WHEN SOCIAL distancing and stay-at-home orders began in March, colleges and universities scrambled to transition their programs to some form of online learning. For most students and faculty accustomed to in-class instruction, this means a radical change in the way they are expected to interact, and because stay-at-home orders appear to be slowing the spread of COVID-19, states have extended the duration of these directives. Most colleges now are finishing their spring semesters fully online.
Online coursework is bound to become a growing part of the college curriculum even after the most-serious threats of the coronavirus outbreak have passed. Colleges, faculty, and students all can better understand and properly prepare for this transition in ways that will help optimize student success.
In order to assist both professors and students plan for the possibility of fully online classes this summer or fall, we have distilled some of the research on how to structure and take online classes successfully. These evidence-based strategies include setting motivating and achievable goals, limiting distraction, actively participating with peers, and seeking or providing feedback and support.
The mid-semester transition from in-person to online learning was less than ideal, as colleges encountered immediate difficulties moving classes with hands-on learning components, such as labs, online. Further, some students found they lacked the technology to properly access and participate fully in online courses.
One advantage to transitioning in the middle of the semester, however, is that students who are likely to have more difficulty with online classes--those with poor organization, planning and self-motivation skills, for instance--had the opportunity to build a foundation of success in their in-person classes before going online. Instructors of fully online classes need to figure out how to design their coursework and instructional methods to best serve these students from the very first day.
Planning for a fully online semester is very different from finishing the last few weeks of a course online for both faculty and students. First-year students and those with weaker preparation for college are the most likely to face difficulties in transitioning, and the many colleges that provide in-person summer programs for new and at-risk students are unlikely to be able to offer those if stay-at-home orders remain in place.
Trying to replicate an in-person course online is likely not the most-effective structure for a successful online course. When in-person and online have identical material, lectures, and exams, and students are assigned randomly to learn either in-person or online, research has shown that students in online courses perform worse than their in-person counterparts. The difference in in-person and online performance especially is stark for male, Hispanic, and lower-achieving students.
One large-scale study of 168,000 sections of 750 different courses at a large for-profit university found that students who took a course online had lower grades in that course and subsequent courses and were less likely to remain enrolled a year later compared to students who took the same course in-person.
Students also appear to be less satisfied with online courses, reporting that technical problems, feelings of isolation, and lack of support from the university hurt both their enjoyment of the course and ability to be successful in it. This general sense of dissatisfaction is likely to be exacerbated by current stay-at-home orders as students may feel even more isolated and a lack of adequate technology may increase frustration. Even when students perform well in online...