Taking a look behind the screen: understanding the online learning community though an introductory survey.

Connecting with students in a virtual environment for online learning is an enormous challenge, and my own lack of understanding about what students are prepared to do, what they are facing at home as challenges of their own, and even what tech or tools they have access too certainly does not help. As post secondary educators, we make many assumptions about the digital and virtual literacy of our student population, many of them framed within expectations of our student’s skill levels as digital natives. What I’ve found in teaching online (both in times of pandemic, and in times of normalcy) is that students are just like faculty members.

Think of the times you’ve participated in online meetings, conferences or workshops. There are guaranteed issues with connectivity, five mandatory minutes of “I don’t see that on my screen” discussions, at least three people who leave the mic on and at least five who attempt to talk without it, and a whole host of other attention, focus and interruption issues. As faculty, we have kids at home, phones that ring, emails that ping and dogs that bark – and we’re supposed to be the professionals! Our students are no different, though there is one exception these days: many of them are attempting to learn in the midst of their family homes without the level of control that we have over that environment.

Before starting any online class, I begin with a survey of students to get a true (and anonymized) understanding of how they are equipped to learn – what spatial, technological, emotional or temporal resources they have or lack, and what accommodations they might need in order to meet our learning objectives effectively. It is always eye opening and students are eager to share: I usually get over 85% response rate within a few hours of sending it out. Students are grateful to be heard, happy to contribute their experiences, and relieved to be treated as humans and not as email addresses. My most recent version of the survey is heavily informed by Dr. Kayla Renee Wheeler, who shared a student survey on Twitter at the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can take a look below:


In the Winter term of 2020, I used this survey to make some fundamental changes to my online class offering:

  • Students told me that they didn’t have access to a computer during the day because they were sharing with siblings and parents (sharing the screen, or sharing the access to wifi). I used that information to begin offering drop in sessions instead of synchronous classes, and to stream classes on more cell phone friendly tech.
  • Students told me that they were using their cell phone plan to access the learning materials because the wifi at their house was unreliable, over used, or inaccessible at the times they needed it.  I used that information to switch my model of delivering narrated lectures: I was posting to Google Drive which required an enormous amount of data, and I moved to private YouTube videos embedded in the learning management system as streaming clips.
  • Students told me that they were caring for kids, elders or other family members on a full time basis, while trying to complete class work. I adjusted my final exam accommodations in order to allow students with family responsibilities to “book” a time during a 24 hour period that would be quiet for them during which they could complete the online exam without interruption. As a Mom of two small humans, I know that what works for the registrar does not always work for a busy household of people with their own demands – writing a multiple choice exam with screaming kids or needy folks is not a great assessment of learning!
  • Students told me that they relied on the on-campus resources available to them (that they currently weren’t able to access). I used this information to develop a virtual library of resources, a few tip sheets for using the online databases, and a collaborative list that students could add links and resources for online team project completion. It was a hit! Students added far more tools and links than I expected, and the final projects submitted were of a much higher quality as a result.

For me, the reason to reach out to students before class starts is the same as the reason that I greet them at the door of each class session when I am teaching face to face. I want to know how they are, how they are faring in the class, and what they are facing in their lives that might be impeding or enhancing their learning experience. Our students are human – they have kids, they get sick, they are stressed, they fight over the computer with siblings and parents, they have interruptions in their space and above all, they are new to this online world of learning (whether or not they are digital natives and social media mavens in their real lives).

A survey like the one I’m sharing here helps me understand my class as a learning community, and helps me adapt the class progress to accommodate their learning needs. Now if only it could help me teach them how to turn on the mic before they contribute in the Google Meet! That would make this online learning thing just about perfect.

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