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What Will Remain of the Pandemic-Era Online Learning Infrastructure?

“There’s been a lot of enthusiasm for returning to in-person education, but I hope we don’t lose sight of the fact that when online education is working well, it’s improving accessibility for students.”

Nick Recktenwald, Senior Instructor and the Director of Composition for the University of Oregon Department of English

Over the past year and a half, learning turned online for most students. Almost overnight, colleges and universities around the world had to shift to distance-based learning methods, as well as online assigning and grading, as efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 kept people out of classrooms and offices.

There’s been an increase in online classes at colleges and universities over the past decade, but unless the course and teacher were already set up for online learning, the sudden transition was uncomfortable for many. Some people may assert that the global pandemic has changed in-person learning forever. Others view the change as long overdue.

Many schools, including some of the country’s most elite universities such as Princeton, were forced to admit that the online learning environment they provided their remote students wasn’t as high-quality as their in-person classes. This led to tuition refunds and thousands of disappointed students who wondered how this all would affect them in their future job search.

But this disruption in traditional college course delivery models may ultimately be a good thing. It may seem like trying to teach a science such as chemistry may be impossible in a remote model, but actually, the digital tools and videos can give students a glimpse at molecular processes that they wouldn’t be able to see if they were doing the experiments in a real-life laboratory. And in the case of English composition, the online tools may encourage students to participate more than they would otherwise.

Discover how the shift to remote learning has impacted two professors in particular and what’s expected to remain of the pandemic era learning infrastructure.

Meet the Experts: Nick Recktenwald & Dr. Thomas Greenbowe

Nick Recktenwald

Nick Recktenwald is a senior instructor and the director of composition in the University of Oregon’s Department of English. He has taught in the composition program since 2014, and he brings that experience to his introductory writing classes.

The goal of the composition program is to not only help students become better writers and critical thinkers, but also to give students the tools to voice their personal perspectives on contemporary issues and participate in important conversations on campus, in the workplace, and beyond.

In February 2021, Recktenwald received the University of Oregon’s Tykeson Teaching Award. He was recognized both for his efforts to support the shift that faculty had to make to remote and online classes this year, as well as for his innovative work to develop, deploy, and support online and remote curriculum delivery.

Thomas Greenbowe

Dr. Thomas Greenbowe is a nationally recognized and award-winning chemistry instructor for the chemical education program at the University of Oregon. He is has been at U of O since 2015. His awards date back to the 1995 Wilkinson Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching from Iowa State University, followed by many more. His most recent awards include the American Chemistry Society George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education and the Tykeson Teaching Award. He was honored for his unwavering commitment to active learning methods in the field of chemistry.

Dr. Greenbowe has been instrumental in transforming in-person and hands-on laboratory courses into web-based formats.

Transitioning to Online Learning During Covid-19

Nick Recktenwald says the transition to online learning at the start of the pandemic did not feel like a huge shift to him, in part because he had been unintentionally preparing for it: “My experience with developing an online pedagogy for the writing programs here at the University of Oregon had given me a good awareness of not only best practices, but also the tools that are available to teach online,” Recktenwald says.

“I felt that I already had a good sense of how to best-set student expectations for what the online learning experience was going to be. I felt well-positioned for the transition, but the challenge is really helping to support others so that everyone in my department feels that way too.”

Setting expectations, Recktenwald says, is an important part of a successful online teaching and learning experience. Much of the effort that Recktenwald undertook at the beginning of the pandemic was to support the other faculty members and get them set up for a successful online experience. “We did focused training early on when we went remote, for all the English faculty and graduate students in the department who were interested in exploring just what it means to take your classes into an asynchronous or synchronous environment,” he recalls.

Recktenwald worked with staff to not only begin to understand some of the unfamiliar technology that enables online learning, but also the basics of how to set up a remote classroom. Transforming a lecture-style class where students traditionally sit and listen to small online groups who were also talking to each other was a conceptual shift that a lot of faculty had to go through. “It’s not just as simple as turning on the webcam and doing your lecture,” Recktenwald says. “There’s a completely different sort of engagement from both the student side and the faculty side.”

