What have we learned about online learning?


The COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges, professors and students to engage with digital forms of education in ways many of them never had. Did the experience of teaching and learning remotely make them more open to online education and to using technology in the physical classroom? Did professors get more comfortable with teaching with technology? Did it change student expectations about when and how they learn?

A series of recent episodes of Inside Higher Ed’s Key podcast explored those and other questions. One episode featured Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant vice president of research and program assessment in Ohio State University’s Office of Student Academic Success, and Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, which pursues equitable outcomes in higher education through advances in digital learning.

Jaggars describes herself as a “critical friend” of online education; Rowland Williams is a strong advocate for the role high-quality virtual learning can play in improving postsecondary access and success for underrepresented students.

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An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

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Inside Higher Ed: Both of you have spent a good bit of time thinking and talking and researching about what we learned about digital teaching and learning during these two years in which we saw a lot more institutions, professors and students engaging in it than had been true before. What most altered your pre-pandemic view of the digital learning landscape?

Shanna Smith Jaggars: Two things really surprised me. For many years I’ve been what you might call a critical friend of online education in higher education. I saw a lot of benefits. I also had a lot of concerns. One key concern has always been the potential lack of digital infrastructure and supports for students who are less privileged. Before COVID hit in 2019, I knew that 27 percent of American adults didn’t have broadband and that those rates were higher among low-income households, in rural populations or for people of color. A lot of people were concerned about it, but I don’t think they really thought of college students in terms of digital equity, because almost all colleges, including community colleges, have strong internet access on campus. And if you don’t have a good desktop or laptop, you can just use the computer lab. And college students or younger, people think of them as digital natives.

I did worry before COVID about community college students, because a lot of them are low income or the first in their families to go to college, and a lot of them commute, so they may not have great access to on-campus labs and wireless.

I didn’t really worry about students at universities like mine. But when COVID hit and all the classes went online, we immediately began to hear from students who didn’t have what they needed to learn online. One student in a rural area told us that every time they had to turn in an assignment, they had to borrow a car and drive half an hour to the parking lot of a place with free wireless to upload their assignment.

We wanted to understand how widespread an issue this is. We teamed up with a colleague at Indiana University who was hearing the same stories. We did a study, and I was shocked to find that across our two universities, 19 percent of our undergraduates didn’t have the technology they needed to fully participate in their online classes. This was higher among low-income students and students of color. Among our Black and African American students, the rate of inadequate technology was 28 percent. As you’d expect, those without adequate technology experienced a lot more stress and a lot more difficulty in their coursework that spring compared to similar students who had adequate technology.

The digital inequity problem is everywhere, much more pervasive than I thought pre-COVID. We can’t take for granted that populations, even populations we think might be fully prepared to learn online, really have the infrastructure they need to do that effectively.

Inside Higher Ed: Jessica, we quoted you widely in a report we published last year about the digital divide. Shanna talked about the greater recognition of the digital divide problems. Did you see evidence of greater inclination to attack that problem by colleges and universities as a result of that increased awareness?

Jessica Rowland Williams: There were certainly some bright spots. I think we’ve all heard stories of institutions that implemented new policies, new practices to support students. As an overall trend, though, we have a lot of work to do.

I want to double-click on something Shanna said. She was talking about digital equity among students. I was surprised to find how that also extends into the faculty, particularly when it comes to adjuncts. We take for granted that the faculty have what they need, including access and technology, to teach these courses. We’re finding that sometimes they don’t. They don’t have the broadband. They’re the ones who don’t have the laptops. They’re the ones that are having to go to the parking lots and they don’t have the childcare.

Inside Higher Ed: Jessica, what else did you see that altered or reinforced your pre-pandemic perspective on digital learning?

Rowland Williams: One thing we thought collectively about as a field related to going through the pandemic was this ability to be flexible and learn through disruption, because we were all in crisis together for the first time and having to navigate that. It’s almost like we got a window into what it’s like to have disruption in life. And we also get a window into how online learning and digital learning can be a support through that.

