“Never let formal education get in the way of your learning.”     Mark Twain

 

 

In little over one week, the coronavirus and the need for social distancing marshalled US colleges and universities to adapt online learning for their students. Face-to-face classes were cancelled for the rest of the semester. Some of my classes were already partially online but I am no technocrat. In fact, I usually drag my feet when it comes to emerging technologies of any kind. However, I have more resolve to support my community college students. Students and faculty are all in this together. I want to play my part to help my students.

Resistance To Online Learning Likely To Change

According to Bay View Analytics, 70% of 1.5 million faculty members have never taught a virtual course before. A 2017 Educause survey reported that only 9% of academics prefer teaching “in a completely online environment.” Nearly half of faculty surveyed did not agree that online learning was effective. A notable faculty concern was that virtual classrooms would be less enjoyable than the traditional classroom.

That was my belief as well. Forced into going fully online with little time for formal training was mindboggling. Yes, I have partially online courses for my finance classes but I usually spend the majority of my time face-to-face with students. Fortunately, as a result of teaching partially online classes, I have substantial content–videos, articles, power points–online for students through Blackboard.

The Online Learning Platform

To teach online effectively, faculty and students need a learning management system (LMS). Such a platform must provide two-way communications, deliver content, and assess students’ work. As Blackboard users, a few colleagues had been using the revised Blackboard Collaborate Ultra which is a desirable platform. Years ago,I had been trained on a  more cumbersome platform. Frankly, I steered clear of using it for a variety of reasons. I preferred the traditional classroom where I can easily engage students with active learning exercises, weaving my work experiences into my lessons.

The coronavirus is a black swan event. A black swan event refers to an unpredictable occurrence that has a major effect. As such, this virus has spread beyond what is normally expected during flu season. Its widespread impact is already severe. It has dramatically changing our lives on a worldwide basis. Though it is bringing severe consequences, let us hope for positive results too. The rapid adoption of online learning is likely one of those positive outcomes. It may make resistant faculty believers yet.

Setting aside previous sentiments about online learning, a group of faculty at our college retrained and supported each other as we readied ourselves for the virtual classroom. While it’s too early to give a full assessment of the online teaching experience, I have survived the first couple of weeks. More than intact, I am enjoying the experience.

Preliminary Observations And Recommendations:

 

Flexibility

Faculty and students had no choice but to move their classes to an online learning environment. That is not optimum for anyone. Would many of us have chosen to teach the remaining semester online if we had a choice? I doubt it. However, when it became mandatory to teach our students online, I did not hesitate to use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Motivated, I rapidly prepared for the virtual classroom, leaning on some of my more knowledgeable colleagues.

Working from home was easy even with two teens home for distance learning as well. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra has flexible tools controlled by faculty. The platform has  two-way communications with audio and video tools that can be accessible for students. Content can be delivered in real time so that up-to-date articles can be shared and used for discussion. For my digital native students who are accustomed to mobile devices, the change appeared to be seamless.

Longer term, online learning will provide greater flexibility. Those who work or have family obligations are prime candidates for virtual classes. Fully online classes, with broad  offerings will likely be a bonanza in the future.

Great Forum For Interactivity, Especially Quiet Students

One fear I had before moving classes online was the potential lack of interactivity. That has not yet materialized. Classes are fully attended and scheduled for the same time as previously. Interactivity is really strong. Students have the ability to either write questions or offer comments through the chat function or on the whiteboard which I can share. Some of the quieter students are actively communicating for the first time. I can acknowledge them individually by name and it feels more personal.

I recognize that some of this student engagement may be due to the novelty of using this new forum. Additionally, it may be the only chance for students to stay in touch with their friends and classmates because of social distancing. For whatever reason, this seems to be a good experience for students and faculty.

The Need To Be Self-Disciplined

Even before our move to fully online classes, I was aware that students were worried about their abilities to stay on top of my partially online classes. Although I provide a weekly schedule of readings, assignments and exams, the responsibility of being self-disciplined belongs to each individual. I urge students to become more as organized as possible. Faculty should be organized as well. That said, feedback from previous classes has generally been positive from students. They have advised that their experiences were better than expected as the schedule provided a clear framework and expectations.

I provide constant reminders through Blackboard with revised expectations. As we moved online because of COVID-19,  I became more vigilant about providing students with needed changes to our timetable, revising expectations. To my students’ credit, they are proactively asking for due dates for papers and exams. Being online has really matured these students’ attitudes towards education in such a positive manner.

