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Collecting student insights on remote learning: Preparing for a smooth transition to Fall 2020

Students and professors together will discover the wonders and the challenges of (planned, one may add) remote learning in the upcoming Fall semester. To transmit the students’ input to our instructors in these redefining times for higher education, McGill University’s Electrical, Computer, and Software Engineering Student Society (ECSESS), in cooperation with the ELATE (Enhance Learning and Teaching in Engineering) initiative, launched a survey to learn from students what their preferences, concerns, and ideas regarding remote instruction are. The results and discussion outlined below provide an interesting perspective on several issues faced by students and useful suggestions for instructors on lectures, labs, and assessment.

Method

Inspired by a survey in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics led by Prof. Jessica Lin, we held an online survey from May 12-18, 2020. The survey was open to students in electrical, computer, and software engineering, from all years and programs. In addition to the survey, we organized two focus groups with undergraduate students. The complete results of the survey are available in the attached report we presented to the ECE department.

Survey Highlights and Discussion

213 students responded in one week, accounting for about 19% of the ECSE student body. Some key findings include:

  • Roughly one-third of the ECSE students will experience more than 2 hours of time zone difference;
  • In response to the question about preferred mode of delivery, 84% of the respondents ranked first live videoconference lectures (with recordings available for those unable to participate). The second choice was flipped classrooms, where students learn the theory through a set of videos and apply it in an online class context;
  • Office hours can be conveniently replaced by discussion boards (e.g., myCourses) for general questions, and virtual appointments may be set up for more individualized help;
  • Students prefer when instructors use a virtual whiteboard or other blank surface in lectures to solve problems, outline a derivation, and annotate slides, as students deem this essential to assimilate and illustrate the material;
  • Suitable library e-books or open books as course materials would be appreciated by students for cost reduction purposes;
  • Examinations should take into account possible distractions at home, technological issues, and time zone differences.

We infer from the second point above that students wish to keep some sense of regularity and social interactions for lectures that are characteristic of an on-campus environment driving motivation and meaningful learning, with their instructors and peers. In addition, several students were worried regarding laboratory experiments. While computer simulations and videos seem to be judicious substitutes, students suggested that supplemental elective activities be held once the situation comes back to normal, to experiment hands-on with the instruments and machines. With respect to assessment, many are concerned with the stress related to an overcrowded computer network, an unreliable internet connection or power outage, or an environment not suitable for study. Take-home synthesis assignments, exams with an increased time frame and flexible submission methods, and term projects are seen as credible and significant means to minimize stress.

Focus Group Highlights and Discussion

In preparation for the Fall semester, the ELATE initiative, headed by Prof. Lawrence Chen, (Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering) and Dr. Maria Orjuela-Laverde (McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services), has been organizing focus groups with undergraduate students in each engineering department on the transition. The aim is to identify barriers to learning and discuss strategies to make courses accessible and stimulating, limit the downsides compared to in-person instruction, and make the most of upsides arising from technology. Considering the diversity of ECSE programs, ELATE and ECSESS organized two sessions, one for software engineering and another for electrical and computer engineering. Even meeting on a Saturday evening for more than 2 hours, enthusiastic participants discussed and debated the following themes:

  1. Adapting to remote learning
  2. Challenges in remote learning
  3. Beneficial aspects of remote learning
  4. Support and resources to be more successful at remote learning
  5. Helpful strategies/resources for remote learning

Several students echoed, while tackling the first topic, the concerns revealed by the survey, emphasizing the need for structure to follow along with their courses and the availability of accommodation measures. Regarding the second discussion point, besides time zone considerations and internet connection issues, an emerging challenge will be to keep courses accessible to students with disabilities (e.g., colorblind, visual, or hearing impairment) or lacking a tool or device (e.g., a camera to scan assignments). On the third and fourth topics, this transition is considered a dream opportunity to revisit courses and embrace an active learning paradigm. Participants expressed their excitement and desire for more inquiry-based, open-ended assignments and projects instead of a traditional format (lecture, paper assignments, usual 3-hour exam) simply delivered online. Such a course design helps students understanding the material better and retain much more going forward, with the advantage of being closer to lifelong and post-university learning approaches. As for the last point, participants reiterated the importance of connecting with peers (this applies particularly to incoming students) and instructors, and maintaining a study routine.

The survey and the discussion groups thus captured an informative overview of students’ concerns and expectations for Fall 2020, which can be hopefully kept in mind in designing enriching and accessible virtual courses. Fortunately, Teaching and Learning Services is proposing over the summer a wealth of resources and strategies for students, teaching assistants and instructors to help with adapting to this new context and make this first fully online semester a success for all!

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