How COVID spurred online education innovation and empathy

By most accounts, the March 2020 switch to emergency remote teaching and learning was rough on students, faculty members and staff workers. Student mental health suffered, existing inequities were exacerbated and many missed a sense of community.

Now, a Stanford University self-study released today provides evidence that, despite acknowledged hardships, college students, faculty members and staff rallied around the shared goal of academic continuity in unprecedented ways. In the process, they developed and refined online teaching practices and course design in ways that better serve the whole student. Moving forward, some of those digital innovations may be worth preserving and enhancing.

“It didn’t matter if you sat in IT or our academic technology group or in one of the schools or foreign facilities office where you rarely interacted with the academics—the shared goal was so clear to everybody,” said Matthew Rascoff, Stanford’s vice provost for digital education.

If colleges proceed without reflection, COVID-era digital teaching and learning improvements could be lost, the study authors argue. Their next step—scheduled to take place in the upcoming year—is to identify a new, unifying goal around which to rally. That goal, which is not yet determined, will be whatever comes after the no-longer-needed goal of providing academic continuity during the switch to emergency remote teaching.

“That feeling [of a unifying goal] is going to go away if we don’t document it, develop some support to enhance it and say, ‘Don’t you want that back?’” Rascoff said. “We need that after the pandemic.”

The self-study, which was based on interviews with 59 students and faculty and staff members and a review of early-pandemic artifacts, documents online education innovations and highlights lessons learned. The report also includes questions the community should ask now, “regardless of what turns the COVID-19 pandemic may take.”

Though the study focused only on one institution, other colleges may benefit either from understanding the lessons learned or by using it to motivate their own self-studies, Rascoff said. What follows are some report highlights.

Enhanced Virtual Communities

When the pandemic hit, students’ social connections, support networks and word-of-mouth communication channels were disrupted. Juniors and seniors, for example, had few opportunities to share knowledge with new students, according to the report. Students lacked opportunities to chat with professors in hallways or to participate in professional networking events.

“The pandemic was tragic, isolating and scary, but at the same time, it was a large-scale faculty boot camp” for digital teaching and learning, said Cindy Berhtram, a co-author of the study and associate director of project management at Stanford Digital Education, an office launched in 2021 that assists in coordinating the university’s digital education efforts and incubates new programs.

Instructors were intentional as they worked to build and maintain connection in virtual spaces. To reproduce opportunities for informal chats, some arrived 15 minutes early and stayed 15 minutes late when hosting a Zoom class. Others planned brief, whole-class check-ins during class meetings in which they asked how students were feeling or what they were doing outside class.

Faculty members’ Zoom backgrounds sometimes revealed children, pets or activity unrelated to the class that proved distracting at times. But those distractions also humanized instructors, according to the study.

“The traditional [professor-student] relationship is one that’s very much rooted in impersonal professionalism,” said Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a faculty mentor for digital innovation with the California Community College system who is also the lead principal investigator on a project focused on humanizing online STEM classes. To humanize online learning, Pacansky-Brock notes, the professor-student relationship should “shift from one of impersonal professionalism toward relational authority.”

When a student is uncertain whether they belong, their brain is scanning for cues such as a smiling face or warm gesture. An instructor who, for example, records a brief, if imperfect, welcome video in a nonoffice setting such as outdoors will signal an interest in connecting.

“Students will click on play and feel as if you’re speaking one-on-one to them,” Pacansky-Brock said.

Before the pandemic, Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning hosted a little-used Teaching Commons website. The pandemic served as a catalyst for reviving the site, which provides curated digital resources in learning, education and pedagogy.

“It’s not just that a website was created but rather cultural changes were happening at the institution,” said Lisa Anderson, another co-author and associate director for educational partnerships at Stanford Digital Education.

The Teaching Commons website “became this growing ecosystem,” Kenji Ikemoto, Stanford academic technology specialist, told the study’s authors. “Stanford is decentralized, and the pandemic showed us that there’s a lot of will to work together across department lines.”

Inclusive, Collaborative Teaching and Course Design

The pandemic laid bare some long-standing higher ed and societal inequities. Some students struggled to access technology resources or internet connections necessary for remote learning. Zoom backgrounds also put students’ homes on display; some joined class from quiet, spacious homes, while others joined from cramped closets or environments with many distractions.

Instructors developed mechanisms to better understand the whole student, including challenges they faced in the virtual environment. Some, for example, invited students at the beginning of class to participate in a clickable world-map poll identifying where they were. That allowed students to bring a piece of their identities to class, while also letting the instructor know that, in some cases, they were joining from a location where it was nighttime.

“Belonging is a basic human need, and it comes before achieving one’s full potential,” Pacansky-Brock said. “That’s just as true in a physical classroom as it is online.” Higher ed administrators, according to her, need to recognize the need to foster belonging online, especially among underrepresented students.

“Faculty really need to be supported effectively to understand how to develop humanized online classes that foster belonging, identity, safety and trust,” Pacansky-Brock said.

Still other faculty members used surveys to solicit information on students’ technology needs, which provided real-time information necessary to create inclusive learning experiences. Many faculty members also invited students to periodic, virtual one-on-one meetings that helped build relationships.

Instructors also surveyed their students and adapted their remote courses in real time based on student feedback. Some asked students about their learning goals, which helped inform the course content. When they did, some students reported having feelings of agency in the course.

“The absolutely biggest change is the way that instructors started paying closer attention to whether their courses are successful for students,” John Mitchell, Stanford engineering professor, told the authors. Mitchell noted that the habit may lead to permanent changes.

Staff across the university also formed partnerships to support inclusive online teaching. The Learning Technologies and Spaces team worked together with the Office of Digital Accessibility, for example, to develop a more comprehensive process for vetting and approving technologies for widespread use at the university.

By engaging with students in authentic ways during this time, faculty members were sometimes in the position of moderating difficult conversations. In response, individuals and groups across the university teamed up to produce resources and workshops offering guidance for navigating conversations about, for example, pandemic experiences or racial and social justice.

Lessons Learned and Unanswered Questions

In conducting a self-study, Stanford learned that previously fragmented schools, departments and business units had untapped potential to form partnerships that could enhance digital instruction and address educational disparities.

Faculty-student relationships also changed. Students offered tech support to instructors and participated in course design. Faculty members grew in their abilities to empathize with students’ individual challenges and, in response, adjusted their teaching and course designs to be more inclusive.

Some of the questions the researchers have moving forward are:

  • “Under what circumstances should faculty and academic instructors be able to teach with flexibility, using such instructional modalities as fully online, hybrid or flipped instruction?”
  • “Should students be afforded alternatives to attending classes in person and have more options of alternative forms of assessment?”
  • “What should be students’ role in course design?”

The study is intended to serve as a foundation for crafting a mission-driven digital learning strategy in the upcoming year.

“Too often, faculty and leaders and the general public have this unfortunate view of online classes,” Pacansky-Brock said. “They look at them through a deficit-based lens and think, ‘Oh, it’s online, so it can’t be welcoming. It can’t be supportive. It can’t be rich in community.’ That’s very unfortunate, and it’s wrong.”

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/10/20/how-covid-spurred-online-education-innovation-and-empathy