these benefits, online instruction also creates new challenges for students. They interrupt the traditional routines of academic life. Students are accustomed to physically attending class and have a difficult time adjusting. Without the structure of in-person class meetings, students may have trouble organizing their consumption of course material online. They may not read reminders posted online or sent over email. Small things like finding the links to lecture recordings or assignments on the course website can frustrate them. Online courses require that students initiate these changes independently, requiring a greater degree of organization and self-discipline. If too much content is provided at once, students are tempted to procrastinate and binge-watch lectures prior to exams or other assignment deadlines.

Fortunately, there are ways that instructors can organize and present course material to mitigate these challenges. However, we should not underestimate the differences between online courses and in-person courses. Students will need to develop different skills and habits to succeed in online courses.

Synchronous vs. asynchronous online courses.  When moving online, instructors first need to decide between a synchronous or asynchronous offering. There are pros and cons to each.

Synchronous online courses more closely resemble live in-person courses. Students log in at a specified time and collectively watch a live broadcast of an instructor delivering content. They offer interactivity among instructors and students. Students can ask real-time questions through direct messaging or video conferencing.  Instructors can use live quizzes, discussion sections (with or without video), and polls to support student concentration and engagement.

Asynchronous online courses provide pre-recorded instructional or lecture content to students.  These recordings expand their access, effectively shifting to on-demand delivery. This generally provides greater flexibility for students, an important consideration in light of the radical changes to everyday routines.  Asynchronous courses are particularly helpful for working and non-traditional students who need to take courses outside of normal business hours. Students also do not have to worry about course scheduling problems such as choosing between two desired courses that meet at the same time with asynchronous courses. This may be important in the current crisis when many instructors are rescheduling course lectures and assignments without coordination. Recording asynchronous lectures also can be less stressful for instructors. An instructor can stop and start over if something goes wrong or simply edit out a mistake. One can also lecture for shorter intervals, take a break, and then record another segment.

This flexibility imposes some costs.  Such courses lose the coordination benefits of interacting simultaneously.  Students cannot get their questions answered in real-time. Students lose the opportunity to learn from each other through discussion.  Instructors cannot field pop quiz questions or live student polls to increase student engagement.

The choice between a synchronous or asynchronous online course involves weighing these tradeoffs. Of course, an instructor can blend the two alternatives, pushing lecture content into an asynchronous format while preserving synchronous meetings for questions and discussion. However, such combinations require clear communication that inform students of log-in times for live broadcasts and the deadlines associated with asynchronous content.

Delivery of instructional content.  The presentation of lecture content differs significantly in an online environment.  We lose most nonverbal visual cues that help us to make inferences about communication effectiveness and whether students are actually engaged.  Students are deprived of mild social pressures that help sustain concentration when inhabiting the same physical space with an attentive audience.  When watching a lecture online, a more exciting alternative is literally a click or swipe away.

These challenges, though, are not insurmountable.  Through trial and error, we implemented the following adjustments.

First, we divided up longer lectures into a series of short segments of eight to ten minutes or less, generally organized around one central question or argument.  In a synchronous environment, this means stopping repeatedly to ask for questions or the completion of a brief exercise, such as a quiz, poll, or short, written response.  In an asynchronous environment, this means a formal halt to the taping of a lecture segment, preceded by a brief conclusion or review.

Second, if lecturing to a camera on your computer, avoid long stretches where students are just watching you speak to them.  Our students report difficulties sustaining concentration in this situation. Moreover, many of us have nonverbal cues that distract students when forced to focus on a screen dominated by a single person.  Toggle back and forth to a powerpoint presentation (with pictures, definitions of key concepts, and brief explanations) if possible. Lecture in front of a whiteboard if one is available. Integrate a clip from Youtube or an interactive graphic found on the web.

Third, be aware that many of your most conscientious or diffident students will respond to having access to recording of your lectures by watching or listening to them multiple times.  Worried about missing something important, they focus on the details and can miss the forest for the trees. These anxieties can be reduced by repeating core themes over the course of a lecture and encouraging them to email questions or post them on a central discussion board.  Such anxieties also place a premium on effective communication. These students, in particular, will struggle with wandering video lectures that jump around from idea to idea.

The benefits of smooth student consumption of online, instructional contentThe costs of poor time management manifest multiple times every semester when we see sleep-deprived students sitting for an exam after trying to learn five or six weeks of content with two days of cramming.  These temptations can grow when students lack the formal check-ins provided by the in-class setting. Absent regular deadlines, some students will treat lecture content and readings like bingeing something on Netflix.  Our own internal tracking suggests such practices hurt the middle 70% of students in the grading distribution. If they binge watch online instructional content in the days leading up to an exam, their final grades are a half letter grade lower, on average, than the student who did some work for class over more regular intervals like 3 or 4 days a week.

The good news is that students will respond positively to low stakes assessments or check-ins encouraging smooth consumption of instructional content.  Preserve regular deadlines that correspond to your class schedule with small check-in assignments like a paragraph response to a discussion question or a brief online quiz through your LMS.

Online discussion sections.  When appropriately structured, the integration of synchronous, online discussion chats can be an excellent instructional device that deepens understanding through targeted questioning of students while enabling them to learn from each other.