We also have carried this notion that now that’s over. The thing I’m holding on to as we’re coming “out” of the pandemic into this next phase is that for a lot of folks, they’re still experiencing the symptoms of what it was like to be in the pandemic. They’re still experiencing difficulty getting support, having access to technology, finding childcare, finding the quiet space to work or managing the sickness or managing economic crisis like that. Those things haven’t gone away. Particularly for students who are most vulnerable, the students that we need to focus a lot of attention on serving, some of those things are going to stay long beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inside Higher Ed: Pre-pandemic, there was an acknowledgment that for all the talk about how online education could be a tool for expanding access to students who had historically been underrepresented in higher education, those very same learners tended to struggle more in that modality than their highly academically prepared peers did. Did the way the pandemic unfolded change for either of you the view of how to most successfully provide digital learning for underrepresented students, or whether we should be doing that at all?

Smith Jaggars: I think it is a mix of two things. One is making sure that there is always a robust in-person option for students. We should also be more intentionally building in digital frameworks, infrastructures and approaches for those students from the beginning of their time with us, so they get more comfortable and more fluent with the academic and professional uses of technology and have the infrastructure to support them in doing that. I’ve always been leery about just throwing students into an online class for the first time and expecting them to be able to figure it out.

I’ve always recommended that colleges have some kind of ramping up for their first online course, either built into the first week of their course or some kind of precourse orientation or training to help them understand how to navigate an online course. That may not be necessary for all students now, because they’ve all just done it, but I think it’s going to continue to be an infrastructure that needs to be built in so the university is orienting students to online learning, giving them an overview of what their digital and their in-person options are, and helping them make sure they feel comfortable with the options.

One of the big benefits I saw with COVID was that all support services immediately went online. Prior to that, most colleges with online programs had pretty inadequate support services for those students that were totally separate from the support services for students on campus. With COVID, suddenly the playing field was leveled. Everybody was getting all their services on Zoom or by chat. Many students liked those digital support services better than having to sit outside an adviser’s office and wait. They could be in their own room, doing their own thing until their Zoom appointment with the adviser. They don’t have to get dressed and still have the same interaction with their adviser they would have had in their office. Students like it better; advisers like it better. Advisers can now work hybrid schedules.

Library services, tutoring services, writing support services—all of the services that you used to have to go in person to are now available by Zoom for all students, online and face-to-face. Some students are going to still want the face-to-face option. They should have it, but I’m really pleased that we now have this sort of varied set of options that help meet the needs of varied students more appropriately.

Inside Higher Ed: Jessica, you’ve clearly been an advocate for the availability of online and digital learning options for these student groups. Did the pandemic alter your view at all of sort of when and how much to prioritize that kind of delivery for what you’re most concerned about?

Rowland Williams: There are some clear-cut benefits. One is lower cost to students, because you could replace textbooks with [open educational resources], free and low-cost resources that are digital. Another is that you can deliver personalized, targeted instructions to students in ways that you could not, especially in these large gateway courses. A lot of times courseware and other tools provide data and insight into how students are doing, which allow instructors to intervene early when students are struggling or when students are just disengaged

All of these things are beneficial to marginalized students specifically, but also to students in general. There’s also the flexibility piece that she was just talking about. Being able to learn and study and also balance work and other things.

We should stop pitting [online and face-to-face] against each other. Flexibility in choices and options is going to be the future for our students. The real question should be, how do we deliver quality instruction in both modalities? Not which modality is better, because we can’t make that decision for students.

Smith Jaggars: I would agree with that. Rather than having a siloed model for online education, where a small group of staff and teachers work exclusively with fully online students, and then a totally separate group of faculty and support staff work with on-campus students, if we have a more integrated model where the knowledge and the skills regarding online students and courses and supports are spread across the entire institution and people are able to work with both types of students interchangeably, because often we know that all of our on-campus students are taking an online course or two here or there.

