What challenges are professors and college students facing with the migration of classes online?

Melissa Wong
Melissa Wong, Adjunct Lecturer

Most universities around the country have ended classroom instruction, told students to go home, and asked professors to continue teaching their courses online, to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus. Melissa Wong, an adjunct lecturer at the iSchool, has been teaching online since 2001. Her online courses include e-learning and instructional strategies and techniques. She recently gave two webinars about moving courses online. She talked with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel.

What are some of the challenges of moving to online teaching in a very short time frame?

Robust, high-quality online instruction takes time to plan and develop. Oftentimes, faculty members are given release time and paired with an instructional designer to create material and adapt their teaching approach and assignments. Currently, we have institutions saying to faculty members, "You have five days." Going online that quickly is challenging.

There are legitimate concerns with whether some of these online tools can keep up with increased usage. Also, we know some students don't have access to technology they need such as a laptop and home wireless. These students had been using campus computer labs and smartphones. Faculty members need to ask themselves: Were students going to a coffee shop and using its wifi? Are they now dependent on a data plan? Are they sharing one laptop with two siblings at home?

Faculty members also are isolating at home, and many are suddenly homeschooling their own children. There are some unique struggles people are going through. This is more an experiment in emergency instruction than true online instruction.

How do you expect that instruction to go for those who have never taught online before?

People who have taught for many years, who are confident in the classroom and already tech-savvy are embracing this challenge. Others are understandably anxious. They want to do a good job for students.

One thing to keep in mind is that we're in this for the long haul. Most institutions have said they're not coming back to campus this semester. Faculty members are looking at six to eight weeks of instruction online. The first couple of weeks are going to be interesting and maybe a little bit rocky. What people are doing the first week – emergency triage to get online – is not what they're going to be doing six weeks down the road.

Students also have to learn how to go to class online. The student experience will change what faculty members do or enable them to try more complex or innovative online strategies. The longer this goes on, the more we're going to see faculty members trying new things, and it's going to get better.

What I see that's so encouraging and heartening is the number of faculty members reaching out to their students to say: "I care about you. I support you. This isn't what we planned on, but we're going to get through it."

What are some changes in the way they teach that are necessary when they move online?

The stereotypical view is that a faculty member lectures and students take notes. So much more happens in our classrooms. Faculty members have discussions with students or students break into small groups for active learning. All of that is possible online; it just takes a different kind of planning. As a faculty member, you have to think: What is it I want to do, and how do I use technology to enable that activity?

In my experience, it is important to think through activities and write directions that explicitly say to students, "Here's what I want you to do step by step and here's your deadline."

What are some of the challenges for students beyond access to technology?

Online education can be isolating. You don't have someone sitting next to you in class to chat with about assignments or course questions. You can feel like you're out there alone doing this. Also, under normal circumstances, online students don't stay in their house 24 hours a day, which many of us are now doing. Students need to figure out how to build some of that social and academic interaction with their classmates back into their lives. They can connect through email, texting and online forum discussions, especially for academic support. Students can also set up social interactions like a Netflix party where they watch a film together and comment on it, a FaceTime or Google hangout, and use texting and email groups to bolster each other's spirits.

Staying connected to the instructor is important if there are technology issues or a student can't meet a deadline because of family circumstances.

Also, it's easy to fall behind, especially if a faculty member uses asynchronous instruction. What I suggest to students is to keep track of all your deadlines and create a daily or weekly work schedule for yourself to make sure everything gets done.

Do you think this will result in faculty members who weren't teaching online using more online instruction in the future?

There are definitely some folks out there who think this will show everybody the benefits of online education and convince them to give it a go. I think it will be mixed. These are not ideal circumstances. It's not what any instructional designer would suggest to win faculty members and students over to online education. Some people will say, "That was awful. Never again.” But I also think many will say, “That was an interesting challenge. It gave me some new ideas. I'd like to try this again under less extreme circumstances."

Wong and the students in her online eLearning course created a document with tips for instructors and students moving to online learning. It can be found here.

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