Between hope and reservations: Study on what students expect of remote learning

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching and learning at German brick-and-mortar universities shifted to virtual formats practically overnight. A survey among students provides valuable insights that can help improve online studies / publication in ’Frontiers in Psychology’

Among the hopes and fears students associated with switching to remote teaching and learning at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, negative expectations slightly outweigh positive ones. That is the result of a study conducted by Thomas Hoss, Amancay Ancina, and Professor Kai Kaspar from the University of Cologne’s Psychology Department during the first nationwide lockdown in Germany. The researchers focused on students’ expectations regarding the risks and opportunities associated with this challenging situation. The paper ’Forced Remote Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Germany: A Mixed-Methods Study on Students’ Positive and Negative Expectations’ has appeared in Frontiers in Psychology.

Beginning in the spring of 2020, universities around the world had to convert their lectures and seminars from classroom teaching to virtual formats within a very short period of time - often without sufficient preparation or educational concepts. Faculty and students were forced to adapt their familiar teaching and learning routines. The survey reveals that students had both positive as well as negative expectations of this shift to an e-learning semester during the first lockdown in April and May 2020. ’Their assessment is so valuable because, looking back after three online semesters so far, it allows us to better understand which of the expected effects actually took hold and are still relevant’, said Kaspar. Revisiting the beginning of the pandemic is therefore not only interesting to determine the status quo, it also provides a knowledge base on which measures for the future can build. For the next teaching term, it is still uncertain whether, and if so to what degree, teaching can take place in the classroom again.

For the study, a group of 584 students in different degree programmes, from different universities, and in different phases of their courses provided more than 3,800 statements on their positive and negative expectations for the upcoming online semester. They also rated these expectations according to personal relevance. At 57.7 per cent, negative expectations outweighed positive ones. Moreover, on average the negative expectations were seen as more relevant than the positive ones. Individual study phases also made a difference: master’s degree students attributed higher relevance to their negative expectations than bachelor’s degree students. ’This is probably because master’s students have already developed study routines, so they perceived the abrupt change as more challenging’, said Thomas Hoss. Kai Kaspar added: ’We also found that those expectations that came to mind first were, on average, rated as more personally significant than any expectations mentioned thereafter. This was true for both negative and positive expectations. This cognitive effect shows that we should also pay attention to the order in which interviewees express things.’

Among the most frequently voiced negative effects were: the concern that the quality of teaching and learning could deteriorate, including performance assessment; an expected decrease in social interaction and communication with other students as well as decreased interaction with faculty and university staff; reduced feedback and support services. In addition, many students experienced uncertainty due to a lack of information, while also fearing an increase in the required time and workload along with a decrease in their study motivation. ’Many students also reported negative expectations regarding their degree programme and feared an increase in the required study time. The closing of key university facilities and services, and thus more difficult access to resources, were also frequently mentioned negative aspects’, said Amancay Ancina.

In contrast, increased flexibility in time and work management, in receiving and processing course materials, and in choosing where to learn were frequently cited as positive expectations. ’While more individual freedom was associated with online learning, students also frequently voiced the concern that they might not have sufficient self-regulation, self-discipline, and self-organization skills,’ Professor Kaspar said. Many students also reported the hope that forced remote learning would save time, e.g. because long commutes to the university were no longer necessary. Positive work-life balance effects were also frequently mentioned, although a smaller group of students feared that it would become difficult to draw a line between studies and private life. Through intensive use of digital technologies, many students also hoped that their media competency would improve in the long term, and that the digitalization of materials and procedures would progress at universities and in society.

In summary, the study results paint a very detailed and mixed picture of sentiment among students at the onset of the pandemic. These data are an important basis for the research team to critically evaluate the status quo after currently three almost completely virtual semesters at German universities: ’The social isolation already feared by many at that time due to the lack of physical contact opportunities became a reality for students, faculty, and staff at universities for many months,’ Kaspar concluded. He and his team now want to clarify the following questions: To what extent has the creative use of digital communication tools replaced face-to-face interaction at least to some degree? Has the quality of teaching and learning actually deteriorated, as many students feared? Which basic skills do universities need to convey to provide students with the necessary self-regulation competency to successfully make use of the greater flexibility provided by online teaching and learning? Last but not least: What kinds of offers actually promote the hoped-for increase in media competency? On the basis of these questions, the scientists want to start a conversation on how to improve virtual teaching and learning at universities to make them fit for the future.

Hoss, T., Ancina, A., & Kaspar, K. (2021). Forced Remote Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Germany: A Mixed-Methods Study on Students’ Positive and Negative Expectations. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, Article 642616.

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