Report: The Pivot to Online Increased Challenges for Two Thirds of Students

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Updated Aug 27, 2021

“Mastering new content was not easy. I do not feel that I learned it as well as I had previously during in-person lecture.”

“I struggle to understand the material and don’t feel motivated at all.”

“I barely made it through this past semester. Prior to the sudden transition to online classes, I didn’t even have internet or a computer at home.”

These are a few of the student responses highlighted in a new report issued by American College Testing (ACT), the non-profit entity that produces the eponymous college-readiness assessment taken by thousands of students every year. ACT surveyed 1,164 students who started their first-year of college in the 2019-2020 academic year specifically to understand how the pivot to online instruction impacted students’ perceived successes and challenges, as well as their retention and persistence.

Dr. Joyce SchniedersDr. Joyce Schnieders“The most important part of the study is the key elements we found that could help alleviate student challenges and concerns: access to tech resources, learning resources, and prior online learning before formal instruction,” said Dr. Joyce Schnieders, a research scientist at ACT and co-lead on the study.

Over two thirds of respondents said they experienced increased challenges in their education due to the pandemic. Those who experienced the greatest difficulty transitioning online were first-generation and low-income students. Almost half of those students surveyed said they had limited technology and one third had limited access to the internet. One quarter of low-income students, and 18% of first-generation students, reported struggling with access to both.

That number could actually be higher, said Dr. Raeal Moore, a principal research scientist at ACT and the study’s other co-lead, “due to the fact that the survey was conducted online.”

When ACT controlled survey results to better examine outside factors, they found that being first-generation or low-income alone was not a predictor of academic challenges during the online transition. It was all about access to functioning technology. If institutions were to remove the access barrier, the report said that will likely help underserved students succeed. The report recommended that institutions open up their libraries and provide students with hot spots to access the internet.

Christina Gordon, senior director of strategic communications at ACT, said that higher education leaders need to “look at how they make decisions, how they serve opportunities to those that need access, because we’re not through the pandemic yet.”

Turning to full-time online instruction could happen again for many  students, particularly in areas of high COVID outbreak.

“When the pandemic hit, no one was prepared,” said Gordon. “Now that we’ve been through it, what do we [need to] do to do better?”

The ACT report shows just how many students struggled with unreliable or unavailable technology. Only 38% of students said their computer was always reliable. Only 24% of students said their internet connection was “great.” For the remaining students, over half said their computers were unreliable, were frequently troublesome, or had no access at all to a computer. Twenty-one percent (21%) described their internet service as “unpredictable,” or “terrible,” or had no internet at all.

“We provide this [report] so we don’t have students, particularly those of color, low-income, first-generation, fall out of the pipeline,” said Gordon. “It’s critically important to ensure we have a robust student population.”

ACT asked students to list factors they felt would be helpful to their successful completion and understanding of coursework. The top three helpful resources listed were: assigning a reasonable number of very clear assignments, that those assignments were easy to submit, and instructors provided timely feedback on questions or homework.

Dr. Raeal MooreDr. Raeal MooreIn reality, most students only had one of those needs met: easily-turned-in assignments. This means a gap was created between the need for a resource and its availability. Forty-eight percent (48%) of students said that they received an unmanageable number of assignments; 47% said they needed but were not given timely responses from their teachers.

One student wrote in their survey, “teachers were never available for questions, classroom collaboration was not present, and tests felt harder to prepare for because I did not have a quiet environment.”

Another wrote, “I tried to keep in contact with my instructors because I truly wanted to learn, but I would have to wait days or even weeks before I heard from then."

ACT did find that, if a student had participated in some kind of online learning course before, they were less likely to feel the transition was too challenging. But more than half (62%) of students surveyed did not have any level of prior experience.

That’s why the ACT is recommending that institutions take steps to teach students and faculty how to use technology before classroom instruction begins. This could take the form of a pre-semester online class, or a resource hosted on a website that can answer questions and help students trouble-shoot their technology early on.

“This generation might be technology natives, but online learning was still a very new thing for most,” said Schnieders. “We cannot assume they’re familiar with online learning management or communication in online environments just because they may have used the tech growing up.”

Even though the spring 2020 semester was trying, the majority of students (83%) surveyed said that they planned on continuing their education by re-enrolling for the next year. Fifteen percent (15%) said they would re-enroll but at a different institution, which means only 3% planned to pause or end their educational careers. However, beyond the following academic year, the certainty slipped. Only 64% felt they were likely to complete their educational career at the same institution.

Institutions that reached out to students, that connected individually and asked how that student was doing during the pandemic, were 12 percentage points more likely to see that student re-enroll. Only 52% of students indicated they had experienced that kind of outreach.

If colleges and universities do not address the additional stressors and challenges of online learning, then, said Moore, “you’ll get students dropping out of college.”

Gordon acknowledged that tackling systemic inequities like broadband access, isn’t easy, but “at the same time, we can’t wait and hope.”

“There’s got to be bold action at the institutional level as well as at the infrastructure level,” said Gordon. “None of us can do it alone.”

The report encourages institutions to take steps to collect their own information on their students’ success and comfort levels with technology and a plan for outreach. Connecting with students one-on-one creates a deeper sense of belonging and creates a positive relationship with a student’s mental health, the report noted. For those who are struggling with online learning, counseling should be available to help through more difficult moments.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Gordon. “We need to continue to find ways to understand, because persistence is a real concern and always has been. What the effects of the pandemic, the ripple effect, might be, we don’t yet know.”

Liann Herder can be reached at lherder@diverseeducation.com.