Remote Learning: What students told us

Soon after we started teaching remotely at the UD English Language Institute, we learned that we wouldn’t be going back into the classroom this summer, and many students will continue to take our courses online for longer than that because we don’t know when international students will be admitted to the US, nor when they will feel safe enough to try. So we wanted to know more about the students’ experience of our remote classes.

We conducted an online survey in our intensive English program with three simple open-ended questions:

  1. What did you like about the online classes?
  2. What problems or difficulties did you have with the online classes?
  3. How can we improve our online classes?

We also asked students to check the technologies they were using the participate in our classes (laptops, Chromebooks, tablets, smartphones) and tell us where they were living (our accommodation, private apartments, or outside the US).

Over 60% of students responded, which means we have a pretty representative sample of the student body. Our population ranges in level from beginners to high advanced. Most students are 17-24, but we have older students, too. Most students are learning English in order to attend undergraduate and graduate programs in the US, but other students come for professional and personal reasons or are participating in exchange programs. Many students are self-funded, but many others receive scholarships from their home countries. Only 8 of the 175 students who responded had returned home, but many more were planning to leave and take their summer classes from abroad. The majority of students had laptops, 26 used various tablets, and 9 only had smartphones. (We now require students to use a laptop or tablet — Chromebooks are cheap!)

The results were both encouraging and useful. Here are some highlights:

  • 69% of respondents wrote positive comments about the online classes.
  • 53% wrote about problems, the most common of which was internet connectivity (nearly half)
  • Students appreciated the flexibility and convenience of our remote classes (and remember, we taught fully synchronous classes on Zoom)
  • 16 students said that the online classes were as good as or better than face-to-face classes, which surprised us!
  • Among the affordances that students highlighted were: breakout rooms for group discussion and recording classes so they can rewatch, review, or catch up on missed classes
  • Students especially appreciated teachers who organized materials clearly and adapted activities for the online environment
  • There was a lot of positive feedback about the amount of individual contact they had with teachers, the feedback they received, and the availability of office hours
  • 24 students commented that they felt distracted or that it was difficult to concentrate on classes, either because of the general stress of this time or the technology. (We know that Zoom classes are exhausting.)
  • There were some concerns about assessment, with some students asking for greater flexibility and assessments that were more appropriate to online teaching, especially giving more time
  • Several students indicated a lack of comfort and familiarity with technology, including having to type their work. Others commented that their teachers were struggling with the technology.

Our recommendations based on the survey are:

  • Work with our residences and homestay families to improve internet connectivity
  • Start building asynchronous components into the courses, although Zoom will still be the primary mode of delivery (for reasons I discussed here). These might be modules that replace one class a week, or components that replace part of class with asynchronous engagement, including increased one-one conferencing. We have permission to experiment with these techniques next session in order to see what sticks when we throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall.
  • Encourage all faculty to use breakout rooms and record their classes
  • Help teachers better organize materials using Canvas and Google Drive. For example, we created a standard homepage template with course-specific information and useful links.
  • Provide orientation to the technology for students. My colleague created a Canvas module that we have recommended to all teachers for the first week which uses engaging ESL activities to introduce the tools that will be used during the course.
  • One activity in the orientation is a collaborative construction of online class “rules”, including expectations for use of video (recognizing of course that there may be very good reasons why a student does not want to turn on their camera), participation, and behavior. We encourage teachers to take breaks during classes if appropriate to counter the problem of concentration, but also to set expectations about the length of the breaks!
  • We also encourage teachers to use the Zoom chat box to check in on students who are struggling during the class. There is an activity in the orientation that requires students to send a chat message to everyone and one privately to the teacher.
  • We are holding a faculty meeting to discuss options for assessment that meet our learning outcomes while reflecting compassion for the challenges of the broader context.
  • We are offering another round of bite-sized (30-minute) professional development workshops on key tools in Zoom, Canvas, and Google Docs, including alternatives to Google Apps and YouTube for students in China, where those services are blocked.

What was most heartening about the feedback was the genuine gratitude many students took time to express, showing how much they appreciated the efforts we made to continue their education, master the technology, provide support, and teach English. So, we’ll turn around and start a new session tomorrow, with many continuing and even a handful of new students!

In the interests of using this blog as a journal of these strange times, as of today (5/3/20), there are over 5,200 cases of coronavirus in Delaware, and the death toll stands at 177. We remain under a stay-at-home order with no indication when restrictions will be lifted. School buildings will not reopen this academic year. Delawareans must wear masks in indoor public places and in state parks when other people are around. UD has cancelled all summer events and moved summer courses online. The university is “cautiously optimistic” about an in-person fall semester. UD reports that they lost $50m in Spring 2020.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

2 thoughts on “Remote Learning: What students told us”

    1. Yes, I think so, overall! But it took a TON of quick-response training and support. I think that’s the key — we’re heard that most departments didn’t do this.

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