By Rachna Shah
Like many other industries, institutes of higher education (IHE)’s top priorities include tailoring their plans to accommodate the new social distancing norms. While some colleges’ strategies remain uncertain, others have released plans for a hybrid method which involves a virtual and in-person form of education.
Given that IHEs are generally considered forward thinking, it may seem that higher education would transition to a virtual program with greater agility than other industries. Course lectures can be delivered online via Zoom. Students can easily collaborate while respecting distance protocols using Google Docs.
However, the quality of education students anticipate from an IHE may not meet expectations if the offline experience is simply replicated online. While it may be a functional approach, it lacks the necessary flexibility that learning demands. In education, one size rarely fits all. In order to improve student success in a virtual learning atmosphere, colleges and universities are going to have to do better than simply shuffling students through online Zoom courses.
Universal Design Learning (UDL), a framework for flexible learning that gained popularity in the 90s, is one possible solution. UDL approaches education with fluidity, using multiple teaching methods to meet students’ varied learning styles. This fluid style of learning lends itself to innovation.
The most innovative IHEs, such as Boston University which designs online courses by scratch, are using UDL to build engaging academic experiences for students beyond functional usability. Virtual, or distance learning, a trend that began during the pandemic, has the potential to continue long after. As Universities seek to increase student engagement virtually, they can use UDL concepts to achieve better results.
IHEs will need to remain adaptive and innovative in this new approach to both teaching and learning. Four proven UDL tactics that have changed the college learning experience are new technologies, timely feedback, student-directed learning, and intentional peer learning. They can set the stage for successful distance learning long into the future.
Embracing new technologies
Colleges are making pre-existing, passive video platforms, such as Zoom, more student-centric, and using new technologies to increase engagement. Take, for instance, Labster, a Boston-based startup backed by over $35M in venture capital funding. Labster provides a virtual lab simulation experience directly on students’ computers, similar to how pilots use flight simulators. Professors can provide students with the lab data they otherwise would have collected in-person for analyzation from home. Labster has brought the lab experience to students’ homes and therefore expanded the opportunity for students to learn more thoroughly from a distance.
More deadlines, not fewer
Meeting regularly with professors and peers naturally lends itself to observation and assessment. Now, with fewer chances for interpersonal connection, consistent evaluation will likely be more challenging. In digital settings, students may only be receiving feedback through grades on midterms and final exams.
Schools looking to provide more consistent feedback to its students can look to professors who are experimenting with frequent formative assessments, such as daily online quizzes, through platforms like Spiral. Platforms like Spiral give the opportunity to provide students with more meaningful and timely feedback. Consistent performance analysis helps students stay motivated in their learning rather than fall complacent.
To reach similar goals, professors have also experimented with “moving windows”, where students are required to complete assignments and watch lectures within a limited period of time (e.g., 48 hours) to keep them engaged with a pace similar to in-classroom learning. More deadlines provide students opportunities to receive regular feedback, opening a line of communication between students and professors and connecting with students individually.
Shift towards student directed learning
Student-directed learning is one way to shift more responsibility to the individual student, causing them to take control of their learning through increased personal interaction. While personalized learning paths can address students’ differences in learning style and interests, there are drawbacks. This approach is often templated and lacks student input into what is working and what is not.
To remedy this, high schools across the nation, such as York School in California, have adopted Genius Hour, a teaching strategy in which students are given one hour each week to work on a project in any relevant topic they’re interested in. While university timelines may be too compressed to use the same strategy, making some simple shifts towards student-directed learning may be a motivating factor for students and increase engagement. It could be something as simple as creating a collaborative classroom project, where students suggest readings and a variety of assignments to meet course and learning objectives.
New approaches for peer innovation
During in-person learning, professors often stress the importance of communication for success in group projects. As learning transitioned remotely, student groups have faced challenges in group cohesion and accountability stemming from less effective communication. Collaborative learning that may be successful in-person can be difficult to arrange virtually, potentially resulting in one-time Zoom meetings followed by individually delegated work. It may be even more challenging for less confident students to voice their opinions or disagreement over Zoom compared to in-person.
Smaller shifts that professors can take to increase ongoing peer interaction include anonymous peer grading or students facilitating weekly discussions in pairs. These strategies incorporate the benefits of cooperation in group projects, while also starting small with potential to grow.
COVID has pushed us to rethink traditional ways of educating, leaving room for all types of innovation that will change the college learning experience moving forward. Understanding student expectations and connecting their priorities with modified content through new technologies, communication through more regular feedback, and engagement through student-directed learning and peer innovation, will improve the college learning experience.
As colleges transition back to in-person learning in the fall, active learning models such as flipped classrooms, where students gather in small groups to discuss assignments, may not be conducive to social distancing requirements. Student-to-student interaction will likely continue to involve virtual technologies, ranging from peer editing on Google Docs to creating collaborative mind maps on Mindmeister. Large lecture classes with static PowerPoint presentations may also carry over learning lessons from remote learning, consolidating in-class content to what is important and most difficult to learn on one’s own.
With the central tenet of Universal Design Learning being flexibility, colleges can use UDL to create approaches and experiences tailored to each students’ motivations and styles of learning. Meeting student needs requires understanding what they are looking for in their education experiences, beyond gaining hard skills to prepare them for their careers. Evaluating students’ Jobs to Be Done can uncover their motivations and what they want and need in a college learning experience, both remotely in the present and in-person in the future.
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Rachna Shah is an associate at New Markets Advisors where she helps companies understand customer needs, build innovation capabilities, and develop plans for growth.