Jun 16 2020

The Remote Learning Diaries: How to Improve Live Online Classes and Other Tips

A George Mason University student shares her thoughts on how professors can create more productive online learning environments next semester.

Along with universities across the nation, George Mason University, the school I attend, has faced challenges during the COVID-19 crisis. GMU moved more than 5,000 classes online in just two weeks to comply with social-distancing requirements requirements. The transition from in-person to online learning was difficult for everyone involved. 

There are many students who simply learn better in an in-class setting; there are fewer distractions, and an instructor is actively teaching you. (The chairs are also not as soft as the ones I have at home, where comfort can actually become its own distraction.) 

However, there are also many students who excel in online learning environments. This is why universities typically offer both options, giving students the chance to choose the best fit for their learning styles. 

But these are not normal times. Now, students have just one option for courses, and it has to be online.

MORE ON EDTECH: Here are the best Zoom remote learning tech tips.

My Experience with Live and Prerecorded Lectures

There is still variety in how each online class is taught, based on professors’ preferences. Some are taught through live online lectures that you must virtually attend during regularly scheduled class time. Others rely on prerecorded lectures that you can watch at any time. 

The live lectures are taught through Blackboard, specifically Blackboard Collaborate. There are many features on Blackboard Collaborate that simulate an in-person learning environment. Students can click a button to virtually raise their hands to indicate they have questions. You can see your professor and classmates via webcam. You can also verbally communicate with the class and instructor during the lecture.

One of the biggest challenges of this arrangement is that many students do not mute themselves when they are not talking, which allows background noise to drown out the lecture. I think it would be more productive for professors to automatically mute all participants and individually unmute the ones who raise their hands to speak. While the classes I am in only use Blackboard Collaborate for live lectures, Zoom is another similar and widely used live lecture platform that also allows the host to auto-mute all attendees. 

For prerecorded lectures, professors create videos of themselves lecturing, then upload them to Blackboard using Kaltura, which embeds the video so students do not have to download it onto their devices to view it. 

This is a great way for students to view videos efficiently. Instead of downloading multiple lectures for various classes to their personal devices, students only need to click a button to play the videos. 

Online classes also typically include downloadable notes and PowerPoint slides, much like the materials normally used in classrooms. These are available on Blackboard for students to view anytime.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how the remote learning pivot could shape higher ed IT.

Solutions to a Lack of Computers

Part of online learning is taking online tests and exams. Some classes require the use of software called Respondus LockDown Browser, which locks your screen on the test until you submit it. This prevents users from looking up answers in another tab. 

Respondus also has a camera option that allows professors to watch students as they take a test to make sure no one is using a smartphone or other outside resources. Some professors make this mandatory (I am in a statistics course this semester that requires it), which presents a challenge for students using laptops that lack built-in cameras. 

If you don’t have a built-in webcam, your only option is to purchase one. Many students cannot afford to do so after handling the cost of books and tuition. Students who previously relied solely on taking notes by hand and using campus computer labs must now must invest in new technology to keep up with class requirements. 

This, in my opinion, is the biggest challenge students face during virtual learning. But as I see an increase in universities across the country investing in one-to-one laptop programs, where schools provide a computer for each student, I am hopeful that such digital inequities will be addressed.

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