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What are the Challenges of Switching to E-Learning During COVID-19?

Creating an Effective E-Learning Environment

Imagine if the pandemic had hit five years ago. We would not have been able to switch to an online course structure with no live interaction. That would have been a true disaster.

It’s hard enough to engage students in the learning experience, but since we switched to E-Learning during COVID-19, those challenges have magnified significantly. Some of the questions for instructors to ask as we prepare to teach online are:

  1. What techniques are available for E-Learning?
  2. What are the limitations of E-Learning?
  3. How can we develop and nurture an online student-teacher learning environment?
  4. How can we help students to stay engaged?
  5. How can we develop tests and deal with possible online cheating?

What techniques are available for E-Learning?

It seems as though Zoom is the delivery method of choice. Zoom is greatly facilitated by certain features, which helps students to stay engaged. This includes a chat function that allows instructors to insert URLs, pictures, and documents so that the entire class can see these materials in real time. It also has a share-screen option, which enables instructors to share their desktop with the entire class. The instructor can decide when to let students into the chat room and are able to mute students if need be. Zoom also provides easy-to-use video-conferencing, which increases inclusivity for those removed from the instructor.

One major advantage of Zoom is instructors can tape their sessions and then students can watch them at their leisure. This helps because some students may be unable to attend class or have technological problems with real time instruction so having the ability to watch a taped session relieves some of the anxiousness about the whole process.

What are the limitations of E-Learning?

Sticking with the Zoom teaching method, one problem is the possibility for technological difficulties. Bandwidth is one such issue. For Zoom to be effective, you need a lot of it. Without sufficient bandwidth, the sound drops in and out, forcing students and instructors to ask each other to repeat themselves. This is a problem for students in countries with less infrastructure.

To be effective, students using Zoom, or any online learning technique, need to be disciplined because technological distractions can be a problem for students. Since instructors cannot see the screens of their students, unless they share them with the class, we have no idea what everyone is doing. Consequently, students prone to distraction are enabled. Students may have other webpages open during some portion of class. They may even turn off their cameras so that all anyone can see is a name projected onto a black square.

The benefits of Zoom outweigh the drawbacks, but instructors need to account for the technological drawbacks in order to implement and devise lessons that maximize student participation.

How can we develop and nurture an online student-teacher learning environment?

Let’s face it. Even technologically savvy students are likely to feel uncomfortable with Zoom learning. It’s new and quite different from the classroom experience. They may be less likely to answer questions because of the many distractions.

In a survey of online education, 56 percent of educators said inadequate student participation and attendance is a problem. This could be due to a lack of technological capability but more likely is due to students getting turned off by e-Learning and less sure of themselves to ask questions about content.

Student engagement is important to nurture an online learning environment. In some cases, students may not be getting the direct constant instruction that they would in a traditional classroom setting. This is a big problem in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. The difficulty of learning these skills is exacerbated when questions are limited by the technology and repetition is critical to learning.

There are a few ways to nurture the online learning experience. First, have interactive discussions with your class by sharing your screen to present your lesson and encourage students to ask questions using the chat feature. You can also show a film by sharing your system audio in a meeting. During the lesson, you can moderate the class discussion by muting students, making them presenters, or, if needed, removing them from the meeting. Zoom

An important tool in the e-Learning toolbox is to create an immersive experience for students. This is discussed below.

How can we help students to stay engaged?

There is an old saying that if you want to achieve a desired outcome, reward that behavior. This is true with e-Learning. Instructors can give pop quizzes during the lessons, which forces students to be attentive. Just tell them that they will be tested during the session motivates active involvement.

One method I use is to develop case studies and have students discuss them in chat rooms among group members and then present their analysis. You can also use role-playing experiences.

The instructor has a key role to play in keeping students engaged. They need to stay focused during the teaching experience. Don’t let your mind wonder and get off the message of each session. You also need to motivate your class and one way to do so is praise them when their performance is good. Provide healthy feedback. Make yourself available to them for “office hours.”

I’ve learned about the challenges of online learning. One day we are in the classroom having conversations with our students and the next we are speaking/presenting/teaching…to a screen, sometimes seeing student faces but for the most part just seeing a list of students, or gifs of their heads. Some professors stop showing emotion or stop displaying a personality. This makes it hard for students to remain engaged.

Finally, it is important to connect with students individually. It can be difficult to gauge how students are doing without seeing them in person. You can support students 1:1 in a chat, creating a safe space for them to ask their questions and get the extra help they need.

How can we develop tests and deal with possible online cheating?

The cynical answer is good luck with that. I have previously blogged about cheating in online instruction. In a survey, 93 percent of professors think students are more likely to cheat online than in person. Unfortunately, only one-third use some type of proctoring to prevent it. Some use scaled-down kinds of test security, such as software that can lock a web browser while a student takes a test.

One major problem is when someone else takes a test for a student (i.e., imposter). Remote monitors can be hired to watch test-takers through their webcams, but this isn’t cheap so most colleges don’t use it. Also, the demand for monitors is greater than the suppliers who offer those services.

Online testing has created a booming business for companies that sell homework and test answers online. Students pay a subscription fee to get the answers to questions on tests or copies of entire tests and with answers already provided.

Some students rationalize cheating in online testing by saying things like: “It’s difficult enough to learn online; cheating to do so and getting good grades is justified.” “Some teachers don’t teach so cheating is the only way to learn the material.” Some students say other students do cheat so they need to cheat just to level the playing field.”

The bottom line is students who cheat invoke the philosophical thinking of the ends justify the means. In other words, if compensating for the difficulties of e-Learning or if getting good grades is most important, then any approach to get to that goal is justified. The problem here is using situational ethics, we can justify all kinds of things. But it is wrought with danger including sliding down the proverbial ethical slippery slope.

To conclude, online learning is not the answer to education; it’s an alternative and can be used to strength the learning experience.

In the spirit of the New Year, during the month of January I am giving away free signed copies of my book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, to the first ten people who contact me at: [email protected] and provide a mailing address. May your 2021 be better than 2020. Let's face it, it can't be worse!

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 26, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: