In the spring, the rush for faculty to reshape curricula from in-person courses to fit in an online environment reinforced stigmas that the quality of online teaching—which some believe lacks opportunities for active learning or dynamic discussions—is lower than that of in-person teaching. Removed from face-to-face interactions, many faculty and students complained that online pedagogies were impersonal, and they found it difficult to build a sense of community during synchronous Zoom meetings.
The switch to online learning also created further inequities for students already struggling to afford and finish college. Low-income students who relied on on-campus computer labs to finish their work, or who relied on the campus to provide resources for food and other basic needs, struggled to overcome new barriers to accessing resources needed to complete their work. These barriers were made worse by financial instability that forced many students to prioritize keeping their jobs over studying for their classes.
When Brandman University added our first fully online courses about ten years ago, the university experienced—somewhat surprisingly—a strong positive reaction from students, resulting in more and more courses going online. Just before the pandemic struck, the university’s courses were 85 percent online. To get first-hand perspectives on why some students prefer learning in an online environment, I asked twenty-four Brandman students and alumni how it benefitted them. Their answers support my own experiences that online learning, when done well, can increase access for some students, enhance educational quality, and support interpersonal connections with faculty and classmates.
Online Learning Can Provide Access and Close the Digital Education Divide
I teach early childhood educators, members of the most racially diverse sector of the education workforce. My students are 98 percent women and approximately 50 percent women of color, mirroring the demographics of the early-childhood field. My students, whose ages range from their mid-twenties through their sixties, are older than traditional college students. Some live in rural communities far from a college campus. Almost all have children and full-time jobs.
These students live in locations or have work and family responsibilities that make it difficult or impossible to attend in-person classes, even at night. Of the students and alumni who responded to my questions, all said the main reason that they pursued an online program was because of their families, their jobs, or both.
Megan, who completed her bachelor’s and went on to graduate school, says, “I chose an online program because I teach full time. I also have four children; my husband is a truck driver. I didn’t have the flexibility to attend classes at night.”
But students taking courses fully online for the first time need support in bridging the digital divide. Brandman’s robust resource center provides workshops, tutoring, instructive videos, and individualized technical assistance. Our faculty train students in basic technologies such as Google Applications, Blackboard, and Zoom, and we coach students in learning more advanced multimedia skills to design graphics, videos, podcasts, and publications.
Online Does Not Mean Low Quality
As many faculty across the country noticed this spring, trying to replicate the experience of on-campus classrooms does not work. Success in online course delivery requires that a college or university value online teaching for its pedagogical strengths and be willing to continually invest and improve.
At our university, we use a flipped pedagogical model in which the content (lectures, readings, and assignments) is available asynchronously, and virtual synchronous meetings are used to clarify instructions, answer questions, and build community.
The pandemic requires fluid and ongoing adaptations. If students’ fieldwork sites are teaching virtually, for example, then we collect, develop, and curate resources to support them. As faculty, we strive to model a flexible mindset, reminding ourselves and our students that this is a crisis, and the children we serve need the best that we can give them.
Our online courses draw on active-learning pedagogies to keep students engaged. For example, one fieldwork project from my program requires students to collaborate with classmates as they create and implement effective pedagogical strategies in local early childhood programs. Students collaborate to research educational practices, work with schools or childcare centers to conduct classroom observations, meet online with classmates to discuss their results, and make adaptations as needed.
Fieldwork draws from multiple high-impact practices—undergraduate research, collaborative assignments, and community engagement—that prepare students with the experiential learning and new skills needed to advance in their current or future careers. Students’ work in this environment can be assessed through accountability measures such as virtual supervision and photographic documentation.
As Isabel, a bachelor’s degree graduate currently studying for a teaching credential, says, “Conducting my fieldwork was essential, as it gave me the opportunity to apply the knowledge I had obtained throughout my courses.”
Whether teaching in-person or online, faculty need continual training to effectively engage students. New faculty at Brandman are trained through a three-week onboarding program and a yearlong course, and veteran faculty continue to attend mandatory and volunteer training several times a year. Faculty and academic departments also continually revise their curricula and pedagogies in response to assessment data.
Online Learning Can Create Connections with Faculty and Peers
While it’s true that the fully online experience deprives traditional-age college students of important social and academic experiences, I was surprised that two-thirds of the students and alumni told me that they were able to have more—and better—interactions with faculty and peers than they experienced when attending classes on a campus.
”Online classes allowed for a closer relationship with my classmates, professors, and mentors,” says Sandy, a graduate of a credential program. “There seemed to be more 1:1 conversations and coaching than in-person classes when everyone sought the professor’s attention at the same time and in a hurry to get home or to another class.”
Several students also mentioned that they felt safer sharing their perspectives and engaging with the perspectives of others in online classes than they had in on-campus classrooms. “In the online environment, it felt like people were apt to share more than a one-word answer,” says Theresa, another graduate of a credential program. “I gained in-depth knowledge from the perspectives of others. I know I had an easier time sharing in our online platform because it felt safe.”
This feedback from students and alumni shows that online college programs can provide a high-quality education that removes barriers to degree attainment for low-income working students and students of color, leading to better-paying positions that rely on postsecondary degrees or teaching credentials. This is why I am committed to online teaching. For my students, it creates equity.