Remote Learning: the benefits, the drawbacks

Faculty, staff discuss pros, cons of online classes

Mrunmayi Sathaye
Mercury Staff

Spring 2020 provided a glimpse at online instruction and how students and teachers adapted to changes in learning conditions; now, instructors are facing another semester of partially — or fully — virtual classes, along with the advantages and disadvantages that come with it.

At the June 24 presidential town hall, UTD provost Inga Musselman said that there will be five modalities of fall 2020 instruction. Three will offer in-person learning, including “traditional” which is purely face-to-face; “hybrid” which is online activity combined with face-to-face; and “HyFlex” which is similar to “hybrid” but with a rotating roster. The other two options are “remote” consisting of an online structure similar to Spring Semester 2020 with real-time — that is, synchronous — instruction; and “fully online” which is asynchronous, go-at-your-own-pace instruction. All classes will have an asynchronous component.

As faculty prepares for another semester of online learning, associate director for the Center for Teaching and Learning Karen Huxtable-Jester said performance cannot be compared because of professor discretion in teaching the course.

“There is no way to ever compare the spring 2020 semester to any other semester because it was disrupted,” Huxtable-Jester said. “We don’t have any way of knowing what the effects of that could be. Whether students do better or whether students do worse, we don’t have ways of necessarily tracking that except by GPA but that doesn’t tell us what they learned. It doesn’t tell us for sure that they learned what they were supposed to learn because things didn’t end the way they were planned in the beginning.”

As far as students retaining instruction is concerned, Huxtable-Jester said learning and absorption of information may not change between online setting to an in-person one.

“When I was in school it was always the case that students would sit there reading a newspaper, sit there reading a book for another class, sit there not paying attention at all,” Huxtable-Jester said. “More recently, we see students finding other ways to sometimes tune out in a class, but it might involve using a device or it might involve being off-task in some way, but none of that is new. That can happen online as well, but if we are getting students to be doing something to learn, doing something to demonstrate learning, generating ideas rather than just receiving them, we can help to prevent that regardless of the modality.”

She said that one of the drawbacks to taking classes online is that students do not have the external structure that they’re used to, so it’s more self-regulatory and students have to keep themselves on a schedule.

 “A well-designed course can help to offset some of those problems because instructors will have very carefully paced deadlines,” Huxtable-Jester said. “They will quite often use frequent low stakes assessments instead of two or four exams per semester where it’s a matter of cramming for that one event. The benefit of online is that we can offset some of these potential problems, but for students who might not be used to online learning who might not have chosen it otherwise, they do have to shift the way they do things, and there are ways faculty can provide support for that. One of the things to do is for faculties to be very proactive in monitoring students’ progress and reach out to students who aren’t doing the work or who aren’t doing well.”

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Kamran Khan said that another disadvantage to online learning are examination formats, because there is little way of detecting academic dishonesty.

“You can put measures and you can put controls, but if COVID-19 is going to continue and we’re going to have online classes, then I believe the university should spend more focus in trying to allow more testing center-type possibilities where students can take COVID-19 precautions, so they can take the exam in-person rather than taking the exam online,” Khan said. “We just want to create an environment where they want to come to class, where they want to participate, where they want to learn and where they don’t want to do any unethical business.”

However, Neil Gregerson — a manager of supplemental instruction at the student success center — said that an advantage of a well-designed online course allows for a learner to work at their own pace and allows them to move through and revisit content at their leisure.

“With online learning, it allows people to fit learning into their busy life schedules that they may not always be able to do if they’re just attending classes in person,” Gregerson said. “It just opens up the opportunity for more people to experience learning.”

In a previous article by The Mercury, Gregerson said that learning is a social process, and that learners are more likely to retain information through social interaction. He said that this interaction can be still be stimulated in an online setting with a little work.

“One of the big problems that I have observed is students turning off their webcam during these classes and discussions and engagement,” Gregerson said. “By turning off your webcam, you are inhibiting your ability to have that interaction with somebody. That’s really key … you have to put more effort into having that social interaction in an online space than you do in an offline space. So it’s engaging in those discussions participating in chats. You just have to be more active and more intentional with your social interactions.”

Khan says that he knows students will collaborate and converse, so he creates teams amongst students and gives them an assignment to create discussion and promote learning.

“The biggest challenge the professor has in the online area is ensuring all the students stay engaged with your class,” Khan said. “I have them interacting, and I’m watching the participation list. My classes are discussion-based, so they have to talk which means they have to stay focused. I just want to see if they have a thought process and they understood what they were asked and just to create some interactivity among the students.”

Huxtable-Jester said that there are huge psychological benefits to the flexibility because the school wants to make learning happen, and knowing that there are many ways to accommodate very diverse learners is going to be helpful for everyone.

“I really do miss teaching the students,” Huxtable-Jester said. “As much as I miss that element, I like that these technology tools that are available to us are exciting, and they enable some aspects of teaching that are not even quite as easily accomplished in a regular face-to-face class. I miss my students a lot but they’re still with me also. Even though I’m not seeing their faces and I’m seeing their ideas, writing and excitement of the things we discussed. As long as I still have that, I don’t mind which modality we’re using.”

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