These chats can be implemented through a simple discussion online discussion board or even a google doc or sheet.  We broke students into groups of 15 to 25 and distributed questions in advance. We graded them on a low-stakes basis (credit, half credit, or no credit).  Students were required to post their comments in complete sentences, detailing some claim or argument. We told students to imagine the structure of these conversations as resembling a party.  Even though there might be twenty people in the same room, they didn’t all have to participate in the same conversation. Instead, students were free to break up into smaller groups on their own by directing questions and responses to each other, say with an @Joe or @Jane query.  We began these discussions by posting one of the discussion questions circulated in advance and then intervened repeatedly in multiple conversation threads to get students to specify their claims or arguments in more detail.

While many students described these discussion forums as chaotic at first, they quickly adjusted after our encouragement to concentrate on the posts of a handful of students.  They reported feeling liberated by not worrying about being called on in an in-person, single conversation setting. When we “called” on them in the chat, they didn’t feel the pressure of everyone in the class looking at them while waiting for an answer.  Instead, they knew that others were simultaneously focused on their own conversations. They were more comfortable, knowing they had time to think through their responses to our queries or those from fellow students.

Clear communication and organization. With this ongoing classroom disruption, clear communication and accessibility is vital to success. Moving from a classroom to online mid-semester may heighten anxiety as students have been socialized to a specific process throughout the preceding weeks. Good communication can ease this stressful situation and provide guidance in creating a new normalcy.  Use your LMS’s announcement or email feature to let your students know about any changes to the syllabus and assignments as early as possible. Collect all these announcements in a central location. Your LMS may also let you post announcements or information on your course home page. Prompt responses to any issues or questions will set a supportive tone and provide the necessary guidance.

It is also a good practice to create a clear lesson structure in your LMS. Try to provide all instructional content–such as readings and lecture videos–in a single tab or page so students can access them easily.

The importance of starting strong. We have learned that it is vitally important for students to “start strong” in online courses. At the beginning of the course, they need to understand what is expected, know the schedule of the course, and get into a successful routine of completing assignments by their deadlines to succeed. As we already noted, online courses disrupt traditional academic routines. When taking an online course, students need to develop new routines early on so that they do not fall behind in class and get discouraged.

Instructors can help students make these adjustments by following two crucial steps. First, at the beginning of class, provide frequent reminders of upcoming deadlines so students quickly acclimate to the flow of the online course. We also recorded an introductory lecture that explained the content and schedule of the course so students could hear it from us rather than simply read the syllabus. Second, early intervention can help students who fall behind to catch up rather than fail or drop the course. Online courses are particularly well suited to help students recover from initial missteps. We use short low-stakes quizzes after each lecture segment to incentivize students to watch the lecture videos and reinforce the material. These quizzes allow instructors to identify students who do not understand the material or are simply not attending class. Check your LMS to see if it provides data on student usage, such as durations and daily distribution of page views.  These enabled us to monitor student engagement with the course. We also implemented an early intervention program that emailed students who were not watching lectures or completing assignments. These students responded very positively to these interventions, appreciated the outreach, and often managed to establish successful routines and complete the course.

The challenges of collaboration.  All instructors have to make decisions about the appropriate level of collaboration in their classrooms.  Online instruction can heighten the challenges associated with regulating collaboration, particularly during high-stakes exams.  We have typically solved these problems through the standard monitoring of in-person tests that bring students together twice or three times in a semester.  Obviously, this option is no longer available.

Asynchronous assessments that rely on multiple-choice or true/false questions can be particularly susceptible to cheating.  Some students will simply coordinate among themselves, taking turns to get the questions (and answers if provided to them) before sharing with others.  Some of these challenges can be alleviated with large question banks that most will not have time to write during this rapid transition to online instruction.

Instructors might consider the following remedies.  For smaller classes, take home essays, graded online discussion sections, and timed, short answer exams (with a large number of definitional terms or concepts that can be substituted for each other) work really well.  This semester, we will replace our remaining high-stakes, in-person exams with a series of synchronous, timed, open notes, low-stakes quizzes. We will limit the duration of the testing window and shuffle questions with a larger than normal question bank to heighten the challenges of collaborating.  This format is also aided with cheating detection software supplied by our university.

Online proctoring. You can also use a third-party proctoring service to give high-stakes exams in an online course.  They confirm the identity of students and monitor them through a computer’s camera over the course of an exam.  We encourage the consideration of several tradeoffs with this alternative. Students will be rightfully concerned about their privacy.  Many could also face hurdles associated with cost and technical requirements.   Students may not have access to the same technology at home that they did on campus.  They may lose their internet connection in the middle of an exam or try to do things like taking an exam while in a moving car! This can increase frustration for all sides and impact continuity within the class.  You may see if your university already has an online proctoring service that could be seamlessly implemented. However, we learned that staff oversight is usually necessary to act as a liaison between the student and the proctoring service.

The current crisis is a defining moment for higher education.  As a community, we have never experienced this type of disruption to our daily work and studies.  Unlike some other industries that must simply shut down during this crisis, we are being asked to continue our core academic mission using technology and a virtual learning environment.  While online education is relatively new, it has been used to provide high-quality instruction to millions of students. We can use these tools to continue to teach our students remotely.  In the process, we may learn to harness the advantages of online tools to enhance our classes even after the crisis ends.