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A Lot Of College Students Haven't Liked Online Learning. We Asked An Expert How To Make It Better.

The camera looks over the shoulder of a student who is watching a teacher on her computer during an online class.
A student takes part in remote distance learning with her teacher.
(John Moore
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Getty Images North America)
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In March 2020, colleges and universities across the country asked students to switch to online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They expected it to be a short stint.

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A Lot Of College Students Haven't Liked Online Learning. We Asked An Expert How To Make It Better.

Weeks turned into months, and schools stayed online. Campus life diminished and, at some campuses, students packed their bags and moved back home. Some families demanded refunds.

The advent of COVID-19 vaccines enabled campuses to welcome students back to campus last fall, an effort only temporarily undermined by the omicron variant.

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Now that infection cases are back in decline, most colleges and universities have resumed in-person instruction. But some students — including caretakers and those with long commutes — say remote learning enabled them to better balance their responsibilities, and they want to continue having the option of learning from home. On some campuses, including UCLA and UC Irvine, students even staged protests, calling on officials to provide “hybrid” options, particularly for students with disabilities and those who live with or are themselves immunocompromised.

To better understand what’s needed to provide quality remote instruction at the postsecondary level — and to gauge what the future of online learning might look like after the pandemic — LAist sat down with Dr. Sharla Berry, an assistant professor at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks and expert in the field. Her latest book, Creating Inclusive Online Communities: Practices That Support and Engage Diverse Students, will be published later this year.

As you know, college students across the state have been demanding “hybrid” classes now that in-person instruction has resumed. What are your thoughts on this?

The Different Kinds Of Online Learning
  • What's the difference between all the different models of learning that aren't "in person"?

  • ONLINE LEARNING vs. VIRTUAL LEARNING

  • These are generally interchangeable, although "online learning” may be more popular.

  • DISTANCE LEARNING

  • While online learning can be considered distance learning, not all distance learning is online learning. Instead, distance learning might include activities that are done at home but not with a computer.

  • HYFLEX LEARNING

  • This is the fashionable name for classes that are simultaneously held in-person and streamed online, in which the educator has to manage two kinds of instruction at once.

With the hybrid model, you would have some [instruction] in person and some online. Something that's important to note, though, is that for a hybrid course, it doesn't necessarily have to be in person. Some people use the term “hybrid” and “blended” interchangeably, and that can refer to a combination of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. So, for example, some of the course might be occurring synchronously, or in real time, if you think about Zoom, and the other portions of the course might be asynchronous, say through discussion boards or emails.

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I think, for a lot of students, the turn toward hybrid learning provides them with the best of both worlds. In a sense, it provides them with an opportunity to meet at the main campus, if they're able to, and to get that face-to-face support from faculty, staff and peers, while also having that online component. And for students who are working or have caregiving responsibilities, the opportunity to have some flexibility really provides them with a lot of choice.

Some student advocates have suggested that online learning is as easy as recording a lecture and posting it online, or live streaming a course done in person. Do you agree?

Without knowledge of the students’ specific concerns, I won't necessarily speak to that. But what I will say is that online learning is complicated. It requires a lot of forethought and planning. So, of course, someone could simply upload recorded materials, but the other side of it is student engagement. And sometimes students might struggle with things where there is less of a personal connection, so we have to be more mindful.

Again, we're balancing a number of considerations. So certainly, we can use technology to make courses more accessible, and we can record things that are happening in person, or before things that are happening online, and save them to shared databases. And in that way we can expand access. But I caution against thinking that that's what the totality of online learning is, particularly today, when people are doing a lot of different things to highly customize and tailor their instruction.

What kind of preparedness do you think faculty members should have for the next emergency? 

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I think it is really important for us to think about how to keep some elements of online learning, because there could be other things — like another pandemic, God forbid — that could take an institution offline, and colleges and universities need to prepare for that. So, for example, we are seeing different natural disasters — like in California, the wildfires, or in other places, there are hurricanes and other natural disasters — that could take schools offline for days or weeks or months. So it's important to be prepared for the different kinds of experiences that could cause intermittent closures.

