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On March 7, 2020, the University of Washington became the first university to close its doors and move its classes online, and many colleges and universities across the country followed suit in the ensuing days. Residential students had to pack bags and evacuate within a few days. Many schools declared the closures temporary at first, but they later extended the closure to the end of the academic term. This lack of clarity adversely affected out-of-state and international students, with some students having to return to pack remaining belongings.
According to data from entangled.solutions‘ COVID-19 higher education resource center, the COVID-19 pandemic had affected 4,234 higher education institutions and nearly 26 million students as of April 24, 2020. Many schools have moved their courses online for the remainder of the current term. Some courses now meet synchronously online using web conferencing or virtual classroom software, while others post class lesson materials and assignments for students to peruse and complete asynchronously.
This sudden shift to online learning has left teachers, students, and administrators reeling. Teachers who have never taught courses online must adapt quickly to new teaching and learning formats and technologies. Sometimes within a matter of days, teachers have had to set up online course sites, learn to use virtual classroom software, and convert assignments and testing to online formats.
Meanwhile, students must adapt to new technologies and learning modalities, managing to stay engaged despite sudden changes and stressors. Online learning typically requires advanced levels of self-direction and discipline, which may disadvantage students who struggled to stay focused and motivated. The stress of the coronavirus pandemic complicates the usual online learning challenges. Technological equipment and internet access also proves an issue for many teachers and students, resulting in attendance gaps among low-income students.
The following guide illuminates the pros and cons of online learning, including helpful tips for teachers and learners to make the most of their distance education experiences.
Pros and Cons of Online Class
Flexibile Schedule: Even before the onset of COVID-19, many working professionals enrolled in online cybersecurity programs because of their flexible attendance formats and degree timelines. Online courses and programs often allow asynchronous attendance, meaning students can watch lectures, work on assignments, and participate in discussions at any time. Some courses may use fixed exam dates and assignment deadlines; however, many online classes allow students to fit in study time around their often-busy work schedules.
Classes requiring synchronous online attendance, usually through Zoom or other video conferencing technology, save students the time and money required for a campus commute. Students can transition from class time to personal study time within seconds, potentially permitting continuity of focus as students may immediately apply information and skills from class to their assignments.
Accessibility: Online classes offer increased access for distance learners. Students with restricted mobility benefit from access to online classes, and many online education technologies enhance accessibility for learners with disabilities. Online learning holds considerable potential for adapting materials for diverse learning styles and preferences.
Unrestricted by the geographical limitations pertaining to physical campuses, distance learners enjoy access to a wider variety of class and program choices. This increases the likelihood of students finding classes and programs suiting their unique interests, career goals, and schedules. Online programs often boast part-time and/or accelerated attendance options, making continuing education accessible to busy working professionals and ambitious students eager to reduce program length.
Students with the requisite technology and funding can access online classes and complete their degrees from anywhere in the world, increasing potential for cultural diversity. Online classes often cost less per credit, making education more accessible to students with financial constraints.
Lack of Face Time: Given that many students and teachers already spend considerable time in front of screens during work and free time, the shift of education to online formats features several drawbacks. Learners and teachers may struggle to engage in meaningful dialogue through online tools. Students may lose the benefits of in-person mentorship from teachers and opportunities for networking during on-campus activities. Some online students feel less accountable for their attendance, participation, and homework completion, as well.
Class discussions also look quite different for online learners. Some students may prefer typing discussion responses, but many feel disconnected in online contexts, and the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has further impaired many participants’ ability to focus, prioritize, and manage time. Furthermore, not all home environments provide the privacy and quiet needed for focused study.
Technological Issues: Online learning requires students and teachers to possess adequate computer technology, network bandwidth, and technological savvy, but not all educators and learners enjoy equal access to these resources. Lower-income teachers and students may lack adequate home equipment and/or conducive environments for completing online work. Computer problems and poor internet connections can inhibit online teaching and learning, resulting in frustration and disengagement.
Furthermore, many teachers and students lacking interest or expertise in online education must learn to use requisite technologies. Given the added situational stress caused by the pandemic, many teachers and students may lack the motivation and focus to convert learning to online formats. Older teachers who have taught in physical classrooms for many years often feel overwhelmed by the new educational and technological challenges of online learning.
