”Sure, we can learn things on our own, but we rarely learn them as deeply, because so much of our learning derives from our social nature and visceral need to communicate with other people.”
-How Humans Learn, Joshua Eyler (2018)
In my blog posts, I typically write about educational technologies or the intersection between technology and teaching innovation. In this piece, however, I want to focus on elements of effective pedagogy that leverage technology, but first account for students as humans within a learning community. During these times of pandemic and widespread worry about the future of education, we must strengthen our fall delivery of courses by asking questions related to the dynamics of communication and student learning before we inundate teachers with technological tools and links to online instructional resources.
The growing realization that the majority of the country’s classrooms will be taught remotely in the fall of 2020 has taken hold. The Chronicle of Higher Education has been tracking more than 1,200 colleges to gauge their plans for reopening in the fall. As of this writing, 44 percent of colleges plan to open online or with a hybrid model, while 51 percent claim they are planning for an in-person reopening. I question this latter data, however. Schools have been responding to this Chronicle survey since the beginning of summer. Therefore, in a very fluid environment which has worsened in late July and early August, schools have very publicly changed their initial plans from in-person to hybrid/online. It is very likely that the Chronicle’s claim of 51 percent is actually much higher today.
At all levels, from K-12 to higher education, announcements have been made of schools shifting to the online teaching modality. These decisions obviously reflect COVID19’s impact on education as well as urgency to return to some semblance of normalcy, even during these challenging times. In higher education, colleges and universities are collecting petabytes of data from multiple internal and external stakeholders in an effort to prepare for the fall semester online. Moreover, there is no shortage of teaching conferences, remote learner summits, and professional development webinars available to improve the skills of teachers. Surely these preparatory activities are laudable, however many of us in higher education administration are equally concerned about the impact of 100 percent online and hybrid education on first-generation students and students from academically diverse backgrounds. The research in this field suggests retention rates for students generally are lower in online classes than in face-to-face classes, and this gap is disproportionately worsened when accounting in particular for first-generation students.
So how do schools systems prepare teachers for closing the learning impact gap and create optimal environments for learning to occur online? In addition to the technological skills associated with mastering learning management systems, web conferencing software, and third-party educational technology tools, schools must first and foremost ensure teachers are focused on heightened communication with students throughout the semester.
Communication with students is the primary way to ensure the retention gap is mitigated and that students understand they are receiving the support needed to be successful. Rebecca Glazier’s research claims there are three strategies that should be employed. Teachers should:
1) humanize themselves,
2) leave personal feedback, and
3) pro-actively reach out to students.
These strategies all lead to the overall goal, Dr. Glazier says, of building rapport with students. This idea is supported by additional empirical research on pedagogical practices.
As the fall semester begins and questions abound regarding online education infrastructures and technological capacities, instructors and administrators must strive to build community and establish effective communication models with and among students. We must resist the temptation of relying on technology solely for content-related delivery. First, we must use technologies to ensure student well-being, especially during the opportune periods of synchronous interaction.