RALEIGH- Before the COVID-19 pandemic sent students to virtual classrooms across the country, a North Carolina State University researcher interviewed 31 doctoral students about their learning experiences in an entirely online program.
Suddenly the subject became relevant to universities all over the world. The studywhich is now published in the journal College of Teachers Registeroffers important lessons on the challenges and benefits of online learning for adults.
“For some of us working on this study, it was educational and also a thought-provoking experience,” said the study’s lead author. Lam Phamassistant professor of educational leadership, policy, and human development at NC State.
The Abstract spoke with Pham about some of the takeaways.
The abstract: What have been some of the benefits and challenges for students in the online program in terms of students’ experiences with diversity?
Lam Pham: Geographical diversity was a major strength of this type of fully online program. Several students told us that they really enjoyed the opportunity to meet and interact with people from different industry sectors from anywhere. They couldn’t all have come together in such a diverse way if they had been in a face-to-face class.
However, in terms of racial diversity, some students said that because they weren’t sitting together in a classroom, they felt it served as a gateway for some students to act as if the norms that would be in place in person were not the same standards for being online. The chat was a place where you could get away with comments that wouldn’t have been acceptable in person. I would like to point out that not many students spoke about it, but there were.
I think part of this deviation from social norms was that some instructors struggled to deal with these issues in the online environment. For example, an instructor may not see anything happening in the chat while teaching. This could allow these norm breaks to occur.
I think we need to learn how groups form norms around racial diversity and equity, and we need training for instructors to facilitate those norms in an online environment. It’s about managing an open culture and a safe space for students.
AT: What were the main factors that had an impact on students’ ability to learn?
Pham: One of the main factors that students rated as important was a safe learning environment – not just physical safety, but safety in terms of each student’s ability to think and speak in a way that is true to them. and that will help him grow and learn. Without this security, students felt they could not fully engage in the classroom. I believe that training on how you facilitate and maintain those social norms is important, especially important for how we set norms related to diversity.
AT: How did the online format meet or not meet students’ need for social interaction?
Pham: In a classroom, occasional small talk usually takes place before or after class, or during a break. It makes you feel like you are becoming friends. This does not happen in virtual meetings. People just turn off their cameras and walk away. You can do a lot of things to get students talking to each other, like using breakout rooms, but it’s all very planned. It is difficult to create a space for authentic social interaction online. You must unmute or raise your hand to speak.
An important finding was the impact of an in-person campus experience for students. For some students, even though they didn’t have the option to chat before or after an online class, they sometimes met outside of class on Zoom. In the end, a lot of people felt like it allowed them to build genuine relationships. For people who have been to campus in person, they almost always said it was a game-changer in terms of authentic relationships. Overall, the students felt like they could form authentic relationships online, but there was still something important about the embodied experience.
We believe the best way to meet the need for authentic online interactions is to inspire students to create opportunities to interact together outside of class. Additionally, I would highly recommend the cohort model, where students progress in groups throughout the program, so that students have multiple opportunities to interact with each other over a longer period of time.
AT: What were some of the issues faced by students with different learning preferences or abilities on a fully online platform?
Pham: The use of a new technology requires a time to ramp up for people who are new to it. In order to help people feel more comfortable, students need to take ownership of the experience. Encouraging students to use technology for their own purposes outside of class is a major way to do this.
AT: What other questions do you have about the online learning of the future?
Pham: When I was studying this, fully online classrooms were very new. We now move on to hybrid and mixed models. What we want to know is: What will student experiences look like in blended or hybrid programs? What will be most useful to them? Is it maximum flexibility? Or are some things always better in person than online?