During stay-at-home orders for COVID-19, distance learning became the only possible form of education. While it helped prevent teachers and students from being infected, did students achieve the same learning outcomes as usual? In looking at the data from school districts in California, I found a gloomy yet understandable answer: many students struggled with distance learning.
The Grade Depression
This school year, there was a rise in failing grades and the number of disengaged students. Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD), the 2nd largest school district in the United States, implemented a combination of fully remote and hybrid learning. During the Fall 2020 semester, the number of Ds and Fs in grades 9-12 increased by nearly 9 percentage points when compared to the same period in the previous year. Further north, Mt. Diablo Unified School District, which adopted remote learning, similarly reported that the number of school students with more than one failing grade surged from 19% to 31% in the previous two academic years. The sliding grades were not a surprise for educators who were already facing low student participation rates as some students simply did not show up for remote classes.
Remote vs Online Learning
One of the reasons teachers and students grappled with failing grades is that remote teaching was delivered ad-hoc instead of in a thoughtful and science-based manner. What students experienced was remote learning, not online learning—and there is considerable distinction between these two instruction methods.
Remote learning was applied as more of a crisis-response contingency method. As teachers scrambled to move content to an online space, classes designed to be taught face-to-face were being conducted remotely. Classes were delivered via video conferencing tools, that work well in business environments but have not been optimized for teaching and learning. There were few assessments, little use of group work or discussion boards, and many materials were in asynchronous form, which teachers hoped their students could study at their own pace.
Although asynchronous courses offer a certain degree of flexibility, they are notorious for low completion rates. This is primarily because it’s challenging to control student focus and behavior in an environment where the teacher is absent from providing guidance and support. No matter how well the content is designed, students have the choice to open another app, browse other content, or put down the device at any time during the course.
On the other hand, online learning is well crafted and purposely designed to maximize the advantages of a digital environment while providing quality interaction and value for students. When online learning is intentional and planned, it often incorporates interactive modules and leverages synchronous learning sessions that involve discussions and problem-solving. While exploiting the potential of digital collaboration tools, it stimulates teamwork, fosters the development of social skills, and engages students with real-time interaction.
Unlock Student Engagement
Empowered by various EdTech tools, education providers can thoughtfully design online learning experiences and boost student engagement with these three key strategies:
Project-based learning (PBL) is an effective way to engage students, as research shows that it can cultivate a “need to know” attitude in students and motivate them to deepen their understanding in order to solve a problem that is meaningful to them. By participating in PBL, students take an active role, ask questions, conduct experiments, and participate in group discussions. In an online learning environment, education providers can use a virtual classroom platform with breakout room features to split students into groups where they can collaborate in real time through video/audio chat.
As the education lead at Agora, I am glad to see education providers use our partner LearnCube’s solution to conduct PBL in an online learning environment. Offering an interactive whiteboard and live video conferencing capability with a breakout room feature, LearnCube purposefully built a platform for online education that has helped educators deliver over 100 million minutes of live classes since the lockdown.
Proper use of formative assessments can also keep students engaged. Compared to summative assessments, formative assessments are not graded and serve as check-ins to see how students are progressing toward mastery. They can be used to inform instruction by providing valuable feedback. Educators can tell if it is the right time to move onto the next topic, while identifying which students need added help and which don’t. By giving students instructions and tasks they need, educators can offer personalized learning that engages students.
Quizlet can be a great tool for formative assessments, as it provides a learning platform that use flashcards, activities, and games to help student practice and master what they are learning. Their new product Quizlet Live enables team competition and allows students to answer quizzes collaboratively even if they are physically apart from each other.
Instead of submitting a sheet of paper with answers, students can now easily record themselves for video assignments. For STEM courses, students can show how they arrive at an answer, which ensures original work and allows educators to pinpoint and address areas of confusion. After implementing video assignments, professors at Excelsior College found that students engaged significantly more in detailed preparation compared to writing up a homework set. Since the videos were made available to everyone in the classroom, students put more time and effort into their work as they didn’t want to look foolish or ill-prepared in front of others.
D2L, a well-known learning management system (LMS) provider based in Canada, enables this type of engaging video assignment. With video recording capabilities, D2L supports individual and group projects, as well as Q&A video assignments, where learners are presented with prompts and given a set amount of time to respond. This Q&A format has a wide range of use cases including oral quizzes, skill demonstrations, and language practice.
Reforging Virtual Learning
With an increased number of students failing at distance learning, it’s time for education providers to redesign the online learning experience and supercharge student engagement with synchronous learning, group projects, and real-time collaboration. EdTech companies should also consider upgrading their virtual learning platforms with live video/audio calls, an interactive whiteboard, and video recording capabilities. Only if we boost student engagement and participation, can we save students from the turmoil of remote learning.
At Agora, we are excited to partner with EdTech companies and help them build a fully customizable and white-labeled online learning platform with our SDKs and APIs. Leveraging our global network and education tools, education providers can engage students anywhere, on any device, for any class size.
Interested in learning more about supporting online learning with technology? Check out our Education solution webpage.