They’re all going to do it. Acting like our online students are somehow some sort of separate breed that should be dealt with with separate infrastructures and staffs, it doesn’t make sense. We should be taking the learning Jessica was talking about in terms of how digital learning can help support students and integrating that into our physical classroom spaces. And the things that we know work in face-to-face learning, we should be integrating them as much as possible into online courses. Think about this more as a system that has different facets to it, as opposed to two totally different things.

Inside Higher Ed: It may be too early to tell or know for sure, but have you seen changes in student expectations and desires regarding the flexibility of when and where and how they take their courses? If so, in what directions? There are certain kinds of expectations that could be very difficult for colleges and universities to satisfy. It would be especially hard if students want to be able to attend the same course in person on a Tuesday, say, but go to class from their dorm room or apartment on Thursday.

Rowland Williams: We all know student enrollment is decreasing, and I think we need to dig into what that means. I think the message students are sending with their feet is that higher ed needs to change and rethink its value proposition to students. I do think student expectations are changing, student needs are changing. However, I don’t know if we have a good handle on what that means for our institutions and exactly what needs to be changed to meet that need.

Inside Higher Ed: We’ve certainly seen enrollment declines. There are a lot of reasons for that, and I don’t think we have very good insights yet into exactly what has led a million or so students to stop enrolling. Some of it is the impact of the pandemic and an improved job market. But I agree with you that question has been put on the table in a more direct way.

Smith Jaggars: From my previous research, I saw that students tend to have very distinct preferences about what they want to do online and what they don’t want to do online. And I don’t know that COVID has necessarily changed the shape of those preferences. First, it depended on the kind of person and student that you were, whether you tended to like online or face-to-face options more in general. If you were an older working student, had kids, you were going to be more likely to want to take advantage of those online options. If you were a younger, traditional student, you’re more likely to want to do the face-to-face options.

Within that, there was a lot of nuance of the kinds of courses that you might opt to take online. Even if you weren’t into online learning in general, you might want to take online courses for courses that you didn’t care all that much about and needed to get out of the way, and courses that you thought would be relatively easy. Courses that you saw were challenging or difficult, or where you were really intrinsically interested in the subject and wanted to dive into it, or where you thought that the relationships with the teacher or the other students in the class were going to be really important, those were courses students definitely wanted to take face-to-face. I haven’t done a study of that post-COVID, but the pre-COVID findings seem to resonate with what I’m still hearing anecdotally from students.

Rowland Williams: Traditional face-to-face teaching has not served Black, Latinx, poverty-affected, first-generation students well, either. We hold it up as a gold standard because it’s what we know, it’s what we’ve been doing. But even pre-pandemic, there were real issues: equity gaps, discrimination in the classroom, microaggressions. We’ve got to move away from trying to digitize this traditional face-to-face learning experience. We’ve got to rethink learning in general, rethink our learning spaces. Digital gives us an opportunity to do that because it’s a little newer. In the traditional classroom, we’ve got some tried and true practices that folks are really tied to. When it comes to racially marginalized students in these settings, it’s always important to come back to the fact that whether we’re talking about face-to-face or online or hybrid, we’ve got a lot of thinking to do about how we best serve them.

Inside Higher Ed: We’ve been talking about the demand side, what students want and may demand from digital learning. Let’s talk about the supply side and the extent to which the experiences of the faculty and staff in delivering 100 percent virtual changed them. Do you think we saw (a) that greater exposure and practice made professors better at, and potentially more interested in, incorporating digital approaches into their instruction? And (b), has it created enough willingness to experiment that it could result in the kind of rethinking of pedagogy that you were talking about before, Jessica?

Rowland Williams: When we first dove into the pandemic and everyone had to flip their courses online in 48 hours, it was crazy. That was really difficult for folks. Both faculty and students had really challenging experiences that semester. There were some positive stories that came out of that, but we also heard that there was a lot of challenge on both ends. The following semester, when faculty had a little bit more time to really think about how they wanted to implement technology or how they wanted to teach online, there was a bit of a positive trend, I think.

