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Remote Teaching: A Student's Perspective

By a Purdue Student

As many teachers are well aware, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 required sudden, drastic changes to course curricula. What they may not be aware of are all of the many ways in which this has affected and complicated students’ learning and their academic experiences. This essay, which is written by a student enrolled in several Spring and Summer 2020 remote courses at Purdue University, describes the firsthand experiences (and those of interviewed peers) of participating in remote courses. The aim of this essay is to make teachers aware of the unexpected challenges that remote learning can pose for students.

Emergency remote teaching differs from well-planned online learning

During the past semester, many students and faculty colloquially referred to their courses as “online classes.” While these courses were being taught online, it is nonetheless helpful to distinguish classes that were deliberately designed to be administered online from courses that suddenly shifted online due to an emergency. Perhaps the most significant difference is that students knowingly register for online courses, whereas the switch to remote teaching in spring 2020 was involuntary (though unavoidable). Additionally, online courses are designed in accordance with theoretical and practical standards for teaching in virtual contexts. By contrast, the short transition timeline for implementing online instruction in spring 2020 made applying these standards and preparing instructors next to impossible. As a result, logistical and technical problems were inevitable. I've listed a few of these below.

"...students knowingly register for online courses, whereas the switch to remote teaching in spring 2020 was involuntary..."

Observed Challenges

When teachers are forced to adjust on short notice, some course components may need to be sacrificed.

Two characteristics of high-quality online classes are that their learning outcomes mirror those of in-person classes and that significant time is devoted to course design prior to the beginning of the course. These characteristics ensure the quality of the student learning experience. However, as both students and faculty were given little chance to prepare for the move to remote teaching in spring 2020, adjustments to their learning outcomes were all but unavoidable. Instructors were required to move their courses to a remote teaching format in the span of little over a week during a time when they, like their students, would normally be on break. It was a monumental challenge and one that university faculty rose to meet spectacularly well. However, many components of courses that were originally designed to be taught in person could not be replicated in a remote learning context. Time for the development of contingency plans was limited, which posed additional challenges for the remainder of the semester.

Students' internet connections play a big role in their ability to participate.

At the start of the remote move, many instructors hoped to continue instruction synchronously, but this quickly became infeasible due to technological and logistical issues (e.g., internet bandwidth, student internet access, and time differences). A large number of my fellow students shared internet with other household members, who were also working remotely and were also reliant on conferencing software for meetings. The full-time job of a parent or sibling may be prioritized over a student’s lecture in limited-bandwidth situations. Worse, students in rural areas may simply not have a strong enough connection to participate in synchronous activities at all. These common realities suggest that less technologically reliant contingency plans are necessary and that course material should be made accessible in multiple formats. For example, in addition to offering a video recorded lecture, instructors could also consider providing notes for their lecture.

"These common realities suggest that less technologically reliant contingency plans are necessary and that course material should be made accessible in multiple formats."

It’s also important to design assignments carefully in online courses. For example, group projects, which can pose challenges even when courses are held in person (e.g., in terms of communication, coordination of responsibilities, and access to needed materials), can nevertheless offer students valuable opportunities for personal growth. However, these challenges only become more significant when group projects must be completed remotely. In these cases, access to secure internet and needed materials becomes critical to student success. Partnered students may be in different time zones or may even have been affected by COVID-19 in a way that hampers their ability to contribute to the project. Therefore, teachers may find it advisable to provide students with the option to complete work that would normally constitute group projects as individual assignments.

Teachers underestimate how much harder it is to focus in online courses.

When students no longer share a single learning environment, environmental diffferences can cause significant differences in their engagement. Students forced to use their home as a mixed work/academic space may encounter distractions that wouldn't be a factor in a traditional classroom. These distractions challenge students’ abilities to focus and self-regulate. The shift to remote leadning may also disrupt students’ academic routines. Experts in educational psychology and learning design and technology I spoke to for this piece argued that students’ abilities to handle this transition is partly age-dependent. Older students may not only have more familiarity with online classes, but also with the sort of self-regulation and planning that is required for academic success in the university. Thus, age and course level should be taken into consideration when devising ways to engage, challenge, and support students in remote learning contexts.

