Online learning is different, but can be successful

GRAND FORKS – It’s been almost a year since we entered the pandemic and schools were forced to quickly move to remote learning options. As two parents with high-school and college-age children who are doing some type of online learning, we have heard the refrains of, “Online education is not as good as face-to-face, students just don’t learn as much,” “their teachers don’t engage with them” and “kids are teaching themselves.”

And as parents, we understand. We want to make sure our kids are getting the best education possible.

But as higher-education instructors who have taught for a total of more than 30 years in both face-to-face and online classrooms, we can offer insights to help address these common concerns.

Here’s a quick thought before we begin: The tradition of distance education in North Dakota actually dates to 1935, not 2020, and is one to be proud of. Ours was the first state in America to create and fund a correspondence program of study.

North Dakota has been doing this for a very long time, in other words. Our roots are in successfully providing access to learning, in diverse modes and locales.

Insight 1: Online education can involve just as much interaction as face-to-face learning. Understanding what this engagement should look like in an online course requires knowing the different types of interactions possible and how these different interactions build student learning.

In face-to-face courses, for example, interaction with other students or the instructor occurs authentically through class discussions, group activities and projects. In contrast, such discussions in online classes take place during live streaming using Zoom, Teams or Google Hangout. They may also happen in online discussion boards which include video or audio commenting.

Group activities and projects still occur online, but the students use technology to “meet up” with peers. Group activities or discussions might happen during live Zoom sessions when instructors put students into groups for the activity or when projects are assigned to be completed by group members outside of the class.

Groups might then present or submit their projects via online discussion boards, video, or through other technologies.

Insight 2: Some online methods offer real advantages. For example, online discussion boards let students take their time to formulate their initial post, think about their responses before posting, and complete their discussions when it is convenient for them.

Similarly, online learning means students are no longer limited by geography or time and can collaborate with one another from anywhere or anytime, using tools such as Google Docs, Voice Thread or other collaborative technologies.

This prepares students to work globally across time-zones, and helps students develop time-management skills, responsibility, and the ability to work with others to innovate and solve problems.

Insight 3: As with any mode of teaching, quality matters. Teaching is a profession. Teachers complete degrees that require rigorous academic coursework in their content as well as the theory and practice of education, professional ethics, and the social-emotional knowledge and skills to support student learning. The integration of technology in all learning modes is essential.

This complexity, and the herculean effort teachers and faculty underwent to change their classes last year, means the rushed move to delivering learning online should not be too quickly judged.

We have witnessed as both instructors in online learning and parents with children in online courses the many ways teachers are interacting with students, including discussion boards, one-on-one meetings to answer questions, detailed and personalized learning videos, individualized feedback and support, and flexibility to work at a varied pace.

We see quality online teaching and learning happening.

And in places where teachers are still building their skills, we’re doing our best to support their efforts, especially during this challenging time for all those in education.

Hoffer is an instructor in the online Special Education Program at UND and a former high school Special Education and Business Education teacher.

Hunter is chair of Teaching, Leadership, and Professional Practice at UND.


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