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College Students Need Connection, Routine, Equity to Thrive in Online Coursework
Rutgers researchers share student perspective of remote learning and how faculty can improve it

By Megan Schumann, Rutgers Today

As a pair of Rutgers researchers started to prepare for a fall semester of online learning, they noticed there was a lot of advice to draw on from other faculty.

But Vikki Katz from the School of Communication and Information and Amy Jordan, a professor and chair of the Journalism and Media Studies Department, both at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, felt something was missing: the voice of students who finished up their spring semester remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers are drawing on the results of a nationwide survey that collected data from undergraduates about their experiences in April and May to create a new platform called “Left To Their Own Devices.” The new resource was developed to help educators redesign remote instruction to be more equitable, foster community, and help students thrive.

“Faculty may need to develop connections in different and more conscious ways than they have in the past,” Katz said. “This is not just about tech support, but rather about creating a sense of trust and connection, evaluating in ways that feel fair to students, and understanding that many have chronic issues of digital inequality. What students miss most tells us what they value most.” 

The survey of more than 3,000 undergraduates from 31 U.S. universities found that the majority craved the human connections that was lost when they had to leave school because of the pandemic.

Two-thirds of the participants had trouble keeping track of deadlines or clearly understanding what was expected of them; 55 percent couldn’t communicate with their professors as much as they would have liked; and 71 percent had trouble concentrating on schoolwork due to at-home interruptions. 

By signaling awareness of digital inequality—or, what Katz calls under-connectedness—faculty can build student trust.

“For instance,” said Katz, “Zoom is great for enabling the class interactions that build community. Knowing students cannot manage long meetings, need strong internet or may share a computer, faculty shouldn’t waste precious interactive time by lecturing live. Instead, build breakout sessions into live video sessions, so that students can connect with one another.”

Undergraduates also struggled without their routines such as picking up coffee before a lecture or meeting friends to study in the library.

According to the researchers, faculty can provide structure by setting a schedule and committing to a specific weekday to release lectures and set the pace by holding back content instead of releasing the full semester at once.

The new platform shares information about the student perspective of remote learning and recommendations to help faculty improve the experience and adapt lesson plans as needed.

“We were preparing for a remote fall ourselves and saw a lot of material that focused on faculty-to-faculty advice,” said Jordan. “In reality, lessons from the students are an invaluable source to a more successful remote semester.”

Left To Their Own Devices is a cross-departmental collaboration at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information. The project’s authors are Katz, Jordan, and Alyvia Walters, a Journalism and Media Studies doctoral student, and Luna Laliberte, an undergraduate in communications. The site will be updated with new content as the semester continues. 

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This article was originally published by Rutgers Today on September 8, 2020

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