Post-Secondary Students Facing Unique Challenges Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
Raji Sohota posted on July 29, 2020 |
Online classes not quite the same as being there. For one thing, student engagement suffers.

Full disclosure: Make: Projects, mentioned in this article, is a joint venture of engineering.com and Make:Community. 

Online classes not quite the same as being there. For one thing, student engagement suffers. (Picture courtesy of Rasmussen College)
Online classes not quite the same as being there. For one thing, student engagement suffers. (Picture courtesy of Rasmussen College)

Due to COVID-19, higher education institutions and their students are facing an unprecedented disruption. Instead of being in classrooms, more than 300 million students worldwide found themselves stranded, at home and left to their own devices. Many institutions stepped up their online course offerings, and professors started Zoom classes. However, with schools already suffering from chronic absenteeism (absences resulting in a student missing at least ten per cent of the school year), the shift to online learning has made absenteeism worse. It is much easier for students to simply not log on, not check-in or not pay attention to online classes.

According to the New York Times, students across America are struggling to stay engaged in online classes. And while a public school was more or less guaranteed to be nearby, access to the Internet is far from universal. For example, in Minford, Ohio, many students live in remote wooded areas unserved by Internet providers and unable to connect online. About a third of Los Angeles students are not regularly participating in online learning.

Professors say that some students and their parents have stopped communicating with schools completely as they struggle with the broader economic and health effects of COVID-19.

“The pandemic itself was difficult for everyone's motivation. Students had to put extra effort to be motivated, to try to focus and learn when there was all this uncertainty going on in the world as well,” says Professor Greg Evans, who leads University of Toronto’s Institute for Studies in Transdisciplinary Engineering Education and Practice. “It's natural because they are in a different environment, have other distractions going on, and they may not have a good appropriate workspace. It’s very different to be in a room where everyone is focused on the same thing versus being in a room where many other things are going on.”

DIY ventilators, a popular post on Make: Projects.
DIY ventilators, a popular post on Make: Projects.

On May 6 and 7, 2020, EdWeek Research Center conducted a survey of 908 teachers and district leaders. They found that student engagement declined rapidly at the start of the pandemic, and 60 per cent of educators say it has declined even more since May. As student morale suffered, their levels of engagement with their classwork and school also dropped.

“It is a lot harder to learn at home because you're not even in that same environment. Home is a place to come and relax so, you have to put in much more effort to attend a lecture,” says Harbaj Cheema, a Ryerson University chemical engineering student who finds online learning inferior to on-campus classes. “It’s online and, I can look at it whenever. When you go in person, some professors don’t post their lecture notes online, so you had to go to class and pay attention”

School officials are already looking at solutions on how to teach students the current curriculum without having them fall behind. There is also concern about whether many students will need to repeat all or substantial portions of their missed school year.

Professor Evans says that online teaching comes with its challenges.

“With a large class, students were reluctant to use cameras and microphones, so it made interaction much more difficult. We can’t interact with students to see the level of learning and understand when concepts need to be repeated and reinforced,” says Professor Evans.

A total reliance on online learning is a fairly new concept for post-secondary institutions. Only about 18 per cent of U.S. post-secondary students learned exclusively online before COVID-19. As of Fall 2018, about a third had taken one or more courses online, says Christine Heitz, Martha Laboissiere and Jimmy Sarakatsannis in their research for McKinsey and Company. While most educators have found new ways to teach virtually, others are still searching for techniques to teach hands-on courses and labs through online platforms. Without tech support on hand, a lack of other resources and with no software in place to teach hand-on skills virtually, this has been challenging.

“I am currently only studying theory-based subjects and, then in the third semester, if the college reopens, the semester will consist of 70 per cent labs,” says Kenan Patel, a Sheridan College engineering student. Patel needs the labs because “there is a difference between exploring something and sitting and watching the video.”

“The fact that we couldn’t get hands-on experience took away from the learning since we didn’t know how to run the [chemical] reactors. To know how the reactors worked, we needed to use them,” says Vasilios Halkias, who managed to graduate from New Jersey Institute of Technology’s chemical engineering program despite being locked out of the labs, by substituting simulation for testing.

According to a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed, maintaining student engagement is a top priority and a leading challenge for post-secondary schools. The sudden move to online learning has not been easy, but it provides institutions with the opportunity to experiment and innovate their current programs. Post-secondary schools have been piloting new approaches and building on practices that they would not have created without the pandemic.

One of these programs is virtual maker spaces. During the pandemic, Make: Community and Engineering.com launched their online project platform Make: Projects with Make: Community, the online version of MakerFaire and its creator, Make: Magazine.

Currently, there are over 25,000 members on Make: Projects organizing and sharing 8,000 different projects for personal, educational and business uses.

The Community of Inquiry model, developed by researcher Randy Garrison, proves that learning is most effective when students have a cognitive, social and teaching presence. Make: Projects makes it possible to organize and share projects with other engineers while learning from their peers and collaborating with an online community. Coined the "virtual Maker Faire,” Make: Projects allows students and other individuals to share ideas and projects easily during the COVID-19 crisis.

Many students also prefer project-based to theory-based courses.

“If the professors can make a project unique, it will make people more inclined to learn the material and explain how the concepts work,” says Halkias. “It’s the best-case scenario given the circumstances.”

Make: Projects aims to encourage collaboration, engagement and discussion, which are the foundation of exceptional teaching and learning environments. The site also features project templates, group chats, teams and whiteboards for greater productivity.

"Creating a better way for the combined talents of makers to be made visible through their projects is one of our goals with Make: Projects. Our future won't be defined by the current crisis the world is facing, but by the highly collaborative and innovative response of the maker community," Dale Dougherty, president of Make: Community said when the project was announced.

Make: Projects and other maker spaces have been proven to develop creativity, teamwork, engagement, critical thinking and digital skills. Many studies show that students gain confidence and resilience as they solve genuine design challenges while completing their projects. Educators also became more comfortable with technology and flexible in their teaching.

Make: Projects helps educators track and grade team-based projects as students post and present online. An upcoming webinar, Using Make: Projects to Engage Students and Document Their Project Process, will help educators learn to do just that. On July 30, Dougherty will join Engineering.com and Make: Projects' Frank and Lauren Baldesarra to review the basics of setting up a project, collaborating using maker education, documenting the project over time, using the platform to receive feedback and guidance by experts, as well as utilizing the pre-programmed project templates to accelerate student work.

Register for the webinar here.


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