Faculty Must Bend to Students’ Needs in Virtual Learning Environments

Many students choose to take part in virtual learning environments (VLEs) because they need or want the flexibility that comes with it. As faculty we are often taught to operate our classrooms and learning environments according to a set of rules—rules like where we meet, when we meet, for how long we meet, what we do when we meet. These are rules set by others before a time when technology was available to support new thinking and new ways of teaching and learning. Many of those rules do not work with virtual learning or serve the needs of our students.

In teaching virtual courses, we can bend to the students’ needs without breaking the most fundamental rules of instruction and our goal of engaging our students in learning.  We have learned to be aware of our students’ needs and to intentionally create environments that lead to learning and success. We have also learned while working with and supporting faculty through their own virtual teaching and learning, that creating environments where we attempt to recreate face to face instruction can result in frustration for both faculty and students.

In our research and in our daily interactions, we asked faculty what kind of mindsets they developed through their experience teaching in a virtual environment. Overwhelmingly, faculty members responded that they felt the most important skill they developed was flexibility. Faculty shared that flexibility was a necessary ingredient when it came to teaching virtually, and we could not agree more. We recommend utilizing and becoming comfortable with the flexibility that can come with well designed virtual learning experiences and we provide the following suggestions. Some of these suggestions may be contrary to the rules we are used to or to what we think we need to do as instructors, but when we focus on our students’ needs, we can let this guide us as we bend the rules in our VLEs: 

  • Maybe it’s not about who. Virtual instructors can move from being seen as the only source of learning to being a facilitator of learning. Recognize and embrace the fact that the role of the instructor changes in virtual environments. Online learning can be designed so that the focus is on the learning and students’ needs, and learning can occur in many ways, not just from the direct instruction from the instructor. Virtual instructors can facilitate learning by setting up the online course with materials students can access asynchronously, creating spaces for peer support and learning, and being present to answer questions and guide students in their learning. 
  • Maybe it’s not about when. Asynchronous instruction increases flexibility. We know some faculty and administrators believe that synchronous (live sessions) instruction needs to be part of a virtual online experience with the same length and structure as if it was a face to face course. We know, and the research supports this, that virtual environments are not the same as face to face instruction and therefore need to be modified accordingly. Asynchronous instruction can provide the flexibility students and faculty need, allow for deeper learning and can result in more engaged learners. 

Synchronous instruction supports a flexible environment when it is active, collaborative and flexible. We believe that synchronous sessions can support a flexible learning environment if the sessions are active and collaborative where learners are engaged with the course materials and their peers. Some examples of an active synchronous session would include a shared Google document that students can respond to, interactive slides where students can answer questions (PearDeck or NearPod), and/or the use of breakout rooms where students are collaborating and sharing ideas, completing assignments together during the live session. 

  • Maybe it’s not about how: Although we hope that all of our students attend our synchronous sessions, we suggest having options if they are unable to attend due to life/work. If a student is unable to attend a live synchronous session, they can still take part in the learning through asynchronous engagement and/or completing alternative assignments. We have found that giving students choice when it comes to assessments is also a helpful way to provide flexibility. One student may prefer to present their project while another may want to write a report. As long as students are able to demonstrate their learning, then flexibility only helps. We also suggest providing flexible due dates if possible - providing the students with a guide of when assessments should be submitted, but allowing variability so students can continue to manage their work/life obligations. 
  • Maybe it’s not about the tools: We use a variety of tools to engage our online learners. Although we believe in the value of a good discussion board, we also know that asking students to complete a discussion board each week and respond to two classmates can become boring. We suggest varying the activities and assessments you embed within your virtual course. For example, one week students may contribute to a class padlet where they respond to a prompt or share resources. Another week, students may listen to an instructor-created VoiceThread, and respond to questions and each other within the VoiceThread by using their voice or video so students can see and hear each other. There are so many tools to choose from, but we recommend deciding first what you want your students to learn and take away from the activity before deciding on the tool. 

We, as well as our students, face many pressures within our society to find ways to teach and/or learn while balancing work/family life. When we recognize that we have all been taught that learning is aligned to rules about who, what, when, where and how we teach and learn, we can begin to realize these are rules that can be bent and changed in favor of our students’ needs and learning. A flexible virtual environment can help to remove educational barriers, increase access across diverse populations, engage learners in deeper learning, and provide a way to reach career and/or educational goals.

We continually hear from faculty that they want to go back “to normal”; however, there is no normal any more. Instead, faculty need to embrace the change and move forward with what we learned over this past year and a half. As our title suggests, let’s not go backwards and use what we learned to improve our practice and continue to use the knowledge gained with virtual teaching and learning.

  • What are some ways you create flexible and engaging virtual environments?
  • How can you support your colleagues and collaborate in creating flexible virtual environments?

Joanne Ricevuto is the Assistant Vice President for Instructional Success at Harcum College and is responsible for the faculty programming at her institution, which includes providing and presenting a multitude of professional workshops to the faculty on various current topics in higher education.  She has been in higher education for 20+ years and a professor of early childhood education.

Laura McLaughlin is a professor of education at Neumann University and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. Laura has over 20 years of experience working with adult learners providing training, professional development and coaching in corporate and educational settings. She is coauthor of "Nurturing Young Innovators: Cultivating Creativity in the Home, School and Community" and "Teaching the 4 Cs with Technology: How Do I Teach 21st Century Skills with 21st Century Tools."