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How Challenging is Remote Instruction During a Pandemic?

Jeonghyun (Jonna) Lee, Ph.D. Assistant Director of Research in Education Innovation, Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) , Georgia Institute of Technology
Jeonghyun (Jonna) Lee, Ph.D. Assistant Director of Research in Education Innovation, Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) , Georgia Institute of Technology

Jeonghyun (Jonna) Lee, Ph.D. Assistant Director of Research in Education Innovation, Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) , Georgia Institute of Technology

In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities around the world shifted rapidly from the more traditional delivery of face-to-face courses to remote, mostly digital delivery. My research team in Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) quickly realized the critical nature of collecting data about the impact of this unprecedented instructional pivot. With this in mind, we conducted an online survey (n=266) as well as a case study (n=7)between mid-April and May 2020 in the hopes of gaining insight into how the recent emergency move to remote teaching affected faculty perceptions and instructional practices. Through this mixed-method study, the C21U team has been able to contribute to the development and implementation of new tools that effectively support remote teaching and learning practices for the Georgia Tech community.

Our study captured a snapshot of how faculty adapted their instruction during the sudden transition from face-to-face to remote teaching. According to the survey results, approximately half of the total respondents (47%) reported that they used a combination of asynchronous and synchronous methods to deliver their instruction. Our combined findings from the survey and case study suggested that the transition process in general seemed to require a considerable amount of adjustments and efforts under time constraints. Interestingly, we found that our faculty’s attitudes towards remote teaching appeared to differ to some extent by their course subject as well as prior experience in using technology. For instance, some faculty members perceived that their course topics and some of their initial face-to-face class activities were not suitable for the online instruction mode, especially if their class involved “hands-on” learning activities such as projects in a design studio. Additionally, we observed that faculty members who have had more experience with teaching, learning, or having professional meetings online seemed to have a generally positive stance towards technology and were more enthusiastic about the transition, although they still ran into difficulties transitioning to remote teaching.

Regardless of unique factors that affected individual course transition either positively or negatively, we found several salient challenges and issues that arose during the transition to remote teaching. Our faculty commonly reported that their perceived difficulties in remote teaching often derived from internet connectivity and technical issues. To resolve these issues, many instructors reported that they reduced the length of recorded lectures by dividing a continuous, long lecture into a series of short videos (typically less than 15 minutes) and making them available in advance so that they might be downloaded with no need for streaming. Another common approach was adding some degree of flexibility to assignments and exams. For example, instructors often reported that they extended assignment deadlines or divided long exams into smaller tests to minimize timeouts and connectivity issues. We also observed that many instructors offered flexibility in test-taking by providing a broader time window to accommodate students working from different time zones.

Other challenging aspects of transition included engaging students in interactive learning activities as well as assessing students’ learning with the same rigor and fairness as would occur in an in-person class environment. When asked to rate their specific teaching activities after the transition, faculty reported the lowest levels of comfort toward engaging students in discussions with online forums or chat rooms. It’s also worthwhile to note that faculty were least satisfied with the activity of assessing students’ learning and progress. These challenges were often associated with the fact that faculty were expected to handle students’ increasing needs for accommodations. For example, students’ participation in remote learning tended to decrease due to various technical obstacles (e.g., limited access to Wi-Fi) and personal challenges (e.g., lack of time management skills, living in different time zones). Moreover, it was not always feasible to get spontaneous feedback from students in an online environment. Considering these pain points, we concluded that structured guidance about available instructional tools and resources, as well as strategies to enhance interactivity and effectively assess student learning online could be beneficial. In response to the challenges we observed in our study, the C21U team developed and piloted a newKey Performance Indicator (KPI) Tool that provides instructors with course-specific weekly snapshots of student progress and performance. Currently being integrated into Canvas, Georgia Tech’s learning management system, this tool is designed to enable instructors to easily and quickly monitor students’ learning experience in their course. The Canvas KPI tool is expected to enhance learning in future remote and hybrid courses based on near real-time measurement of student progress.

Regarding perceived helpfulness of instructional resources in Georgia Tech’s emergency transition to remote teaching, a significant proportion of instructors rated support from their department/college (71%) and shared tips from other faculty (73%) as either “very helpful” or “somewhat helpful”. Notably, many of the respondents (32%) never sought webinars or other outside training opportunities, and only 35% of those who sought these resources found them helpful. These results suggest that faculty may benefit most from proactive support from within their department or college to address field-specific challenges in remote teaching and learning. Also, considering that the design of online instruction is highly dependent on the methods faculty use to deliver instruction, between asynchronous and synchronous, it is essential to provide the campus community with clear guidance on which methods to choose and best practices for success.

In conclusion, our findings elucidate how faculty have responded to the recent emergency move to remote teaching and what lessons the Georgia Tech community has learned this year. Overall, the transition pushed instructors to experience new modalities and experiment with technology beyond what they had typically leveraged. Yet, we observed that the transition process exemplifies how agile and flexible our faculty can be in adapting to novel situations. Building upon implications from this study, a crucial step for higher education institutions and stakeholders would be to reimagine a new hybrid model of education for the post-pandemic era.

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