June 25, 2020

Five Research-Informed Principles for Switching to Online Learning

This post originally appeared on MIT Open

Here are five principles, informed by research and experience, for planning a transition to online learning:

  1. Partner with Students in the Transition
  2. Strategically Reduce Your Goals
  3. Identify and Support Disadvantaged Students
  4. Help Students Form Study Groups
  5. Prioritize Time For Individual Connections

The good news is that research suggests that advanced students with strong self-regulated learning skills—of which we have many at MIT–do very well in online learning. That has never been tested in an emergency pandemic, but it seems likely to hold up well. 

The bad news is that online learning research regularly finds that disadvantaged students– from poverty-impacted neighborhoods, from underrepresented minorities, with low grades/prior achievement consistently suffer an “online penalty” relative to face-to-face courses (Figures Here) . Susan Dynarski, an economist at Michigan, summarized this in the New York Times as Online Courses Harm the Students Who Need the Most Help. 

All of those students who are struggling most with moving out right now, the students under maximum stress from these events, are the ones who are most likely to struggle in the transition to online. I would encourage all of my colleagues to make these young people your top priority. 

Put another way, the first question in a transition to online learning is not “What technology should I use?” The first question is “How will I maintain human connection with my most struggling and vulnerable learners?

1) Partner with students in the transition

MIT students are brilliant, have many experiences learning online, and are a tremendous resource. Ask them for help in your transition, and ask for their advice about how they individually learn online or their best experiences in online courses. This will do two things. First, they will give you useful, actionable ideas. Second, partnering with them will get them more invested in the hard work ahead. Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory suggests that people are motivated when they experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Involving students as partners in an online transition can tap on all three domains. 

Tell your students you are with them, and tell them that we need each other to continue our important work. As Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound wrote: 

“There are three ways of trying to win the young. There is persuasion, there is compulsion, and there is attraction. You can preach at them: that is a hook without a worm. You can say, You must volunteer, and that is of the devil. You can tell them, You are needed. That appeal hardly ever fails.”

2) Strategically Reduce Your Goals

Take time to decide now what the highest priority learning goals are for the second half of your course, and focus on those. Better to decide now what to cut, then to rush or scramble in May. For courses that are part of prerequisite chains, decide what is most important down stream. For courses with more flexibility, consider asking your students about their interests. If I were teaching my course on Learning, Media, and Technology, I’d just throw the syllabus out the window and have students study the state of education in a pandemic. But many instructors have a responsibility to students and colleagues to keep everyone on track. 

There may be courses where the entire semester of material is vital for future courses. In those cases, I would encourage faculty to begin discussions very soon with their department heads about the possibility of online and on-campus summer courses, early fall make-up sessions, or other remediation strategies, especially for struggling students. Hopefully the administration will make funds available for creative strategies to help students get caught back up. 

3) Identify and Support Disadvantaged Students

Look at your gradebooks to this point at the semester, find the students with the lowest grades, and be ready to spend more time supporting them. Whatever struggles those students were having while sitting in your courses, they are likely to be magnified as they return home or to temporary accommodation. 

Consider using surveys, exit tickets, or some time in synchronous sessions to ask students about how they are feeling, what seems hard right now, and what challenges they are facing. 

If you don’t collect data that gives you insight into who is having the hardest time with the transition, you and your instructional team can’t provide sufficient support. 

4) Help Students Form Study Groups

In a time of “social distancing”, human connections will be important. On campus, many instructors allow students to self organize into study groups. Consider making time in synchronous session or space on discussion boards for students to organize themselves, or simply assign them to groups by time zone, schedule, or other factors. 

Synchronous sessions of large groups for learning are hard to manage (as anyone who has participated in a large conference call well knows) and there aren’t enough instructional staff for individual tutorials. Small peer groups may the best chance for students to engage in social learning, and make peer contacts that they will likely be missing during quarantine. 

5) Prioritize Time for Individual Connections

The research on how effective online instructors spend their time is somewhat slim, but in my experience, the best online teachers organize their time to prioritize regular individual connections. Office hours are insufficient here; this means reaching out to students, especially those struggling, and asking them when they can talk. Simplify your content delivery with readings or existing OCW/MITx resources, trust that many students will do a reasonable job teaching themselves (especially with a few checkins to celebrate their work) and try to reserve as much time as you can for providing tutoring and additional supports to individual students. 

Print out your roster, make a check mark next to a student every time you respond in a piazza board, call on them in a synchronous session, or send a text message to check in. Try to have a few check marks for everyone, and more for those who need it. 

My colleague Andrew Ho at Harvard teaches a 100 person statistics course, and he is planning to have his instructional team do a five minute check in with every student (protocol here) two weeks after classes resume. 500 minutes is a lot of time, but I’m not sure what instructors could do that would have higher learning returns. 

Our work is a profoundly human and social business.  One of my favorite things about teaching at MIT is that in times of strife and challenge, I feel like I can take a few minutes to hear student’s concerns and then say, “You know, my experience is that something that’s comforting to MIT students is just settling back into the routine of science and learning.” I find that most students nod, and they find respite from the world in what they learn alongside us. 

Check out the Failure to Disrupt Virtual Book Club Podcast!

In the Fall of 2020 Justin Reich invited guest presenters and students from MIT for a ten week book club exploring themes in Failure to Disrupt. Now he has turned into a Podcast to relive those discussions and offer more insights.