Amid our new reality, most schools and institutions of higher learning have been closed until further notice. However, students still need to learn and faculty still need to teach; therefore, many courses have been moved to online platforms. While the impact of COVID-19 and social distancing has been tremendous, this is a valuable learning experience for future talent development professionals because they will have a chance to gain insights about the challenges and benefits of distance learning. In the wake of a global crisis, students can still gain knowledge to improve the functions of remote training in the future, and we’re seeing firsthand just how important technology is to learning.
We have asked the 2020 ATD student scholarship winners to share their insights and experiences with distance learning and how they are navigating a new normal. Many of them were already accustomed to online learning before the pandemic. Carol Sheetz, from the University of St. Francis, says, “I have not personally been impacted during this unprecedented time, because I completed my undergraduate degree and obtained my graduate degree 100 percent online.” As a result, Sheetz had a lot of helpful advice to share with students who may be struggling with the abrupt change to their learning routine. “Online learning is wonderful and challenging at the same time,” she says. “I work hard to stay engaged in my online learning experience by fully participating in the discussion portion of each class and committing to understanding and completing my assignments to the best of my ability.” It is important to stay engaged in learning, whether it is remotely or in-person. However, it can be challenging to stay engaged when the structure and direct accountability from professors and peers are missing.
Like Sheetz, Mackenzie Lauka, of Purdue University, is familiar with online learning and enjoys the flexibility it provides. As an online graduate student, Lauka hasn’t experienced any major disruptions to her learning other than her graduation being canceled and moved to a virtual experience. “While that was disheartening, my learning hasn’t been impacted because courses were already designed for distance education.” Lauka has found many positive aspects of this experience. “More companies are providing their online educational tools at discounted prices or for free and more opportunities to engage online have become available,” Lauka says. “I have been able to take advantage of online technology training classes provided by my university that were originally in-person, and I would not have been able to benefit from otherwise.”
During these challenging times it is great that companies are willing to offer more help and resources for students to work. Katie Santo, of New York University, provided a few resources she uses. “I was already a frequent Slack and Zoom user because of my job, and now that we’re all remote, I use them both even more. Our program set up a Slack workspace, and many of the individual classes have their own private channels for students to communicate with each other and their professors,” says Santo. “With Zoom I’m able to connect with classmates in a way that feels more intimate than a text-only chat or voice-only call since there are so many nonverbal cues and feedback that would get missed otherwise. There are also a lot of collaborative web-based tools that I find myself relying on more now that everything is virtual; some of my favorites are Google Docs, Google Slides, InVision, and WhatsApp.” Right now, students need to make the most use of these resources.
As Lauka states, “Being aware of online resources such as training classes, discounts, and free tools can help you to stay organized, in communication, and continue to enhance your knowledge and skills.” Even though students may feel disconnected from their peers and instructors, it’s good to know there are resources designed to help them stay engaged in their learning. The support and tools online learners need can be slightly different to those of classroom learners.
Lauka has reflected upon her experience with online learning to understand what learners need to be successful online. “Implementing remote learning is only successful if the learners have reliable access to the resources they need to complete the training, such as physical devices, Internet access, and specific software programs. Remote learners also have to be self-motivated, particularly in an asynchronous setting. Individuals who don’t have that internal motivation will need external support to stay on track.”
Santo explained how it can be difficult to stay engaged when working remotely. “The loss of a physical space for members of my graduate program to gather, whether for classes, group projects, or studying, has been a major disruption in my learning experience and it’s sometimes a struggle to stay motivated,” she says. The loss of accountability from peers and professors in-person can be a challenge for many individuals and hinder their motivation. “While the loss of a physical classroom space has been a sudden change, I think my program is uniquely situated to adapt well to these changes since not only do we study instructional design and learning sciences but also how we can integrate technology into improving the learning experience.” Having a positive learning mentality during this experience has made Santo feel, “. . . fortunate to be in a program that sees this disruption, not as something that takes away from our learning experience, but as an opportunity for us to learn something we otherwise might not have experienced.” While it is difficult to find the silver lining of the global situation, students can learn from this experience in how they will implement remote learning in their careers. Santo advises her fellow higher ed students, “You’ll only get out of it, what you put into it. If you approach learning in a virtual environment as a hindrance, then that will affect your motivation and attitude in the classroom to the detriment of not only your learning experience but that of your classmates as well. We’re all in this together, so let’s make the best of it!” During these uncertain times, it can be difficult to take action in the virtual classroom, but if students are willing to fully commit, they will continue to do well despite the minor disruptions.
To overcome the barriers of staying motivated and engaged, each of the scholarship winners offered advice for their fellow students. Sheetz explained, “I view my education as a huge investment and commitment to myself, so I am determined to stay engaged. Additionally, I take the time to personally message my instructor as well as my peers if I have questions or want to share additional information one on one. As an adult learner, I also connect with my peers via LinkedIn so we can establish and maintain a professional connection after our online classroom time has ended.” Mackenzie had three tips for students who are learning virtually:
1.) Reach out to your professors. When you aren’t in a physical classroom, it’s not as easy to get clarifications about assignments or ask content-related questions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. Professors like to hear from you, so send them an email or discussion post. This can help build your relationship with professors you may later want a recommendation from. Other students likely have the same question, so making the professor aware can help them address it with everyone.
2.) Use your resources. Whether it is an open discussion board to ask questions, online access to software provided by your university, or an optional live session, take advantage of the available resources. These resources are provided for you, and the only way to get the maximum value of your education is to use them. They can make your experience easier, more enjoyable, and ultimately more successful.
3.) Don’t procrastinate. There are always risks when procrastinating, but when you are relying on external factors such as stable Internet and access to learning management systems (LMSs) to submit assignments, procrastinating can leave you with no options. Pay attention to scheduled LMS updates and outages and plan your worktime to ensure you will be done with plenty of time to submit.