Education during a pandemic: rethinking the return to campus

Laura Kelly of Dropbox asks: how can educators ensure the challenges of technology and motivation are always in sync?

Before the pandemic, most universities, colleges and many schools offered some form of online education as part of their syllabus. Teaching, however, was still overwhelmingly classroom-based. Yet, even with online courses growing in popularity over the past decade, it’s safe to say that most institutions weren’t prepared for the dramatic shift to semi or full-time remote learning that COVID-19 has caused this past year.

A survey by Stanford University found that most of its students have struggled with the transition to remote learning. “Nearly 80 percent of students indicated difficulty with focusing on online instruction,” the survey concludes. “Nearly two-thirds of all students reported that the way courses transformed from in-person to online presented educational challenges.”

So, what can educators do as the world learns to live with increasingly virtual modes of learning and communication?

Rethinking the remote toolkit

Right now, more students than ever before are learning to adjust to a new ‘digital backpack’, where products like Zoom, Slack, G-Suite and Dropbox are front and centre of the learning experience. Thus, it has become vital to ensure that all students are comfortable with these new tools. This can be achieved by offering workshops and orientation classes that help them get to grips with the new learning, teaching and community development practices on offer.

However, computer literacy remains an obstacle in ensuring equality among students, with text-heavy approaches often exasperating students in an online setting. Again, moving online is a chance for educators to rethink their classes, perhaps shifting from class discussion and annotation to reading guides and online debate.

“We need to offer modern and personalised frameworks to help students thrive remotely from home”

This may also be a suitable time to change our attitude towards assessment formats. At Dropbox, we’re seeing more of our education sector partners and customers remove the requirement that students present final projects in-person. Instead, they offer students the choice to present live via Zoom or to create a slideshow with a voiceover, or even a full pre-recorded video presentation.

All of this works to level the virtual playing field, making it easier for students of all abilities to engage, rather than feel hamstrung by courses that don’t offer the freedom of choice that digital solutions can bring.

Avoiding stagnation

As we battle on with this pandemic, a worry is that students learning remotely may not be as stimulated, compared with working alongside classroom peers. Is there a risk that at home, while starved of in-person, cross-disciplinary education, that learning stagnation will set in?

Of course, there’s always this danger. But tunnel vision and disengagement can b e a problem in traditional classroom settings, too – as students often find value in certain content and activities that suit their interests.

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One way in which potential online learning stagnation can be mitigated is by avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach to educational programmes. We need to offer modern and personalised frameworks to help students thrive remotely from home.

The critical step is for schools and companies to create a strong, holistic learning culture and put plans in place to make it bloom. Now that students aren’t confined to a classroom, it’s easier to assess when a task isn’t engaging them as hoped. It’s up to educators to lean on their innate skills and work with new digital solutions to adapt their delivery, ensuring they resonate with their students throughout these unprecedented times.

A new approach

Ultimately, remote tuition is an opportunity to evolve education. In recent months, we’ve seen many educators opt for methods that they’ve always relied upon – recording lectures, supporting a proctor administering a test, or offering an online chat to supplement a video conference. Perhaps when times are uncertain, we all look to tried and tested formula for backup.

However, the data shows this isn’t always a good way to teach. Consider that the average time a lecturer can hope to engage a class for in the traditional format is around eight minutes; now imagine that those lectures comprise the bulk of a student’s daily virtual learning in lockdown. If we think that this kind of passive learning isn’t effective in a classroom, it’s way less effective online.

It’s time for educators to rethink what ‘back to school’ really means in the context of COVID-19, and to look at ways to change the status quo to benefit students. Whatever the case might be, teachers need to strap up their digital backpacks and transform our accepted modes of learning, for good.

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