Pandemic survey points to design improvements for future remote learning


A male student wearing headphones participates in a virtual class

Image: Adobe Stock: Nochkhun

Last March, the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted university operations around the world. Students and instructors quickly transitioned to remote education, demonstrating reliance on new technologies that may have otherwise never been used.

How did students and instructors collectively respond to the abrupt change? Researchers at Penn State’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction aimed to find out by analyzing their experiences, challenges and opportunities. Their work could contribute to the development of better tools, curriculum and supports for remote education should a future unexpected need arise.

“There are many researchers surveying students about their learning experiences during the pandemic, and others asking faculty about their teaching experiences,” said Chun-Hua Tsai. “But we haven’t seen any study that tried to combine the mutual experiences from both sides.”

Tsai and his collaborators analyzed survey data from Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT), which was previously collected from two separate University-wide surveys – one to faculty and one to students – seeking feedback about the pandemic transition.

They identified four types of challenges with the transition to remote education: learning resource and technology, course adaptation and performance assessment, class engagement and communication, and mental burden and other pressures. They also explored three positive aspects: family and community support, flexible learning and performance, and digital pedagogy and technology.

Tsai said that among the survey data were concerns and complaints about not having enough time to prepare for remote instruction, as well as questioning the value of the transition, among others. However, he said, “We could still see some positive feedback from the faculty and students. If they are able to utilize all of the resources they have, if they understand how to use the digital tools, and if they have support from family or the institution, there’s a way they can feel comfortable in this transition.”

From their analysis, the researchers identified several design ideas for a successful transition to online education unexpected or hasty circumstances. First, they propose using the collective responses from students and faculty to develop a virtual way to foster crucial elements of learning, such as in-class discussion and engagement. Second, the researchers suggest that digital maturity, or resilience, in transitioning conventional curriculum to a remote or mixed-mode learning environment should be further investigated to help students and faculty cope with the potential sudden change.

Finally, the researchers highlight the need to further understand the impact of current events on post-pandemic learning and teaching, as the pandemic may permanently change expectations of future learners and instructors.

“This research has been a great way for TLT to explore the intersection of technology and pedagogy in an entirely new environment,” said Jenay Robert, research project manager at TLT. “We believe that many of our findings will continue to be relevant even after we return to normal operations.”

She continued, “For example, instructors and students are finding a new focus on collaborative teaching and learning and holistic self care. Retaining these practices throughout and after the pandemic will only strengthen our community.”

Tsai and Robert worked with Guillermo Romera Rodriguez, doctoral student in informatics; Jack Carroll, Distinguished Professor of Information Sciences and Technology; Na Li, doctoral student in learning design and technology with an assistantship at TLT; and Alex Serpi, research project manager at TLT. The work was published in the Interaction Design & Architecture(s) Autumn 2020 special issue on learning and learning ecosystems in the time of COVID-19.

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