Regardless of the age or educational choices of today’s students, one of the biggest impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic is the closure of schools and the rapid move to online learning. For many students, this is their first foray into online learning (also known as distance education). With this new learning platform comes plenty of challenges, choices, and questions about how to move forward, how to be successful, and whether or not one’s education is going to suffer.
Many are also wondering what effect this change in learning environment will have on the quality of a student’s education. Many educators, like most students, have now found themselves working in an unprecedented space, rapidly moving their student’s education online, engaging with new platforms and media, and muddling through the challenge of meeting their student’s needs in the best ways that they can.
At this point, it’s still uncertain how long students will be out of school and instead working in an online environment. This type of uncertainty can lead to anxiety and fear, particularly for the college student diligently working towards their future career. Let’s take a look at what switching to an online curriculum (for whatever duration of time) may mean for these students.
About Online Learning
Every school and program is handling this current transition a little bit differently. Some colleges have moved quickly to implement an online curriculum, while others have had their students in a holding pattern, waiting until educators can better implement a formalized plan or the institution has the resources to fully support their students. As we approach the Fall and the beginning of a new school year, the only thing that remains clear is that most students will continue to be required to participate in online learning in some form.
If you are new to online learning, you likely have some fears and questions. Here are some things to consider for the (new) online learner:
– Do you have a computer and reliable internet access? Some programs are entirely self-driven and unscheduled, but many teachers/professors also require online engagement at specific times.
– You will need to develop familiarity with an online “classroom” platform (a learning management system (LMS)). Commonly used platforms include Blackboard, Moodle, and Desire2Learn. These spaces are where students can access their syllabus, schedule, announcements, modules, assignments, chats or discussion boards, take tests/quizzes, send private messages, and access grades.
– In the absence of in-classroom lectures, you will likely be required to engage with a variety of other media. This may include textbooks, ebooks, Powerpoints, podcasts, webcasts, TEDTalks, TeacherTubes, and/or prerecorded lectures.
– You may still be required to engage in group projects. This will require familiarity with screen and document sharing and video chats. Commonly used platforms include Google Chats/Hangouts and Google Docs, Zoom, and Skype.
– Expect changes to grading and examination structures. You may have proctored exams via webcams, time-limited exams, or be required to show up and test at very specific times.
Most commonly, the majority of online learning doesn’t occur in real-time. Though you may have some scheduled requirements, most online work can be done independently and on the student’s schedule. Though students can no longer meet with their professors, there are still a variety of ways instructors can answer questions and provide guidance. This may occur through email, message boards, or live chat features (within a set “office hour”). Though students will lose the live lessons and lectures they are used to, online learners often find that the availability of supplemental materials offered or suggested (auditory, visual, hands-on, reading, etc.) is much better. For some students, these new materials and methods of engagement prove beneficial, as they meet different learning styles in different ways.
Challenges of Online Education
While the flexibility and creativity of online learning can be extremely attractive, it would be dishonest to say that they are not many challenges that may arise from this learning format as well.
Here are some of the common challenges for today’s online students:
– Self-Direction and Motivation: Online learning requires a lot of both of these. Students must be driven to stay on schedule, with the ability to complete both day-to-day requirements and look forward to future assignments and exams.
– Lack of Interaction: Though LMS program offers a ton of avenues of interaction, many students still miss the physical time and space with the professor and other students. Some students are also less comfortable in the online space, so the loss of in-person communication(s) significantly challenges their ability to ask questions and engage.
– Computer/Digital Literacy: While most can use computers for basic needs, many students are unfamiliar with common technical issues and different program functions. While these problems can often eventually be solved by the students (perhaps with institutionally offered learning support), it takes precious time away from them.
– Time Management: This can be particularly challenging for new online learners, as they may just not yet grasp the actual amount of time class requirements will take.
Computer Science in an Online Format
Certainly, there are some areas of study that can handle the transition to online education much “easier.” Computer science (CS) is one of these areas of study. Classes in these programs already include extensive work and familiarity with computers, human interaction with these machines, the web, and different software programs. Though students who are (have been) asked to abruptly switch to an online learning environment are going to have expected growing pains, they will likely be able to better handle the common challenges of online learning related to digital literacy, software literacy, and technical issues.
Today, there are hundreds of online computer science degree programs that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic caused so much change. Their extensive presence, success, and desirability is a clear indication of the ability of both educators and students to successfully learn the skills required for both the delivery and learning of CS education.
Takeaways of Switching to an Online Format
As COVID-19 continues to move around the country, there are several questions facing educators, students and parents. Though online learning has been around (and been successful) for a long time, the rapid and forced move to this format has shown a variety of weaknesses and gaps that educators and institutions are working diligently to fix.
To allow for students to be as successful as possible in these unprecedented times, institutions must competently address a couple of key issues:
– The Digital Divide: All students need access to the internet. Smartphones are not enough for successful online engagement. Some schools are addressing this issue by renting out laptops and offering hotspots.
– Strong Online Infrastructure: Online students quickly become frustrated. Institutions need to quickly make investments in instructional designers and learning support personnel to ensure students and educators can seamlessly engage with each other.
If educational institutions can mitigate these issues, the current extensive focus on online education has the potential to create some healthy growth in the digital learning sphere. As the online environment is enhanced, supported, and strengthened, students and educators both may come to recognize the value and freedom in online education (potentially when they have never enjoyed it or considered it prior). Alternatively, if this transition is done badly or an institution lacks resources to support their students and educators, this move to online education could highlight all of its potential challenges, leading to less support and value for online learning in the many years to come.
Without question, this is a challenging time for everyone. “For those new to online teaching and learning, this may well be a very challenging time…patience and prioritization will be key to making the best of the situation” (Melissa Venable, Ph.D). Your education does not have to suffer because of this academic transition, but there are some areas of possible change or challenge that you may want to pay attention to. If you don’t have the digital resources you need, reach out to your professor or institution. If you are struggling with time management or motivation, identify time wasters and ask for help. If you need and/or miss physical interaction, ask for live sessions, take advantage of online “office hours,” and when appropriate, meet in small, socially distanced study groups. This season is a learning curve for all, but our academic institutions are working hard to meet students needs to ensure that learning does not suffer.