Even if those closures are only for a day or a week or a few weeks, it would be beneficial to the entire learning community for us to be skilled in multiple modes of teaching and learning so that when we have to pivot next time, we're able to do so a lot more quickly and even more effectively.

What is good online learning at the college level, and what kind of preparation do professors need to make it work? 

Quality online learning, especially at the undergraduate level, should include opportunities for connection and community building.

Instructors should also consider how they are facilitating peer-to-peer interaction, and they should leverage technology to make classrooms as interactive and as engaging as possible, at the undergraduate level in particular, but at all levels.

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They should include opportunities for students to work together, and large and small groups to meet synchronously whenever possible and get to know about each other personally and professionally.

And so, the shift to online learning presents new needs for professional development. There is, of course, a need for technical knowledge — I think that, for a lot of faculty, that’s their biggest growth area. Individuals need to know how to use whatever learning management systems or platforms are being [used], and they need to understand the norms around that: What are students expecting when they use Zoom, or Blackboard or Canvas? So, understanding how to work the technology is really important.

But it's also important to have a good sense of online pedagogy and an understanding of how to actually teach learners using technology. This really varies by content area. When I'm talking to STEM faculty, they want to know: How do I do an experiment at a distance? That looks very different than our humanities faculty, who are trying to do a poetry activity or a reading group, or talking to individuals in the psychology department and trying to understand the nuances of handling sensitive topics at a distance.

A headshot of Sharla Berry
Dr. Sharla Berry
(Brian Stethem)

Can you have a great online class and a great in-person class at the same time, taught by the same professor? I have a feeling it would be extremely difficult.  

I think you're talking about the HyFlex models, [which combine face-to-face and online instruction]. So, in a HyFlex course, you will be simultaneously teaching online and in person. And HyFlex is very difficult. We've all been in meetings, say, for example, when you've been on a conference line and everyone's meeting in person, and it's really difficult for the facilitator to engage both in person and the people on the phone or online. Now, it's not impossible.

However, I do think that teaching in a HyFlex manner requires, one, proper investment in technology so that you're able to see and interact and engage with all the learners. But it also really requires a high degree of facilitation. There are some strategies people can use to overcome these barriers, but, essentially, it will amount to eventually splitting the class at certain points, where the instructors will have to give more of their attention to the in-person students and [then] more of the attention to the online students. So it's not impossible, but it requires a high degree of mastery in online teaching, a high degree of mastery of in-person teaching and experience blending the two together.

However, a lot of students can struggle in this environment and [so can] a lot of faculty. It can be very taxing to facilitate, simultaneously, two different modes of instruction. It is very difficult work.

And while making connections can be difficult at a distance for some people, it's not impossible. For some students, it's actually preferred.
— Sharla Berry, assistant professor, Cal Lutheran University

What are some things the general public misunderstands about online education? 

I think that some people, especially those who have not taken an online course, might think that connection and community building are not possible, or that online learning is an inherently lonely or isolating experience. And while making connections can be difficult at a distance for some people, it's not impossible. For some students, it's actually preferred. So I think that, you know, just changing our understanding about what is possible and knowing that with the right instructional practices, connection and community building are entirely possible in online courses.

Your research highlights the need to build community in online classrooms. Why is that so important, and what can professors and lecturers do to cultivate it?

Community is important for student engagement and retention. When a student feels that they are a part of a learning community, that is, a supportive social group where they feel membership, trust and belonging, they are more likely to participate, and they tend to have better academic outcomes. Their learning is stronger, their comprehension is deeper. And there are also social and emotional benefits to community as well. Students who feel a sense of community are less likely to feel isolated, and less likely to experience depression and anxiety.

