Computing Profession

Beware of Hurting Our Weakest Students when Moving Classes Online

Mark Guzdial

In response to the coronavirus, many U.S. colleges and universities are moving their classes all online. NPR reports as of this morning that more than 40 institutions have cancelled in-person classes (see article here). All of this activity has faculty new to online classes scrambling for resources and guidance.

The ACM SIGCSE Members email list has had a wonderful thread full of resources for moving classes online. I won’t try to summarize the 30+ messages here. Rather, I encourage all of you to join SIGCSE and access the mailing list archives. Several of the messages talk about the costs involved: for a good microphone, tablet, screen recording software, and so on.

The biggest cost of moving our classes online will likely be the decreased learning and lower grades, particularly of our weakest students. Fully on-line classes can lead to less learning than face-to-face classes (see 2017 review paper here). Online learning has a differential impact on students. A 2013 paper studying 40,000 students found that students who come in with lower grades suffer the most in performance when moving online (see paper here). A 2018 New York Times article (see link here) describes about how online classes hurt students who most need help. Justin Reich (MIT) has written a great Twitter thread about all the evidence showing that moving classes online will hurt the most vulnerable students — start here. His recommendation is to simply cancel classes until June or September. That would be better than creating greater disparity and inequity in our classes.

The challenge is to move classes online in a way that meets students’ needs, especially those who most need support to maintain motivation and for personal contact. My favorite set of resources for creating effective online learning opportunities in this crisis has been the Twitter feed from Chinmay Kulkarni (CMU). Start out with the thread that starts here. Chinmay uses evidence to support how to create opportunities for engagement, discussion, and collaboration, which is critical for student learning in online settings. Too easily, students can turn on the video of the lecture and lose attention, or worse, engage in some other activity as the lecture drones on in the background. Chinmay suggests ways to keep students engaged with online learning, like one-question Google forms and break-out groups which are supported by some videoconferencing tools.

There’s not enough evidence to tell us if we can reduce the differential impact of online classes with the kinds of activities Chinmay suggests. But it’s important to be aware of the potential problems and take active steps to address them. Our weakest students should not be the ones bearing the greatest costs of moving classes online.

Mark Guzdial is professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering, and professor of information in the School of Information, of the University of Michigan.

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