Originally Published on March 9, 2021 at: https://shapingedu.asu.edu/blog/going-small-lessons-remote-instruction

One of the underappreciated side effects of the Covid pandemic has been to make everything small. Over the last year I have become much more focused on the individual stories of my students as I try to shepherd them through classes, often under very difficult circumstances. My students have lost relatives, become sick themselves, and had to deal with a host of technical issues related to remote instruction. Digital tools have provided me with an unexpected boon as they allowed me to become much more aware of their struggles and given me new opportunities to reach out to them. This ease of connection is not something I want to lose when things go back to “normal.”

Under the old paradigm students often disappeared from my class, never to be seen again. I teach at an urban community college and many of my students are clinging to the edges of higher education as best they can. Even under the best of circumstances, they are buffeted by individual crises that have nothing to do with a global pandemic. They may have shaky job situations, visa issues, or responsibilities to extended families that can suddenly rise up and overwhelm their learning journeys.The difference now is that I have a much better awareness of what’s going on in their lives and can creatively bend the course to adjust to their circumstances without compromising outcomes.

We should look to the positives and consider what lessons we can take forward into post-pandemic instruction. For instance, it is easier to interact with students one-on-one than in environments where they shuffle in and out of your classroom according to the clock, not their learning needs. During the pandemic it has been far easier to adjust class meeting times to allow for groups with similar interests to learn together and for me to tailor my facilitation around their interests. I can meet with students with almost zero friction simply by firing up a Zoom meeting. I am not subject to the vagaries of room scheduling. I detail many of these digital affordances in my book Learn at Your Own Risk.

All too often we are forced by the needs of mass education to process learners through the system like we would a car through an assembly plant. The pandemic shut down our assembly plants but it did not shut down our garages. Instead of viewing the student as a widget on an assembly line, digital time and space gives us new tools to view each student as a custom project we’re working on in our garages. Zoom can be used to broadcast to dozens of students or it can be used as a platform for small groups and individualized interactions.

By fully leveraging the communication tools I have at my disposal, something I’m not forced to do under normal circumstances, I can fine tune the funnel of information and feedback much more effectively around the needs of the individual learner. Remote learning showed us that four principles are key to individualized learning in the “new normal.”

  1. Digital tools, applied strategically, will not lose their potency when we go back to in-person instruction. We should continue to leverage tools such as videoconferencing to connect with our students. They give us connections to our students that were underused prior to the pandemic. It’s one thing if you are working on a residential campus where most of your students are within walking distance of your office. It’s a totally different scenario connecting to our students on commuter campuses where no one lives and any trip to campus is just that: a trip. The pandemic has shown us that digital tools can help bridge that connection gap. Furthermore, asynchronous resources like recorded videos and repositories of written materials allow us to move a lot of instruction away from scarce times when student and teacher are in the same place at the same time, making for a far more efficient instructional structure.

  1. Class size really matters and systems need to be adapted to create more antifragile learning environments. Due to the pandemic I was fortunate to have had class sizes capped at 18. This circumstance was created by CDC guidelines, not pedagogical decisions, but it allowed me to more effectively connect with small groups of students. Institutions looking to develop Communities of Practice need to consider these limits very seriously even after safety no longer requires them. While there are issues of economic viability that must of course be considered, the advantages, particularly when dealing with more challenged students, cannot be overstated. When I was responsible for 32 students per section last summer, my ability to keep up with struggling students was significantly compromised. There needs to be more study of the connection between student success and class sizes, but limited data suggests that remote classes taught constructively should be limited to no more than 23 students. Other systemic changes that should be considered are more fluid, blended learning modalities where instruction can seamlessly shift between in-person and online according to the needs of the learner.

  1. Schools must prioritize ensuring students have access to the digital tools and environments they need to succeed. I am convinced that much of the drop in enrollment in community colleges was because of technical barriers faced by students. Digital communication tools require connections at both ends. That means students must have access to computing resources as well as broadband internet access. We have discovered that these are not a given. The big mistake that many colleges made was not adapting their campuses around digital access and informal interaction under safe circumstances. For instance, computer labs could have had their computers distributed throughout multiple rooms to allow for safe usage by students who needed either wi-fi access or computers themselves to do their work. Most classroom functionality can be replicated online. Infrastructure, however, represents a hard stop for far too many of our students. I am convinced that many students assessed their resources and refused to sign up for classes..

  1. Physical environments need to prioritize informal learning. Students need to know that services are available for them when they come to campus. Instruction can be moved into digital realms but connection often can’t. Sometimes that means meeting rooms for small groups or faculty with small groups. Sometimes that means support personnel such as librarians, counselors, designers, or tutors. Sometimes that means technical resources as mentioned in the previous point. Either way, what we have learned from the pandemic is that individuals, particularly in a commuter college setting, really need the college to provide these resources and, as these resources became scarce during the pandemic, students will struggle if forced to compensate for the lack of them on their own.

Remote learning demonstrated the power of going small with our students. Our industrial educational systems have long emphasized the opposite as we sought to increase the reach of our institutions while holding the line on costs. Even institutions based on large, lecture-hall instruction can develop strategies for “going small.” Creating hybrid modalities that synthesize large group content delivery with individualized instruction along the lines of what Britain’s Open University pioneered, while leveraging digital affordances to overcome time and space limitations, could become a powerful combination of tools in the digital age.

It is my hope that one key element that we will take away from remote teaching a sense of possibility contained in going small. We have had a glimpse of what can be accomplished with our existing tools to bring instruction home to the individual. Our ShapingEDU projects are designed to bring the power of our own community of practice to bear on overcoming the barriers to individualized learning. The Student Voices Project is focused on assessing the needs of individuals in the educational process. The Universal Broadband initiative seeks to ensure all students have equal access to a distributed educational network. Our Black Swan Project is working toward creating antifragile systems of learning so that the burden of crises such as the pandemic does not fall upon the shoulders of struggling learners. Finally, our Teaching Toolset Triangle Project is actively exploring the suite of tools, both digital and analog, that we must fully leverage in order to execute effective learner-centric, distributed instruction to our diverse communities of learners.

All of these projects have one common element: bringing all of our tools and creative energies to bear on preparing all of our students for a lifetime almost certainly shaped by crisis. The pandemic has shown us what is possible. It’s time to get creative in how we integrate what we have learned with the best of the old to create new and better cultures of learning. It’s a cultural shift that was long overdue even before circumstances forced us to confront it.