Technology Is Helping To Mirror Traditional Classroom And More

Our virtual classroom can accommodate many of the features I use in the classroom. I use power points and the whiteboard interchangeably. Writing on the whiteboard is a bit slower but clearer for my students. They can’t read my handwriting in the classroom. Plus, the students can have access to write questions or comments on the board. Students can raise their hands, write in “chat” mode or ask through audio. There is a video function but I am not sure I want all of us to share our pajama wear.

All sessions are recorded for my students if they miss anything. Some of them are shopping or helping their families. Office hours can be arranged with students in need. Separately, I use a discussion board that is always on for general questions or comments.

In the upcoming weeks, I intend to poll students using a variety of questions related to the course. This way, I can collect feedback about their online experience as well.

Tailor-Made To Modify Courses

Integrating course materials with relevant current events always enlivens lectures, especially my finance classes. My students are virtual portfolio managers using a simulated stock market game for the entire term. My learning activities are broken down into parts leading to an end result. At the beginning of the term, they pick stocks as we study financial markets, institutions, securities and the Federal Reserve. They create stock market tables to track their picks and relative performance the rest of the term.

Most of the term they use the web to research different topics we cover such as monetary policy, banks, regulation and initial public offerings. They also research their companies reading SEC filings, analyst reports and articles to determine why a stock is performing better or worse than the market. When the coronavirus caused stocks to plummet students were able to learn quickly about the risky nature of stock investments. My lessons were tailor-made for the classroom and even more so as we went online. Online tools accommodate changes very well.

However, it dawned on me as I was reviewing content and assignments to put online that I desperately needed to update the assignments. The Fed was taking massive emergency actions to pump liquidity into our financial system as never before. Yet, their assignments and my lectures were centered on looking at the Fed’s outdated lack of action in January 2020. Instead, I modified assignments to integrate how the virus affected our economy, financial markets and the Fed was acting to soften the anticipated recession.

Teachable Moment For All Of Us

This event was thrust upon us. Preparing for online learning has been difficult for faculty to do on the fly. However, I feel pleasantly somewhat productive and capable on this new system. I have learned new skills and have far more to learn. Students have proven to be adaptable as well. Feedback will be important. My students are having as hard a time as I am worrying about loved ones. That they rallied to come to class is wonderful.

Some Students Have Financial Hardships Going Online

For years, I have encountered students in my classes who were homeless, living in their cars or in shelters. Wisconsin Hope Lab released a study that surveyed 70 community colleges in the US. That study revealed that 14% of students are homeless. Another study pointed to 42% of community college students having food insecurity  compared to 14% at private colleges. Notwithstanding the hardships caused by the virus, community college students tend to have greater difficulties. As such, they may not have access to technology, the Internet or school supplies. Now more than ever, we need to be compassionate for all students.

In recognition of students’ greater financial strain, community colleges need to provide greater support. As a result of this race to move online from the traditional classroom, some students may have been left behind inadvertently. With libraries on campuses shut down due to the virus, some students may not have access to a computer at home or are sharing with others. Previously, they were able to work on school computers. Colleges and universities are providing loaner laptops and other technology provisions to those in need.

Related Post: 10 Benefits When Attending Community Colleges

Online Classes As An Equal Playing Field

Longer term, when the dust settles after this forced online learning experience, faculty will have a chance to redress their online courses with more time, effort and thought. There are added benefits for students who have jobs and other committments. They may prefer the efficiencies of online courses with reduced travel time and costs. Online courses are also eco-friendly, another benefit in congested cities.

For those who prefer self-paced learning, online learning is a more flexible option. For colleges and universities, faculty and students, it may provide a good return on investment. The tools are there. Willingness on the part of faculty to teach more virtual classes may rise. Higher education can play an important role to bridge the gap for those who cannot afford buying their own laptops.

Final Thoughts

The rapid move to universal online learning, replacing the traditional classroom, was a good move. Without online teaching, millions of students would lose essential time to learn and earn credits. Longer term, I believe online learning should have an important place in every school. Those who were resistant, including myself, may find this experience to be very rewarding. At the very least, many of us can say, “Yes, we can teach courses in a virtual classroom.”  Sometimes emergencies prompt us into action. We can surprise ourselves with our readiness to make changes. Online learning may be a tangible benefit brought on by the nasty coronavirus.

Related Post:

How To Prepare For A Coronavirus-Related Recession

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