The coronavirus has attacked society at scale, across the globe. The response also has been at scale, a global drive to discover the best strategies for mitigation, treatment and vaccines. The same holds true on the education front: Educators must innovate at scale, to continue to educate students worldwide — and in the process, build the best practices for online instruction.
Kerrie Douglas, assistant professor of engineering education, and her team, like at many institutions, shifted rapidly to online learning to overcome the disruption the pandemic caused. Students no longer had the close connections and support structure that are the hallmarks of campus academic and social life. Yet research has shown that peers form a major support structure for engineering students, and supportive relationships and networks are vital for students as they learn their field and find their way into a career.
Her take on online education at scale — in excellence — is that it requires integrating technology and people. Technology and algorithms can enable thousands of students to see content, but instructors still must be involved in delivering the course. The instructor, and the presence of other learners, is as crucial as the content delivered in the videos or via other online resources, she says.
“Students need to connect with others, both to develop a deeper understanding of the content and to feel supported in their education,” Douglas says. “There are no technology substitutes for human connection. Achieving a community of support at scale requires providing a teaching team, as well as setting up a rich, interactive infrastructure to support students — not just discussion boards.”
She sees one of the instructor’s main roles in this “scaled” environment as creating a structure for students to have both unplanned and planned interactions. Students need meaningful connection, and it doesn’t always have to be with the instructor. At the same time, they need the opportunity to receive the kinds of feedback and input that only someone with expertise in the course and instructional content has.
The biggest challenge in a large-scale class, Douglas says, is determining how to ensure a genuine and fair learning opportunity for all students. “Lots of research has shown that students need feedback to learn — feedback that helps them assess what the learning goal is and where they are relative to that goal. There also has been substantial research indicating that merely having students talk to each other doesn’t necessarily mean they’re engaging in meaningful or helpful conversation. Left unchecked, these communications actually can spread misconceptions or misunderstandings.”
Douglas is the principal investigator in a National Science Foundation-funded Rapid Response Research (RAPID) project studying engineering instructors’ and students’ experiences during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. NSF RAPID grants provide expedited funding that supports time-critical investigations. Along with co-principal investigator Julie Martin from The Ohio State University, Douglas is looking at how engineering instructors moved to online learning and what types of social supports students perceive.
“We’re doing this through the lens of a deep dive into four undergraduate engineering courses to understand how the instructors approached the sudden shift to online, whether learning goals were the same or changed, what students were able to achieve, and students’ perceived levels of support,” she says. “Each instructor approached the transition to online differently, but all of the courses had team-based projects. Our cross-case comparison will include student surveys; interviews with students, faculty and graduate teaching assistants; and course documents to assess the academic ‘social capital’ provided for student success.”
It’s not only vital to figure this stuff out, Douglas says, but it’s also crucial to scale the insights. To that end, her team will create best practices for online STEM instructors built around findings and disseminate them through social media, professional organizations, journals, and other means.
Automated online learning is not the be-all and end-all for education at scale in our pandemic-induced social-distancing environment, Douglas says. “While automation is good for surface-level understanding — rote memorization, performing calculations — engineering students frequently solve open-ended problems, as well as problems with no one ‘right’ solution.
“Our job is to educate the next generation of innovators who are prepared to address the biggest challenges we face as a global society,” Douglas says. That requires engineers to possess critical thinking skills and the ability to make decisions in complex situations.
“There is no automated solution for that,” she says. “Students need authentic conversation, both with one other, and with members of the teaching teams, who are more knowledgeable. The students need opportunities to be challenged, to think about the assumptions they are making or newly created problems they may be overlooking.”
To foster that type of learning requires a community of students, teaching teams, and an instructor, Douglas says. Without that community, engineering students will struggle with motivation to learn, and have limited opportunity to develop the complex engineering competencies that society so desperately needs from the engineering workforce.