Certainly there are the skeptics who are still skeptical and, in some cases, have been repulsed. Faculty and student experiences with online learning, and their positive experiences, were often correlated with the amount of support they received from their institutions, and the professional development they received around implementing and teaching online, particularly when they were doing it for the first time. When it comes to faculty teaching and student experience, we have to talk about support for faculty, specifically when it comes to serving marginalized students. That is not something that faculty are just going to wake up and know how to do. That takes training and practice and thoughtfulness and learning new skills and maybe even a new way of thinking about things. When faculty are more supported, students have better experiences.

Inside Higher Ed: The recognition by institutions of the importance of faculty support and development is another thing I’m hoping we don’t go back from.

Smith Jaggars: I edited the special issue of Online Learning in spring of 2021 about the transition [to COVID]. There was a study in there that looked at two universities and how they were preparing their doctoral students for future teaching. They talked to those academic administrators several months after the onset of COVID, when everybody was teaching online, trying to gauge how this would change their preparation for doctoral students. And the answer is, basically, it won’t change.

Most of the doctoral students believe that learning about online teaching was important and that they benefit from training on it. But deans and department chairs really downplayed the importance of it and didn’t see a clear necessity to provide doctoral students with training in terms of online learning.

I’ve seen a lot more of movement around the importance of teaching both doctoral students and current faculty having more robust long-term training around inclusivity and improving classroom climate for underserved students. That’s separate from training on digital learning or online learning. It may be that when department chairs and deans are thinking about the most important and highest-priority things they want their doctoral students and their instructors to get better at, it may be diversity and inclusion topics rather than digital learning topics.

Rowland Williams: The common misconception … is that you’ve got DEI work here and digital learning work here, and that there is no intersection between the two. They’re two separate things. Part of the reason why we think that way is because we often think, “Oh, technology is technology. It’s race-neutral.” And when we think about online learning, it’s like, “You can’t even see the students? You can’t discriminate or anything like that—you’re talking to black boxes on a Zoom screen.” The work we do in our network is all related to how issues of race are very much embedded in digital learning and how we teach online. There are ways that you can discriminate against students, even when you can’t see them. There are ways for biases to creep in. If we take this idea that digital learning is independent of the DEI work we’re doing, we’re missing an opportunity to center marginalized students’ needs in digital learning.

Inside Higher Ed: Let’s close by trying to look ahead at how much lasting impact we’re likely to see. We saw a lot of experimentation and adaptation by institutions and individual instructors. But it was a crisis and there was really no choice. Most of us change the most when we have some pressing need, some compulsion to do something differently. As that eases, which things would you most like to see us hold on to in this area of digital teaching and learning?

Smith Jaggars: One thing I’m really hoping we hold on to is that faculty more universally keep using their college’s learning management system for face-to-face courses. It’s not helpful for students if they’re taking, say, five courses and two of them use the learning management system and have their schedules and their grades and everything in it, and the other three don’t exist in the learning management system. At my university and I assume others, all faculty were teaching online using the learning management system for a semester or two. Hopefully they saw the benefits of having your syllabus online, your schedule built into the system, your grades built into the system, and will continue to do that even when teaching the majority or all of their classes face-to-face in the future, because that really helps students.

Rowland Williams: I see technology-enhanced learning as the future. I don’t think we’re going backwards. We’re going full speed ahead. We’re going to have opportunities to embed technology and enhanced learning through technology. That can be a good thing if we can figure out how to do it right. Our focus is understanding how do we serve students leveraging technology in the best ways possible. One thing that’s given me so much hope in the pandemic is shifting to a model of thinking about classroom learning that centers on student need and incorporates students’ voices and perspectives. Their needs really are the center of the work we’re trying to accomplish together. I hope that doesn’t go away.

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What have we learned about online learning?

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