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One year after COVID-19 forced universities to adopt a virtual format, Penn education experts reflect on how remote learning will impact education at Penn and elsewhere post-pandemic.

Using digital innovation to improve learning experience

Several Penn experts — including Graduate School of Education Professor Betsy Rymes — noted that the pandemic has inspired new conversations and ideas about how to best instruct students. 

“Somehow I think we had gotten lulled into this idea pre-pandemic that teaching is just something you kind of do and once you’ve learned it you know it, but we kind of jolted out of that,” Rymes said. 

Many teachers changed their teaching methods in order to foster more conversations among students in a virtual setting, according to Rymes. 

GSE Professor and Faculty Director of Teacher Education Janine Remillard agreed, adding that COVID-19 has given both university professors and K-12 teachers more flexibility and creativity with online digital interactive tools such as Google Suite, which supports collaboration between students and professors. 

Peter Decherney, English and Cinema & Media Studies professor and faculty director of the Online Learning Initiative, said he felt the most exciting part of the past year has been seeing how innovative teachers have been in regards to making the learning experience better for their students. 

For instance, he said faculty with large lecture classes have used more Zoom breakout rooms to facilitate intimate discussions, which they were unable to do pre-pandemic. Faculty have also been enhancing the learning of students by assigning interactive homework assignments on Canvas, which Decherney said allow students to reply to the posts of other students.

“Sometimes it is just about rethinking things and taking something that you’ve been doing that has worked for a long time and saying ‘Well, we have rethink it so let’s just make it better,'” Decherney said.

Bruce Lenthall, executive director of Penn's Center for Teaching and Learning, predicted that the format of exams will change once in-person learning returns, as many professors adopted open-book and unproctored test formats during the pandemic. Schools will begin to have conversations about the value of students living on campus, and about whether they want to permanently implement online components post-pandemic to their courses, he said, referencing hybrid learning models. 

“I think some people will say, ‘I can do proctored exams, I am going to go back to that,’ while others will say ‘I don't know why I ever want to go back to that — I want to continue to do the kinds of things I’m doing,” Lenthall said. 

Since many professors adopted pre-recorded, asynchronous lectures during the pandemic, Lenthall also said he could foresee students being tasked with watching more recorded lectures rather than reading from a textbook in the future. But Canvas will stay, he predicted, in efforts to enable students to collaborate asynchronously. 

Finding Canvas discussion posts to be repetitive and monotonous, however, Rymes said she prefers platforms like Padlet, an organizational and collaborative tool that allows students to present their ideas using images and texts. She hopes to continue to implement more interactive, online assignments for her students after the pandemic ends. 

After witnessing movements such as Black Lives Matter that occurred during the pandemic, Lenthall added that he predicts that faculty will diversify their class materials.

"I think one thing we are going to see going forward is a heightened awareness of the need to think about the diversity of our students, of the material of our courses, and the importance of thinking about teaching as an inclusive act," Lenthall said. 

Foreseeing a change in class structures

With expertise in K-12 education and in higher education, Remillard predicted that teachers in both early and higher education will become more intentional about building a sense of community in their classrooms beyond the pandemic.

In K-12 schools, Remillard predicted that more schools will implement more remote-learning options, explaining that research has shown that 20 to 30% of parents prefer for their children to learn remotely and about 20% of school districts are considering adopting a virtual school to their portfolio. 

She stated that this push towards more virtual options will benefit students who tend to "fall through the cracks" and find it emotionally stressful to be in classrooms. 

Like Remillard, Lenthall said Zoom may become more common in classrooms for scheduling guest speakers and visiting colleagues' classrooms, as it is easier for faculty to schedule guest speakers from around the world while conducting class over Zoom, with speakers no longer having to worry about traveling. 

Remillard added that she has found platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom to be helpful in allowing her to visit the classrooms of her colleagues.

Decherney agreed that online learning may become more common in classrooms with more opportunities for global experiences, cross-university experiences, and asynchronous interactions between students and professors outside the typical nine-to-five hours.

Increasing accessibility and affordability of online education

Although remote learning may help increase access to higher education, Vice Provost for Faculty Laura Perna said that it can also impose costs and challenges for both universities and students.

Perna said remote learning can help students cut some tuition costs, but added that the upkeep of technological infrastructure and support for students, faculty, and staff can be especially costly. Some aspects that make remote learning costly is the cost of providing support for students, faculty, and staff, painting IT infrastructure and software licenses, and also developing new technological tools to improve remote instruction, she explained. 

Robert Zemsky, a GSE professor in the higher education division, said remote learning has not shown much evidence of making higher education more affordable for students. His research team is exploring how universities could make higher education more affordable by shifting to a three-year undergraduate program, he said, which could cut the cost for students by 25%.

While remote learning may not be able to drastically cut costs, Perna said that online programs do have the potential to make higher education available to historically underserved populations. According to Perna, students who were enrolled in online programs before the pandemic were typically older, had parents with lower levels of education, tended to be parents themselves, and worked full-time.

Perna said, however, that research has found face-to-face courses to be more beneficial for students who are academically underprepared — lacking skills in at least one of the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. There is also a technology barrier for some students who may not have sufficient access to computers or Wi-Fi connections, she said.

“During the pandemic, we know that many low-income students worried about their ability to pay for at-home internet and that at least some students accessed course content from public places, including parking lots and using their smartphones,” Perna said. “We also have to ensure that online courses are accessible to people with disabilities."

Building a more empathetic relationship between students and faculty

Rymes said the pandemic has forced teachers to become more understanding of the individual needs of students, adding that while some students may thrive under remote learning or asynchronous discussions, others may not, leading professors to accommodate by finding ways to implement both asynchronous and synchronous aspects to help both groups of students.

She added that with many international graduate students in her classes, she has become more empathetic towards their struggles with time zones, multilingualism, and unfamiliar learning methods. 

“We could maybe keep that level of compassion going and that level of interest in where students are learning from, literally and metaphorically,” Rymes said.

Decherney echoed Rymes' sentiments, adding that the pandemic has put a focus on holistic teaching and the environments in which students learn.

“Students have a home and social environment, and a political environment that all impacts what happens in the classroom,” Decherney said. 

Overcoming challenges and looking to the future

Several professors said that Zoom instruction has been a challenge — but they are hopeful that a potential in-person fall semester will help facilitate a return to normalcy. The University announced on March 15 that it is currently planning for in-person classes for the fall 2021 semester, after over a year of remote instruction. 

Rymes said she misses the spontaneous interactions she had with students she passed in the hallways.

“Now, they all appear on my zoom screen a minute or 30 seconds before class is supposed to start and when class is over we all kind of wave and go away,” Remillard said. 

Lenthall expressed that many Penn professors deeply appreciate the time they spend with students in a physical classroom setting, and believes faculty will continue to recognize and be cognizant of the value of in-person teaching. 

Likewise, Decherney is optimistic about what education at the University will look like in the fall if classes return to an in-person format, now that professors have become more familiar with online learning tools.

“I think we’ll be back and we’ll have all the things that made a Penn education great pre-pandemic, plus the new things — the new tools in the toolbox,” Decherney said.