Saved By the Zoom: The Swift Shift to Remote Learning

December 10, 2020

Two years ago, in fall 2018, there were close to 3.2 million students in the U.S. enrolled in fully remote post-high school classes, representing roughly 17% of all students at that level. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic flipped this ratio, forcing the vast majority of students into virtual classrooms and bringing remote learning to the mainstream of traditional education.

As schools shuttered across the country in March, educators and students scrambled to piece together solutions to the emerging crisis. Months later, some in-person learning has resumed, but many students and teachers — at all levels of our educational system — find themselves conducting most of their classes via Zoom and other online platforms.

This sea change has unleashed a torrent of challenges for everyone, from parents struggling to cope with the new work-life-school balance, to school administrators trying to figure out how to operate safely while staying financially afloat. In the engineering world, where much of the curriculum is built on in-person collaboration, hands-on problem-solving and projects that require human interaction with physical, technical equipment, the switch to remote learning has been particularly arduous.

“Teamwork is a huge part of engineering; once you get out into the working world, that’s what engineers do,” said Maura Borrego, a professor in the Cockrell School’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and a national expert in engineering education research. “But when you’re teaching remotely or even in a socially distanced classroom with a few seats between each student, it’s tough for faculty to say ‘turn to your neighbor and work out the problem.”

Having the summer break to prepare for the next phase of this remote learning experience gave students and teachers room to adjust. Across the spectrum, a yearning remains for some sort of return to normalcy. But the uncertain timeline for such a change, and the potential that we may enter an entirely new normal once the pandemic is more under control, has educators looking for ways to blend traditional techniques with lessons learned from virtual learning.

Leaders of Texas Engineering Executive Education (TxEEE), the Cockrell School’s professional engineering education and training division, have confronted the challenges of remote learning as they transitioned in recent years to an online focus to appeal to a wider variety of students. The program aims to help engineers hone their skills throughout their career, offering flexible master’s degrees and online certificate programs.

TxEEE played an important role in helping engineering faculty shift to remote learning. Some faculty members who returned to classrooms in the fall use rooms in Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall that TxEEE had already set up for remote classes.

“A lot of the things you saw during the shift in the spring are technologies and methodologies vetted by our group,” said Eric Roe, executive director of TxEEE and Cockrell School assistant dean for continuing education. “We’ve had an opportunity to be an innovation sandbox for virtual learning and how you transform the traditional classroom to meet the needs of the learner.”

That tech includes livestream software, cameras that track professors as they walk around and a monitor in the back of the room that can let them see remote students.

One of the most important problems for Roe and the rest of his team was the need to consistently switch things up in online classes to avoid a problem that has entered the popular consciousness because of the pandemic: Zoom Fatigue. Instead of long lectures and passive learning, Roe advocates for shorter, “bite-sized” modules that take 15 to 20 minutes to complete.

Solving the “turn to your neighbor” problem remains an ongoing challenge, Roe said. Zoom breakout rooms and virtual icebreakers help, but it’s tough to replace things like seeing people before and after class, creating bonds that lead to partnerships on projects.

“There’s value in building a self-directed cohort of people that you’re learning with, and when you shift to fully online, that gets a lot harder,” Roe said.

At the high school level, the pandemic has forced leaders to re-evaluate their engineering programs. Cheryl Farmer, director of pre-college engineering initiatives at UT, oversees multiple K-12-focused programs, including Engineer Your World, a project-based high school engineering curriculum designed by Cockrell School faculty, NASA engineers and secondary educators. The curriculum was designed to be done entirely in the classroom, with a focus on group engineering projects and no homework element. The pandemic forced the program team to make major adjustments to make the curriculum work remotely, shifting engineering projects to use primarily household materials and very little technology.

“When you go virtual, you have to design the unit for the student with the least access to technology, equipment and material in mind. So, the question for us became, ‘How can we create authentic engineering challenges that every student can do successfully?’”

—Cheryl Farmer, director of pre-college engineering initiatives at UT

Roe hopes that coming out of the COVID crisis, institutions re-think their curricula. He would like to see them follow a model that is becoming more popular online, which involves eliminating the linear track toward a degree. For example, a student should not have to take a 101-level class if they’ve already shown they know the material.

“I think we need to start looking further at decoupling learning from seat time and the traditional credit hour and push toward competency-based education,” Roe said. “If you demonstrate the knowledge you should be able to advance, you shouldn’t have to sit in a room, or online, for an hour before advancing to new topics or deeper levels of complexity.”

The pandemic has created uncertainty in education, but that also leads to opportunity. Borrego notes that the shock of going remote has worn off somewhat, and now Cockrell School faculty are thinking about how they can improve their classes and apply lessons learned from the online experience.

“A lot of faculty had things in the backs of their minds and knew they wanted to change things about their classes,” Borrego said. “There’s so much happening right now that it’s a good excuse to make a big change.”

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