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5 Tips for Switching to an Online Class Format
ENSURE YOU HAVE THE RIGHT SOFTWARE
Some newly online classes require video conferencing apps such as WebEx or Zoom, but many call for virtual classroom software. Educational software varies considerably in terms of price, features, and user-friendliness. Some schools already use institution-wide course management software such as Blackboard Learn or Moodle, which offers plug-ins that connect to web conferencing tools, such as BigBlueButton.
BigBlueButton allows file and desktop sharing, featuring an interactive whiteboard and multiple webcams that can broadcast simultaneously. Newrow Smart, another virtual classroom software, offers similar features and includes cloud recording, live quizzes, breakout rooms, and real-time note-taking. Newrow Smart’s Freemium Model and BigBlueButton both cost nothing and integrate well with major learning management systems.Other softwares, such LearnCube, ElectaLive, and WizIQ, offer free 14-day trials, and AdobeConnect and Vedamo provide 30-day free trials. However, schools should cover any fees required. Each educational software differs somewhat, but most provide essentials such as file and desktop sharing, whiteboards, and webcam broadcasting.
CREATE A PRODUCTIVE DESK SETUP
Research suggests that workspace design can increase productivity and work experience. Most workers prefer organized, uncluttered spaces, and sticking to an organization method makes it faster and easier to locate frequently used items. An easy-access filing system poses real advantages, and this principle applies to both computer desktops and physical desktops.
Finding an ideal workspace location can also improve productivity. For example, positioning desks near windows allows for natural light, which improves alertness and mood. A standing desk can allow for increased blood flow. Ergonomic chairs, keyboards, and mouses can prevent injury, improve focus, and make working more comfortable.Aromatherapy, humidifiers or dehumidifiers, and temperature regulation can also help enhance comfort and reduce stress. Plants, pictures, and pleasant colors may make workplace atmospheres more enjoyable, as well.
Working for eight hours straight in an office environment can take a toll on our health and work effectiveness. Failure to take breaks often leads to unfortunate outcomes, such as eye strain, decision fatigue, and loss of focus.
Considerable evidence suggests that taking breaks actually increases productivity. Research from 2012 indicates that resting brains actually accomplish a lot, including remembering, imagining, and ethical evaluating. Relatedly, additional research suggests that taking breaks helps people work smarter and save time by staying in touch with bigger-picture goals.
By enhancing clarity of thought, breaks also tend to improve creativity and decision-making ability, according to a 2011 study of judicial decisions based on time of day.Not all breaks boast equal value, however. Experts suggest that the most restorative breaks usually involve nature exposure, laughter, exercise, or creative activities, such as doodling or daydreaming. Eye exercises also can relax and restore the brain and eyes.
WORK IN SPRINTS
Considerable research suggests that humans do not sit still or concentrate well for eight hours a day. Consequently, productivity actually increases when people work in sprints, punctuated by high-quality breaks. As discussed above, breaks help workers recharge and reset between work stints, giving them more productive hours out of the day.According to Harvard Business Review, working in sprints also improves team performance. An increasingly popular tool for project management, sprints allow teams to get more done in less time. “Sprints and Make Time” author John Zeratsky claims that sprints improve focus, momentum, and confidence. Work sprinters also demonstrate improved prioritization, decision-making, and follow-up, according to Zeratsky.
CONSIDER YOUR BACKGROUND (IF VIDEO CONFERENCING)
Since online learning and working often require web conferencing or virtual classrooms, users should consider their visible background before turning on their webcam. If possible, plan ahead to ensure a quiet environment for your call, as background noises and other family or pet distractions may impair focus.
Seek out a pleasing, non-distracting backdrop for your conference call. Consider class dynamics and teaching style to determine what seems appropriate. For example, a comical virtual backdrop found on the internet may distract other participants, while a completely bare wall may feel drab and depressing. Seek out a spot that looks pleasant and tasteful.Relatedly, conferencing from your home office, rather than a bedroom or kitchen, usually communicates professionalism. Wearing proper office attire also demonstrates respect for the learning or work taking place. Formal environments can raise standards, enhance focus, and improve the learning experience for all concerned.