With the implementation of social distancing as a preventive measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus, remote education has become a new reality for students and educators in dozens of states.
Chris Stream, the director of the School of Public Policy and Leadership, has been singing the benefits of technology-enabled learning at UNLV for several years. Stream has driven the development of innovative programs for online and hybrid education within the College of Urban Affairs at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. He believes that flexibility, creativity, and patience are essential to maintaining a smooth transition to remote online education.
“In this moment of crisis, it creates an opportunity for us to rethink how we do things and emerge from this as incredible leaders,” Stream said.
What motivated you to embrace the remote learning over the years?
As we were building the School of Public Policy and building our research output, I needed faculty to really invest their time into that research space and not always have to be locked to a desk in a room, teaching. We wanted to create flexibility for faculty so that they could still meet their teaching obligation, still educate students, move people through programs and graduation, but still have time to focus on the expansion of research and community problem-solving. In academics, we tend to think of research and teaching as dichotomies. I'd argue that it's a false dichotomy, that you could do both, and I wanted to create a bridge between the two.
[Technology] was also a great way to create accessibility to programs. The online space allows us to reach populations that can't just drive to our building and take a class in the middle of the afternoon, such as folks who work in the service industry.
What are some of the benefits of remote learning?
It can fit any life of a student. So many of our students work part time or full time, and online education allows them to continue their lives. It allows them to account for family issues, to parent, to work—it really creates incredible flexibility for the life of a student.
Also, because of less time spent in the class, students could create other experiences in their communities that could compliment their coursework. We could have students travel to Chile or England, and they don't have to stop taking classes in our degree. One of our students worked at a public policy think tank in England one semester, so she could take her classroom work and apply it directly to the internship. As we evolved [toward online education], I found it to be a really great benefit for students and our programs, because it allows them to bring really rich experiences to the class.
What are some of the disadvantages?
There's no doubt that technology infrastructure is the drawback. Universities will spend a ton of money on new classroom buildings, but won’t spend the backend dollars on the infrastructure for an online space. What I hope happens is that we focus more strategically on infrastructure for a technology space, and not so much on physical spaces.
Another thing is that people like to meet other people and network and get to know people. So when we build online programs in the school of public policy, we do create opportunities for live interaction whenever possible. That's not always physically possible, so we have to build a technology networking space. At the same time, you don't want people to be just an avatar or a screen name; that impersonal aspect of online education isn't what we want for our school. We always work really hard to enhance the socialization part, but that takes a different way of thinking and a different set of tools.
Then on the student side, we still in the United States have a great disparity in who has access to Wi-Fi. We act like everybody has Wi-Fi, but that’s just not the case. So thinking more about how we bridge that divide for our residents and our students, particularly as an urban campus, because that certainly happens.
There’s a perception that students don’t fully learn or engage with the material through remote learning as they would during in-person lectures.
Early on, in online courses, students just read stuff, responded to stuff, and took tests. There wasn't a ton of interaction and feedback.
Teaching online is a little bit art and it's a little bit science. There is, of course, the dissemination of information, but my faculty and I have really found online education to almost be a creative outlet in some ways. I learned that as I met with folks at YouTube and Disney who were really trying to look at the online space in a much more creative way, particularly the folks on the education side at YouTube, who were trying to build educational learning in a highly visual, creative way in an online space. That really opened my eyes to how online instructors have to be able to think creatively. And that's hard.
A good online class has to evolve — so we experiment and test things in a live format and then mold that to fit an online experience. It’s super hard to do and takes a lot of thought. You really have to be prepared as an instructor in the online space. But we take a team approach to building our programs. We really look at the totality of the program and how to build a program that's of high quality and is highly interactive, not just one single course or one single instructor.
With this sudden transition to online education, what are some practices that could make this process go a bit more smoothly for both teachers and students?
Maintain the continuous student-professor relationship. Don't be afraid to record videos for students talking to them as people, not just to lecture, but to check in and say "Hey, I hope everybody's doing this well this week. Don't forget we have this due, etc.," just to have that constant connection.
I also do a WebEx in my online courses about twice a month. I’ll say “I'm going to be online during these hours. Let's have a conversation. I'll talk about material and answer questions.” So I always maintain some sort of human interaction, and say "I'm here to help you through this." Don't think that a course is like a machine, that you flip on the online course and it just runs. It still requires you to maintain it, to answer questions, and to do all the things that you would normally do in a live space.
The second thing I would say is to be flexible in the online space. You can be less rule-bound. In person, if you miss a lecture, you miss the lecture. But if I do a live lecture in WebEx and I record it, they can go back and still watch the lecture and be looped into what's happening. Life isn't going to go according to a linear schedule that you lay out, and in the online space, that flexibility really helps enhance the student experience. It adds to the human element of the online space. However, while you want to create flexibility, you do also want to create as much consistency in the look or branding of classes across programs so that students don't have to fumble or have trouble finding things.
What programs do you use to create online learning spaces?
We've been using Slack for the last few years as a way to message students, and allow them to message among themselves. We use Zoom, which is a much more interactive technology, quite a bit in our master's programs and in our doctoral programs. At the undergraduate level, we use WebEx and Google Meets, because we know the students have access to those.
We also use the University Libraries a lot. I think that's a resource that people don't think about in the online space, and UNLV has a great library and a great library staff. Our librarian in the college, Susie Skarl, is an incredible resource. Libraries have dealt with this movement to the online space a little bit longer. Our students hardly buy any books. All the content in our programs and courses are available to them in an online space.
What advice do you have for instructors who have never taught online before?
What you do live is going to change — you can't just copy what you do in the in-person space onto the online space. It just makes for an unfulfilling experience. So you’ll have to rethink how you're going to engage with students.
Also, don't hide your personality in your online course. That's what made your course exciting. The students come to see your expertise and your personality and the experiences that you are bringing as an instructor to the classroom — don't lose that in the online space.
What advice do you have for students?
Be flexible — understand that these courses are not going to be perfect. I think students will have to have a little bit of patience, because it isn't as simple as just taking the live class and posting the same exact material online. It's gonna take a little bit of adjustment on the part of both students and faculty to figure out that sweet spot of how this will work.
Students don't like uncertainty, and neither do college professors, which is why we build schedules and dates and structure. But we are in uncertain times, and things that we think will work in the next two weeks may not make sense two weeks from now. So there's going to be fluidity. Students are going to have to get a little bit used to uncertainty.
Online education really requires active learning and active participation. Use your time management skills, and make sure that you're checking your classes every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes a day. Don't wait and say, I'm just going to do everything once a week on Saturday. You'll fall behind too fast, and it's very difficult to recover. And stay in contact with your professors. Email them, text them if they allow that, and send them videos.
Do you think that this forced exposure and experimentation with technology-enabled learning is going to lead professors and students to view online education more or less favorably?
Initially, it will be really uneven. Some instructors will be good in this space and able to handle it, and some won’t. So the unevenness will be frustrating. Generally speaking, universities hate change — they fight against it. We are now forced to change and that will be really uncomfortable for faculty, for administrators, for staff. It will be frustrating for students. Universities are not flexible organizations.
But I believe that through this pain will come an incredible opportunity to rethink why we do things the way we do, and hopefully, universities will become less resistant to change, and instead begin leading change in our communities in a more strategic way. [We’ll recognize] that maybe infrastructure needs to look different going forward. Technology needs to look different going forward. Particularly at UNLV, we're lucky to be a young institution. We don’t have 200-year-old traditions the way that other universities do, and that allows us more capacity for growth. We have the opportunity to really go out and lead the next generation, instead of staying stagnant.