Recktenwald shared his knowledge of the tools that he had been using with good success. Zoom, which feels familiar now, was an untapped technology for most people a year ago. He shared knowledge of how to set up Zoom, create and share polls, and design a discussion board. “That sounds like an easy thing, but really it isn’t,” Recktenwald says. “To do it well you have to ask questions that are going to drive some real engagement from your students. There’s also the question of how to incentivize them talking to each other in that space.”

One commonly used pre-pandemic education technology tool was Canvas. The platform has since become the leading learning management system. Canvas integrates with other common tools, like Zoom, and provides a means of remote assigning, grading, sharing documents, messaging, and more. “A lot of faculty used Canvas pre-pandemic only for sharing the syllabus,” says Recktenwald, “but they didn’t consider it a true online learning space. So we had a Canvas boot camp.”

Setting up discussion boards can be done in a few ways. Canvas allows for easy short video or audio responses to prompt questions. This allows students to verbalize themselves in a way that feels comfortable to them. For the instructors, the video and audio provide a glimpse into student personalities that they wouldn’t get if the answers were strictly text-based, but it’s not interactive in the same way that an in-person class is.

“I think most people will default to a text-based discussion board, which is fine,” says Recktenwald. “I think one of the advantages of a well-designed discussion board over an in-person class discussion—especially in larger classes—is that even in the best classroom-based discussions I never hear from all of my students in the classroom,” Recktenwald says. “But the board gives everybody a chance and most of the time people are responding, even if it’s just in small ways to one another. The online transition does ask for different engagement, but it can result in broader engagement than what you sometimes experience in a physical classroom.”

In remote classrooms, those students who feel a bit timider can have a greater voice than they might in person. Online, students can contribute in ways that may feel more comfortable for them. They might not speak up in class, but online they still get to share their perspective in a public way: “It’s always hard to acknowledge that as much as we want students to come into our classrooms and physically and mentally be present in that space, they’re coming to our classrooms from all kinds of different contexts or situations,” Recktenwald notes. “Any number of things can really impact the quality of the overall discussion.”

Recktenwald says that when courses are set up so that students know they need to respond by a certain day and time on a discussion board, they can plan ahead and create a space where they can fully bring their attention to the topic at hand.

Chemdemos and Other Opportunities in Online Science Education

Dr. Thomas Greenbowe uses a University of Oregon website called Chemdemos to teach many of the introductory chemistry concepts. Chemdemos was a site originally designed for internal use by the University of Oregon chemistry faculty to order demonstrations from the lecture demonstrators, but it grew into much more than that.

Dr. Greenbowe shares that investments from the university have turned the site into a very successful pandemic resource for science educators: “We had upwards of 4,800 chemistry teachers using this site and upwards of 80,000 students during the pandemic,” he says. “No one could go into their labs, so what else could you do?”

The site was originally created from a grant from the National Science Foundation to put together computer simulations and guided inquiry tutorials. “In the early 1980s and the late ’90s, a bunch of international chemistry educators got together and were trying to figure out what were common topics,” Dr. Greenbowe recalls.

“One educator from Scotland, Alex Johnstone, published a series of papers in chemical education journals for teachers who are teaching chemistry, where he talked about the necessity for chemistry teachers to carefully go over the symbolic level of representation, which are the graphs, the mathematics, the symbols, and the macroscopic things you can see with your eyes and touch with your hands.”

While it may seem like a loss to students to not be able to physically handle materials and equipment, the videos that Greenbowe and his colleagues have created allow students a very hands-on experience that is an improvement over simply watching the instructor perform the experiment over Zoom.

For instance, the electrochemistry demo video has sliders that allow students to choose the type and amount of materials they’re testing. There’s an on-switch that activates the electrolysis machine, along with a slider to control the voltage. There’s also a button for “microscopic view” which shows the molecular and atomic changes and movements that occur in chemical processes. Currently, there are about 100 chemistry demonstrations and about 60 simulations that teachers can choose from.

“The simulation by itself is just one thing,” says Dr. Greenbowe. “You have to have something that directs the learner to use the simulation in a manner for which they can obtain the concepts and necessary information. Otherwise, they’re not going to gain anything from it.”

