Two new surveys show the reactions and resilience of students and faculty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring. Overcoming conjecture and some bold (often unsupported) statements about the move to remote teaching, the survey results provide real insights into what happened.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation supported the surveys conducted by Digital Promise, Tyton Partners, and Every Learner Everywhere, a network for which WCET serves as the intermediary and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The results of these national surveys (one of students and one of faculty) confirmed some fears about remote learning, but also include surprising findings not seen elsewhere. Important lessons learned inform us on steps to take to improve in an uncertain future.

This post provides a few takeaways from each survey. The results are quick reads and we encourage you to learn from both sets of findings.

Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Digital Promise, Tyton Partners, and Every Learner Everywhere

A Few Key Takeaways

Student satisfaction was greater when courses used proven online instruction techniques.

This finding is buried at the end, but it is key. “The survey asked students whether their course after COVID-19 included each of eight instructional practices identified through past research as contributing to more effective online teaching and learning.”

Text from survey reads: "net satisfaction for courses employing 0-2 of the recommended online instructional practices was 43% compared to 61 % for courses using 3-5 of the practices, and 74% for courses using 6-8 of the practices."
Suddenly Online, pg 14

Examples include:

  • breaking up classes into shorter pieces than in on-campus sessions,
  • administering frequent assessments, and
  • sending personal messages to students on progress.

For courses using 6-8 of the practices, students were 74% very or somewhat satisfied. For courses using only 0-2 of the practices, students were only 43% satisfied.

“Of the 8 recommended online teaching practices covered in the survey, the two with the most impact on student satisfaction were the inclusion of personal messages to students about how well they were doing in the course…and course activities that asked students to reflect on what they had learned and what they still needed to learn.”

Internet access was more of a problem than hardware/software. Rural students had fewer internet problems than expected.

Only 56% of students said they never or rarely experience internet connectivity problems that interfered with course participation, while 75% never or rarely experience software or hardware problems. The survey cites stories of students being suddenly disenfranchised by lack of technology access, but getting help from their college or local internet service provider or mobile device service provider. “Surprisingly, students with homes in rural communities were not more likely than those in urban or suburban communities to report experiencing internet connectivity problems often or very often.”

Hispanic students reported a greater number of challenges to their continued course participation after instruction went remote.

Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

For five of six possible challenges (e.g., finding a quiet place to work, fitting the course into home/family responsibilities) offered as options, Hispanic respondents reported as being the group experiencing the most difficulties with that challenge. Typically, but not always, White students reported the least amount of problems with a challenge.

Motivation was a big problem and was worse for some racial groups.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents said that “staying motivated to do well in the course” was a major or minor problem with 42% citing motivation as a major problem. Given the sudden shift and the uncertainties (family, health, education) from the pandemic, such feelings are understandable. It is also understandable that being forced into a learning environment not of your choosing would be detrimental. Motivation was the biggest problem cited. The results of those citing it as a major problem are interesting when considered by race/ethnicity: White 42%, Black 31%, Hispanic 45% Asian and other  48% (though this was a statistically small sampling).

Students missed being with other students.

In comparing their course before and after the shift to remote learning, students found that “opportunities to collaborate with other students on coursework” was the biggest element that was worse in the remote setting. About two-thirds of the respondents said it was worse. A quote from a student: “Not being able to discuss topics with my classmates. Not being able to hear their questions on the subjects we were learning that could have helped me learn more.”

Time for Class, COVID-19 Edition: Part 1: A National Survey of Faculty During COVID-19

Digital Promise, Tyton Partners, and Every Learner Everywhere

A Few Key Takeaways

Many faculty came away with more positive sentiments about digital learning.

There had been conflicting information on this issue prior to this survey, with some claiming all online education to be a failure. A top finding of this survey is: “When asked to evaluate their pre- and post- COVID perception of online learning as an effective instructional method, nearly half of faculty report an improved perception overall: 45% said their perception of online learning has become more favorable since the start of COVID-19, whereas only 17% said it had become more negative.”

Image showing the "shift in perception of online learning during covid-19. Nearly half of faculty report an improved perception overall: 45% said their perception of online learning has become more favorable, and 17% said it became more negative.
From Time for Class, pg 22.

Faculty did more than Zoom.

There were many articles about “Zoom fatigue” with the thought that faculty replicated their face-to-face instruction through real-time videoconferencing. The survey showed that: “75% of faculty used a combination of synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods. Many thoughtfully transitioned instructional practices and adopted new tools.”

The top challenge for faculty was keeping students engaged.

This mirrors very well the greatest challenges faced by students in developing the motivation to succeed in the course.

Remote vs. Online

These are great surveys and there are many lessons to be learned from them. I encourage educators to read both publications.

I was disappointed that the student survey used the term “online” when they often meant “remote” learning. The student survey used the term “because of its greater familiarity to undergraduates” and did not make a distinction among the terms in the report.

The faculty survey seemed to be more intentional about using “remote” in the context of the move to emergency remote teaching that happened this spring. They did ask about the perceptions of “online” learning, but that seemed to be in the context of their experience in the remote setting.

Using “online” is understandable for the student survey. However, there is risk that those uninitiated on the real and important distinctions between “remote” and “online” learning (the student survey cites this EDUCAUSE Review article) might draw the wrong conclusions. It will be easy for those uninitiated readers to apply the findings to all online learning and not just to the emergency remote learning courses that were the subject of this survey.

In Conclusion

While I have the one concern about terminology, there is much to learn from these surveys. Thank you to Every Learner Everywhere, Digital Promise, and Tyton Partners for this work…and thank you to the funders.

This overview was meant to give you a taste and to invite you in to enjoy the entire meal…or both meals, if you will.


Russ Poulin

Executive Director, WCET & Vice President for Technology-Enhanced Education, WICHE


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