how to improve online learning
Students still report dissatisfaction with the quality and execution of online lessons. Source: NeONBRAN/Unsplash

It’s time for virtual classrooms to shine, but do universities truly know how to improve online learning?

Students still report dissatisfaction with the quality and execution of online lessons, though lecturers are doing their best with the resources at hand in this sudden shift from physical to virtual classrooms.

This begs the question: How can universities do better?

Having had experience managing a large online learning presence, Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc weighed in on this topic on The Brookings Institution. World Economic Forum experts also offered steps for universities to successfully transfer classes online.

Here we compile the best of both perspectives.

Put student experience first

When considering how to improve online learning, universities must prioritise usability and student experience.

LeBlanc writes, “A student whose parent just lost a job, whose grandparent might have the virus, or who has less food and safety at home than at campus is simply less able to perform than they were just two weeks ago before everyone was sent home.”

how to improve online learning

Lecturers should take into account that international students may be facing additional stress from travel and accommodation issues. Source: Hazem Bader/AFP

Considering the stress and anxiety students are under, university staff should seek to understand their challenges and support those from less-privileged backgrounds. The human aspect must not be overlooked when exploring how to improve online learning.

As an example, how can students with weak Internet connections be helped? For one, WEF recommends reworking online courses so that they take up less bandwidth.

In caring for their wellbeing, lecturers should also encourage students to keep their minds and bodies active. To this end, WEF says, “Incorporate breaks that allow learners to re-energise, drink water, stretch their legs and take some time to breathe and see natural light.”

Maintain clear communication

The first step to building enriching online learning experiences is to build clear communication channels. This sets the stage for open, honest interaction that does not feel contrived.

WEF recommends teachers use asynchronous communication tools like online chat channels, bulletin boards and discussion groups both inside and outside class.

Teachers can keep students focused and motivated by delivering the planned narrative for each class with polls, virtual break-out rooms, videos and open questions. This will “reenergise your learners and surprise them with the effectiveness of a 45-minute class.”

In order for a video lesson to be seamless, there must be high-quality lighting, audio and engagement. For a successful Zoom call, mute when you’re not talking to minimise background noise and echoes.

how to improve online learning

Video conferences may be the new classroom for the rest of the academic year. Source: Greg Baker/AFP

Plan for the long term

LeBlanc writes, “For countries not managing their pandemic response well, there is the very real possibility that campuses will not reopen in the fall.”

Thus, institutions should start developing “high-quality, student-centred online programmes” in the next few months to stay ahead of the curve. WEF says this includes rethinking assessment based on learning objectives.

“Institutions of higher education need to quickly stand up robust systems of support in areas such as academic advising, administrative functions, IT, tutoring, and more,” LeBlanc continues.

This includes training faculty members and IT staff over the summer so everyone can equip themselves on how to improve online learning.

Tap into university resources

Collaboration and sharing are more important than ever, which is why universities must seek out their best and brightest to lead the charge into new territories.

According to LeBlanc, these include early adopters of online learning technology and tech staff who know everything there is to know about the institution’s learning management system.

“Find them and put them on a taskforce, empower them and buffer them from all the slow-moving governance and bureaucracy that will slow them down,” he advises.

“In a volatile world, “rigid” equals “brittle,” and institutions that cannot figure out how to work differently may not work at all.”

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