"...age and course level should be taken into consideration when devising ways to engage, challenge, and support students in remote learning contexts."

When students are new to taking classes online, explicit prompting from the instructor can be needed to replicate the missing human interactions that normally spur enagagement in the classroom. Thus, it is especially important that instructors closely monitor online learning spaces like discussion boards, looking for appropriate opportunities to chime in. An expert in learning design and technology I spoke to said that instructors should ideally be in touch with their students twice per week. They should frequently outline course expectations and maintain some availability to answer questions. This is especially true in instances where course expectations change due to the shift to online learning. This expert also noted that it is important that instructors provide timely feedback on assignments and assessments. This communicates to students where they stand in their courses and helps students adjust their study strategies as needed.

Students need opportunities to connect and collaborate.

One of the most special parts about being a student at Purdue University is being part of a single large learning community made up of a spectrum of smaller learning communities. At Purdue, students can form bonds with classmates, neighbors, and roommates with a diverse range of skills and interests. Through these friendships and connections, social networks develop, providing emotional and academic support for the many challenges that our rigorous coursework poses.

The closure of the university's physical classrooms created a barrier to the utilization and maintenance of these networks, and it is important that students still have access to one another even when at a distance. One way in which instructors can support their students in remote learning contexts is to create a student-only discussion board on their course page where students can get to know one another and connect. Students may also have questions related to course content that they may feel uncomfortable asking an instructor but that can be easily answered by a classmate.

Many students are dealing with a time change/difference.

For personal reasons, I finished the spring 2020 semester in Europe. Navigating the time difference while juggling the responsibilities of my job, which required synchronous work, and my coursework was challenging (to say the least). One of my courses had a large group project, which was a significant source of stress this past semester. My partner, like many of my instructors, did not seem to understand the significance of this time difference, which often required me to keep a schedule that made daily life in my time zone difficult. When having to make conference calls at 10:00 p.m. and respond to time-sensitive emails well after midnight, work-life balance is much more difficult to achieve. This was abundently clear to me after dealing with time difference of merely six hours. Keep in mind that some students may be dealing with even greater time differences. Thus, try to provide opportunities for asynchronous participation whenever you can.

"Navigating the time difference while juggling the responsibilities of my job, which required synchronous work, and my coursework was challenging (to say the least)"

While flexibility is necessary, academic integrity is still important.

Both teachers and students in my courses expressed discomfort and concern over issues relating to academic integrity. Some students questioned why lockdown browsers (i.e., special browsers used to prevent students from cheating during exams) were not used. According to a learning design and technology expert I spoke to, the short timeline for the transition to remote teaching and learning made the incorporation of such software infeasible. In addition this software can be incredibly expensive, and many professors do not even know that it exists (much less how to use it effectively).

However, several students I spoke with reported that, in their efforts to maintain academic integrity via exam monitoring, some of their professors mandated that students take exams synchronously. This decision disregarded the potential for technical issues and ignored the time differences many students faced, placing unfair stress on students in faraway countries and those with poor connections. Other faculty took an opposite approach by extending the window of time in which students could take exams. Receiving changing and often unclear instructions led to confusion about what students' instructors expected of them. Incorporating this software more consistently in online or remote courses may be a good way to ensure both students and teachers are familiar with it in the future.


The most difficult part of this pandemic has not been the coursework, nor the transition the remote learning, but instead the many unknowns that have faced students and teachers alike. We at Purdue are lucky that our education has been able to continue relatively unabated, and we can be grateful for that fact that most of our instructors have done their best to support us. This coming fall, nearly 500 courses will be offered as online courses, and many others will be presented in hybrid formats. With more time to prepare, courses this fall can be expected to be of higher quality and to have more student-centered contingency plans. As long as it strives for flexibility and gives consideration to students’ evolving needs, the Purdue educational experience will continue to earn its high-quality reputation.

Thank you. Boiler up!