The COVID-19 pandemic changed the academic reality for students across the U.S., abruptly driving them into digitally enhanced forms of learning, away from face-to-face contact with faculty, other students and on-campus facilities.
What does that mean for higher education?
Although the trend of online classes has been on the rise, the range of student reactions to all-online learning environment may be mixed, explained Ravi Gajendran, associate professor of global leadership and management at FIU Business, who has done extensive research on remote work and distance environments.
“What will come out is an understanding that there are limits to online education; some classes can be done almost as well, others not,” said Gajendran. “It depends on the student experience as well as on the professor. Some professors will do better because they have more experience in teaching online.”
Many students like to go to campus, work with others, make friends and understand different perspectives.
“This may not translate very well online, but under the circumstances they have no other choice,” said Gajendran.
To ease the shift to an online landscape, faculty members have to be on top of their email inboxes, setting up online office hours where they can meet with students via video conferencing.
“The key here is to be more responsive and more available to students,” Gajendran said. “In the short term, that would make things easier. And if this is going to be a longer process, students know what to expect.” For many faculty members, this could be a challenge at this time, because they may have children and families at home or have to deal with other demands.
Students likewise have to concentrate on messages from faculty as well as be more understanding of their professors, many who are also trying to learn the skills of teaching online.
His advice to students dealing with faculty members in the shift to online? “Cut them some slack,” Gajendran said with a chuckle. “Students shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to faculty but do so in a way that makes it easy for them to respond. Be clear in their message, give the professor the context behind the email.”
Once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, how will universities know if remote learning initiatives as a response to the crisis were successful?
“If we see an uptick in the number of students enrolling in online classes next year, over and above what we can expect from past trends, which already show an upward trajectory favoring online education,” said Gajendran. “Also, if there’s a broader shift to online in professional graduate level courses and a lower enrollment in face-to-face classes.”