For each of the instructional modules available on Chemdemos, the developers have also provided learning outcomes for the teachers and for the students. “We say, if you’re going to use this demo, here’s what we think one can learn from this,” Dr. Greenbowe says.

The electrolysis demonstration, for instance, allows students to run the experiment using different materials, such as copper, silver nitrate, zinc nitrate, or magnesium nitrate. The students can select the starting mass, and choose to run the experiment for different durations. Selecting the microscopic view shows that one electrode is gaining mass, and the other is losing mass.

“The students can repeat the experiment with different variables. The students can take data and we can put that all together and learn some good things about electrolysis,” says Dr. Greenbowe.

There was no other realistic way to perform these experiments, Dr. Greenbowe says, although they did occasionally use a GoPro camera. They couldn’t send chemicals through the mail. The students didn’t have balances or electronic temperature probes. In situations where there was no video demo, Dr. Greenbowe and his colleagues used data on spreadsheets. One graduate student used a head-mounted GoPro so that students could observe a lab being conducted and the measurements being made.

Now, there are about 5,000 teachers around the world still using these simulations, either as pre-lab, post-lab, or even during labs to extend the student’s experiences: “In the lab, students can’t see the sub-microscopic view of atoms, but this allows them to do that,” Dr. Greenbowe says.

One goal of chemistry education is to teach students how to work safely with chemicals. “They need to learn how to standardize and work with measuring equipment, they need to know how to work safely with mild forms of acids and bases, and they need to know how to use gloves, they need to know how to work in a hood,” says Dr. Greenbowe. “Well, if they’re not in the lab, you just can’t do it. So when we weren’t in person, we did put in an increased emphasis on data analysis, error analysis, and on making graphs.”

The Online Model Asks for a Different Type of Engagement

Recktenwald says the online model is certainly more self-directed. While it’s important not to generalize, before the pandemic many people who self-selected to take online courses enjoyed a greater sense of control over how and when they engaged in the course material. Many people who chose online asynchronous learning were able to navigate that arena more successfully.

But even among people who self-select online learning, the courses still require a more creative set-up: “If you just implement discussion boards, that can still feel a little shallow for students,” Recktenwald says. “So the instructors need to set up things like chat hours which function like office hours.” In that model, students can come to the class chat room individually or as a group to ask questions or just hang out and read the material with other students. That’s in contrast to typical office hours, which are usually set up to be one-on-one with students. Having video conferences with some small groups is another way to foster engagement.

Recktenwald’s pre-pandemic writing classes already emphasized small group engagement in the form of workshopping and peer review. “That was hard for me to figure out how to translate into a fully online space,” Recktenwald says. “I started doing weekly writing labs with small student groups I had set up at the beginning of the term. I designed worksheets around individualized, discrete writing skills that students would have to complete as a group.” The students had a deadline for when to complete it and when to upload it, and because it was a group assignment it required some collaboration outside the primary online classroom space.

“The feedback that I got from students about that was really positive,” Recktenwald says. “It was an experience that they didn’t get to have very often in their other online classes,”

For Rechenwald, grading was not a challenge, although he recognizes that it would be a challenge in many other disciplines. Canvas allows for writing comments in the margins of papers, a strategy that he utilized. Canvas also allows for recording short audio or video feedback, which he also used. “I’ve never actually done the video version, but I have done recorded audio feedback and a number of students really responded positively to that because they like being able to listen to your feedback at different times,” Recktenwald says.

He heard from students who said they would listen to his feedback as they walked around or were doing the dishes, and they could pause and replay it as they liked. After that, Recktenwald started giving his students the option to choose audio or written feedback. “What I see over the course of terms is more students going toward the audio feedback,” he notes. “That’s something I wouldn’t have started doing if I hadn’t already been doing some online teaching.”

What Needs to Be Improved in Online Learning?

There are a lot of challenges inherent in the online learning paradigm, both for instructors and students. Videos no longer than ten minutes at the most, for instance, seem to be emerging as a best practice. Recktenwald says that even when he tries to be concise, it can still be tough to stay within that six- to ten-minute sweet spot.

