IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Student Input Key to Making Online Courses Effective

Through student-faculty discussions about how synchronous online courses should look, among other avenues, educators at Minerva University hope to use the science of learning to improve virtual learning.

Katie McAllister, a professor and head of Minerva University’s College of Social Sciences, teaches a course online. (Photo from Minerva)
As universities adopt new digital learning tools and learning management systems, the need to strengthen student engagement and participation has remained a key concern among educators seeking to encourage “active learning” in synchronous online courses. And according to Katie McAllister, a professor and head of Minerva University’s College of Social Sciences, student input should play a critical role in shaping how online courses work across higher education in a post-COVID-19 landscape.

Drawing from her experience as a researcher at Cambridge University focusing on cognition and neuroscience, and from discussions with other educators across institutions in recent years, McAllister believes online courses must be designed with the “science of learning” in mind. She said part of that science amid today’s digital education surge must consider student perspectives about their own experiences in order to better facilitate active learning, in contrast with one-way online lectures that have become commonplace since the pandemic first necessitated remote learning in 2020.

“Post-pandemic, student voices are increasingly critical to inform decision-making that shapes their education, such as the future of online learning environments or the nature of the skills and knowledge necessary for the evolving breadth of post-graduation opportunities,” she said. "There is a student desire to be a part of this conversation, not just at Minerva where students are interested in active learning, but more broadly as well. I think it's important to take a step back and really have a deeper, honest conversation with students about, 'Why are we asking this? What do we value here? What is the goal, and what could be implemented because of working together in this space?' ... Taking that kind of time is critical for deeper insights and bigger, lasting changes in this space."

Noting the need for student input, McAllister recently began collaborating with students to launch a new senior seminar this year on the science of learning — a topic proposed by students in McAllister’s previous classes interested in the intersections between neuroscience, teaching and learning, ed tech and the general purpose of higher education.

She said the idea is for students to take a leadership role in developing their own learning experiences and to facilitate a “meeting of minds between faculty and students” to shape digital learning spaces. While there are few, if any, seminars like these today, she said student-faculty conversations are already taking place across the country with this in mind.

"As a faculty member, I think this is a really critical topic to engage students with. They're the ones who are in the classroom with us. That brings a much richer dialog to the conversations that are taking place in higher education,” she said. "Anything you're doing has to be driven by an understanding of effective pedagogy. Pedagogy here extends to what the tech interface they're using is, what assessments are built into it or how to set norms for engaging in online learning spaces … Students have tremendous insights [here].”

According to Mike Magee, the president of the university, student input has already played a role in the design, development and continual improvement in recent years to Minerva’s own online learning platform, designed for synchronous courses centering on the pedagogy of active learning rather than passive learning via asynchronous courses and online lectures.

"We're quite unique in that we use a virtual learning platform that was designed for us. Not only was it designed with a deep understanding and appreciation for this science of learning and active learning, but it was also designed and improved over time with the participation of our faculty and students," he said. "We [also] never have more than 20 students in our virtual learning seminars, and they're all synchronous. … There's never been a moment, including in the worst throes of the pandemic, where we were saying, 'Let's throw some lectures that students can watch.' It's just not our model.”

Part of the ongoing process for making ed tech more effective across the higher ed landscape, according to Magee and McAllister, is for students, faculty, researchers and administration to establish the intent of education technology. With the growing demand for virtual options likely to remain in a post-pandemic landscape, he said the university seeks to use online classes as a means of connecting students from across the world, and to engage them in a way that's similar to in-person courses.

"No one should be doing virtual learning or using technology just to do it. Every university should be bringing intention to these decisions," Magee noted. "Are you using technology to expand access to high-quality learning? Are you using technology to make a particular pedagogy possible? Are you using it so you can expand your reach globally? If you're going to add it just to add it, to me, it doesn't seem worthwhile."

Magee added that the university's Tokyo-based Masason Foundation/Minerva University AI Research Lab, which began in the summer of 2019 as a collaborative AI research and startup incubation program for Minerva undergraduate students and Masason Foundation scholarship recipients, could serve as a model for Minerva and others to bring students and faculty together for discussions such as these.

According to an email from the university, this AI lab includes an academic year of independent research, exploration and summer preparation program, plus a summer intensive startup incubation program, the result of which is a real startup giving a pitch to investors and advisers. Similar to this and other university-level tech incubators, Magee said the university hopes to establish other labs focused on the science of learning.

"One thing we're already doing in some disciplines, and want to do in this education design space, is build out labs where students and faculty can actually collaborate on research and projects and potentially the incubation of new technology together in that lab space," he said of pending plans. "The more you can engage students with faculty in those project and design spaces, the more agency they'll feel in the design of their own learning experiences.

"I think there's always opportunities for universities to be involved in the incubation of new technology."
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.