There are a number of things that folks can do to start to build community. One thing is to get to know your students. We take for granted that a lot of our informal interactions are little less common online, like meeting before class, rushing through the parking lot together or grabbing coffee — we're not having those opportunities where we will be having a lot of that small talk. And that small talk helps us get to know each other. Fortunately, if you're teaching online — especially if you're teaching synchronously — you can start to recreate some of that. You can log online to Zoom a few minutes early and just encourage a little bit of dialogue. You can set a prompt and ask people to share highlights from their week or entertaining TV shows, just light conversations to get folks to start to open up and share and connect.

Also, the more that you can have students interact with each other, the better. When we're meeting synchronously, it's a little bit easier to interact by using things like breakout rooms and the chat, just to get students talking to each other and working in small groups. But even asynchronously, through discussion boards, you can place students into small groups, you can share with them social prompts and have them respond.

Something else to build community, especially if you are asynchronous, is to move away from just text-based communication and get creative. You can have students send audio messages to each other, or even video messages. Not for every assignment. These are just different ways to kind of break it up, get to use the voice, get to see the face. Those are the things that really help us start to connect, so just personalizing the learning in even small ways goes a long way toward building that learning community.

Should online classes be offered for less money than in-person instruction?

It's important to note that there are unique costs associated with online courses. So, for universities, online course development sometimes costs more than in-person instruction, especially at the onset when they are developing new courses and training faculty. There are investments to be made in technology, as well as training of both faculty and staff. There are also hardware costs, and there could be software costs. There's also the cost of staff to support the courses, so often moving online requires new instructional designers, faculty, developers, technology support staff, different people to be responsive to the different components of the online course. So the costs are different, but they're not necessarily less than in-person instruction, particularly when an institution is just shifting to online learning.

Earlier this month, there was a ruling ordering California school districts to offer better distance learning options for students with disabilities. The lawsuit in that case involves K-12, but how should colleges and universities consider their approach to online learning for students with disabilities? 

This is an area that I’m still growing my expertise in. One thing that I will say is that faculty can support students with disabilities by adopting a framework like Universal Design for Learning. This is beneficial for disabled and non-disabled students alike. It encourages the use of teaching tools, strategies and practices that allow for multiple means of representation, expression and engagement. And so, it is a way to make the classroom more accessible for all students and for all learners.

We also need to think about broader accessibility for all students. It's important that faculty don't make assumptions, including the assumption that all disabilities will be rendered visible. So, you may not know what students are experiencing, and they all may not be connected to formal university support. But some things that we can think about to make classes more accessible include:

  • adding closed captioning to recorded videos
  • ensuring that course materials can be easily read by screen readers
  • presenting content in different forms — including written, oral and visual — so that you can support learners with different needs and providing visual representation for complex concepts.

So, in some of these ways, we start to make the classroom more accessible, both for students with disabilities and for non-disabled students who may just benefit from teaching and from instruction in different formats.
I’m curious, how did you become interested in online learning? 

I started researching almost 10 years ago, in 2013. At the time, technology in general was a big trend — I don't know if you remember coding and coding boot camps, and that kind of thing — and we were all adjusting to the rise of Uber and Facebook and all these different apps. And so, as a Black woman, I just wanted to see more of myself in this space. A lot of the technology field is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, so they're not necessarily thinking about it from diverse perspectives. I just wanted to make sure that I wasn't left out, that people that I care about weren't left out and that we could infuse a more diverse, human-centered, socially conscious, class-conscious kind of view into the space.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?

Yes, we want to think about how to support low-income students, and how we can make technology — both hardware and software — more accessible.

We want to be sensitive to those who have technology challenges, and we have to think about the broader contexts students are living in. For example, in Native country and rural areas, students might have different access to technology.

We also want to be thinking about how we can create safe and supportive classrooms — for Black students, Indigenous students and students of color — that are engaging and affirming.

We want to be thinking about women and those in caregiving roles who are balancing the online class.

We want to think about trans students and how we can be using gender affirming and inclusive language.

And of course, we want to be thinking about students with disabilities and how we can make our classrooms accessible for them and for all students. So, I do hope that as we continue into this path of online learning, we're broadening our kind of perceptions and our understanding, so we can think about how we can really make this work for all students.

What questions do you have about higher education?