Another issue is academic integrity. Is the person submitting the work actually the student? Recktenwald says there are few tools to verify that the students are truly the students. “I’m still thinking about how to manage these issues in my own teaching, and also how to advocate for broader systematic solutions.”

In January 2020, University of Oregon students were caught using the online service Chegg to get real-time answers to test questions during unproctored exams. The University of Oregon instructor who first identified the problem had previously heard about the issue from a colleague at the University of Maryland. The UO instructor, biology senior instructor Alan Kelly, copied his test questions to Chegg and realized that almost every question had already been posted with solutions provided.

Dr. Greenbowe learned about a similar situation in which chemistry graduate students had been approached to upload questions to Chegg. Those students declined, but another chemistry instructor, Professor Shannon Boettcher, discovered that the test bank questions he had used for his chemistry exams had all been uploaded to Chegg.

For Greenbowe, one challenge was the instructor not being able to monitor the classes the same way they would be able to if the students were present in the classroom in real time. In chemistry labs, students often are paired up in groups of two to perform labs together. “If we set up a lab for a class of 20 students with two people in a breakout room in Zoom, that’s ten rooms that the instructor had to get around to,” says Dr. Greenbowe. “Well, you can’t get around instantaneously, but in a lab room setting, if a group of students is raising their hand, you can talk with one group and then move on to the next group.”

Dr. Greenbowe says students in the breakout rooms were sometimes reluctant to “raise their hands,” so to speak, to get the instructor’s attention: “It took longer to cycle through these labs and they were reluctant to ask questions of their TAs and instructors. It worked, but not as well as an in-person classroom setting.”

Since the labs were simulators with no real opportunities to make mistakes, the students also were working with unrealistic sets of data. “That just doesn’t happen in real life,” Dr. Greenbowe says. “That meant everyone had a great set of data to work with and they just needed to have a nice discussion section. We didn’t complain about that, but there wasn’t much variation to what they were able to view and discuss.”

What Aspects of the Covid-19 Online Learning Will Remain?

In many ways, the concept of adjusting to online learning has been considered to be a temporary issue, a band-aid that dealt with the immediate concern of not being in in-person groups. It took a global pandemic to create a system where there was normalization and standardization of what information and resources were available to students online. For instance, some faculty across campus put their syllabi online, but many others didn’t. There was no standard for how the online space was used. Now, however, there are some minimum standards for what info should be available online—syllabi on Canvas, grades online, etc.—and Recktenwald hopes that continues.

“I had been hearing from students for years that navigating the information that was available to students was frustrating,” Recktenwald says. “Because there were some faculty members who used the online space, but there were others who didn’t. There’s nothing wrong with keeping paper grade books, but it’s difficult and complicated for students to navigate them.

One of the reasons that Dr. Greenbowe is an award-winning instructor is his development of guided inquiry tutorials that can accompany active learning. He developed something called the “science writing heuristic” and was the first person to use it in chemistry. He has also worked with international colleagues to develop a process called POGIL, or Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning. These pedagogical tools work whether students are in-person or not, and in fact, are even more important when the students are not in an in-person classroom.

“It’s providing teachers the ability to do something other than lecture in a classroom,” Dr. Greenbowe says.

Recktenwald says that at its core, online learning is an accessibility issue. Being 100 percent in person or 100 percent online is not serving or being as accessible as possible to all students. There are students with learning styles or personal situations where an online class is going to be more comfortable, and vice versa. “There’s been a lot of enthusiasm for returning to in-person education, but I hope we don’t lose sight of the fact that when online education is working well, it’s improving accessibility for students. If we’re all making information available in a kind of standard way, I think students feel less frustrated and have a better sense of how they’re doing. And I think that’s good for overall student success.”

Vanessa Salvia

Vanessa Salvia is an Oregon-based freelance writer and editor with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. As fun as rigorous studies in math and science were, Vanessa took an independent path and developed a prolific career covering lifestyle and healthcare topics for magazines, newspapers, and websites. She's covered healthcare, technology, pets, industries such as concrete construction and building waterproofing, and even hard science and technology. You can get in touch at Sage Media and Marketing.