10 Remote Learning Challenges and Effective Ways to Address Them

Supriya Kamath
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At our three-part webinar series in October, science professors Dr. Dawn Bazely, Dr. Nir Ohad and Peter Ronai and librarian Liz Grace spoke about their experiences of shifting to remote learning in the spring: 

 Dr. Dawn Bazely (University Professor in the Department of Biology at York University) spoke about transforming her Biodiversity & Watershed Management field course into a remote format; 

 Peter Ronai (Clinical Professor of Exercise Science at Sacred Heart University) discussed his ‘flipped’ courses in exercise testing and functional anatomy, while Dr. Nir Ohad (Director of the Manna Center Program for Food Safety & Security at Tel Aviv University) spoke about how the effective hybrid learning approach he took in his online introductory biology course; 

 Liz Grace (Head of Collections & Systems, Edward G. Miner Library, University of Rochester Medical Center) discussed lessons learned during the remote learning transition.

Drawing on these experiences, our speakers offered attendees actionable tips, tricks and best-practice suggestions to better manage the fall semester. 

In this blog post, we’ve brought together their tips for addressing 10 remote instruction challenges. To learn more about the difficulties they faced and the solutions they designed, request a full recording of the webinars for free here.

1. Students are unengaged or unmotivated to participate in live virtual classes.

Peter has a variety of suggestions to improve student participation in virtual lectures: these include making heavy use of the Chat and Q&A sections on platforms like Zoom, stopping frequently and asking questions, and welcoming a wide variety of input from students. Presenting case studies and having his students develop real-world solutions also helps to keep them engaged, he notes, as they enjoy being able to connect theory with real practice. 

Finally, Peter recommends creating short quizzes that students would find hard to answer if they were not engaged during the lecture. Telling students about these assessments ahead of time is valuable, notes Peter, “so they already have a vested interest when they’re coming to class.”

2. Creating virtual lab assignments is a struggle.

Finding it hard to come up with ideas for lab assignments that students can perform remotely? Dawn (who created a science-from-home lab kit using her special ‘kitchen sink ecology’ approach) asks instructors to reflect on what excited them about science before they had access to high-tech lab equipment, whether it was science assignments they worked on in grade school, or even children’s science books. Her upcoming plant ecology lab, for instance, includes an experiment that she adapted from one of her daughter’s high school projects. 

For online lab exercises, Peter recommends posting simulations or images that students have to analyze — for instance, they could view a video of someone performing a specific technique, and note down what was done wrong, what was done correctly, and other critical observations.

3. First-year students in your introductory course are finding the remote learning transition especially difficult to cope with. 

Many students in Nir’s first-year biology course were still grappling with the transition from high school to university, when remote learning was introduced. To address this challenge, Nir and his team developed a new model for mentoring students. Every faculty member in his department personally mentored five students — they would frequently call and write to them, check in on them, and provide support. They also set up chat rooms for groups of students on Moodle, which students could use to easily interact with teaching assistants. 

Nir also emphasizes that lighter workloads earlier on in the semester can help give students time to adapt, and the workload should be increased gradually over the course of the term.

4. As a librarian, you’re discovering duplicated subscriptions, and receiving requests for resources to which your library is already subscribed.

While completely resolving this issue is difficult, Liz made a start by creating several libguides, and marketing them through multiple channels – the library website, social media, the institution’s newsletter, and emails to deans of different departments. Liz also recommends forming close relationships with faculty and liaison departments, who can help librarians better understand what sorts of resources are already in use. 

5. You want to build variety into your virtual lectures to avoid monotony — but aren’t sure how.  

Dawn introduced variety into her lectures by bringing a number of guest speakers onboard — these included a soil ecologist, a biodiversity heritage librarian, a map librarian and many more guests, who spoke to her students about their work. To avoid monotony, Nir also recommends breaking up each pre-recorded lecture into several short sections, which allows students to engage with their preferred sections at their own pace.

6. Students aren’t watching the videos or lecture recordings you’ve assigned.

Peter suggests embedding videos directly into presentations or lab manuals. This makes the videos more convenient to access, and helps reinforce the descriptive text alongside. Nir also encouraged students to watch the lecture recordings by creating associated quizzes; however, he assured them that their overall quiz grade would not be lower than their final exam grade. These low-stakes assignments encouraged students to engage with the videos without acting as a source of additional stress for them. 

7. Students aren’t getting the most out of preparatory video content.

Both Nir and Peter note that when it comes to video — be it pre-recorded lectures or other types of video content — shorter is better. “If you’re getting over 2 to 2.5 minutes, you’re better off breaking your videos into smaller pieces and scattering them throughout the lesson, because most students are not going to stay on for much longer than that,” said Peter. He found videos from the JoVE Science Education: Clinical Skills series particularly useful for demonstrating key lab techniques in his exercise science course.

8. You’re facing technical difficulties…

“If it’s not working, go low tech,” Dawn recommends. In her remote lab kit, Dawn included a variety of low-tech items, which could be used for research in creative ways. This included $3 cardboard microscopes, macro lenses that they could use to turn their smartphone cameras into dissecting microscopes, pH strips, symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), seeds, soil to grow plants, and much more. 

Dawn also tried to create video recordings of her own, and soon learned — the hard way — the difficulties associated with this. “[This process] was so much work that to be honest I was just grateful for existing online content that I could press into use,” she noted, pointing out that JoVE video resources were particularly helpful for this task. 

9. …and your students are facing technical difficulties too. 

To help students who might face internet issues, Dawn delivered the course in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. She also built plenty of redundancy into her syllabus, so if a student’s internet connection went down at any point, they could make up for it with other assignments at a later time. 

10. Remote learning just … isn’t enjoyable. 

Remote learning is hard on everyone, and it’s important to find ways to have fun, noted both Dawn and Liz. For Liz and her colleagues, creating cartoon avatars of themselves — which they then posted on their library’s social media handles — was a great way to keep spirits up. 

Dawn, on the other hand, made remote learning fun by designing a spooky Halloween version of her remote lab kit for her neighbours’ children, with origami bats, candy, and knitted ghosts. “We all need to have a bit of fun, innovation and creativity at this time,” reminds Dawn. 


Request a recording of: 

• Dawn Bazely’s webinar ‘Reimagining a Field Course for Virtual Delivery’ here 

• Peter Ronai and Nir Ohad’s webinar ‘The Hybrid Classroom of the Future’ here

• Liz Grace’s webinar ‘The Resurgence of Libraries’ here.