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How to Structure Online Classrooms for Adults

Zoom call with coffee

Before the COVID-19 pandemic sent students into virtual classrooms across the country, a researcher at North Carolina State University had interviewed 31 doctoral students about their experiences learning in a fully online program.  

Suddenly, the topic became relevant to universities around the world. The study, which is now published in the journal Teachers College Record, offers important lessons about the challenges and benefits of online learning for adults.

“For some of us working on this study, it was enlightening and also a reflective experience,” said the study’s lead author Lam Pham, assistant professor of educational leadership, policy and human development at NC State.

The Abstract spoke with Pham about some of the takeaways.

The Abstract: What were some of the benefits and challenges for students in the online program in terms of students’ experiences with diversity?

Lam Pham: Geographic diversity was a major, major strength of this type of fully online program. Multiple students told us that they really valued the ability to meet and interact with people from different industry sectors from anywhere. They could not all have come together like that in such a diverse way if they had been in a face-to-face classroom.

However, in terms of racial diversity, some students said that because they weren’t sitting in a classroom together, they felt like it acted like a gateway for some students to act as if the norms that would be in place in person weren’t the same norms for being online. The chat was one place where you could get away with comments that would not have been acceptable in person. I want to be clear that there weren’t many students who talked about this, but there were some.

I think part of that departure from social norms was that some instructors had trouble managing these issues in the online environment. For example, an instructor might not see something happening in the chat while they’re teaching. That could allow for these breakdowns of norms to occur.

I think we need to learn about how groups form norms around racial diversity and equity, and we need training for instructors to be able to facilitate those norms in an online environment. It’s about managing a culture that is open and a safe space for students.

TA: What were some of the biggest factors that impacted students’ ability to learn?

Pham: One of the top factors that students found to be important was a safe learning environment – not just physical safety, but safety in terms of each student’s ability to think and speak in ways that are true to them and will help them grow and learn. Without that safety, students felt like they couldn’t fully engage in the classroom. I do believe that training around how you facilitate and maintain these social norms is important, especially important for how we establish norms related to diversity.

TA: How did the online format meet, or not, students’ need for social interaction?

Pham: In a classroom, casual chitchat usually happens before or after class, or during a break. It makes you feel like you’re becoming friends. That does not happen in virtual meetings. People just turn their camera off and walk away. You can do a lot of things to get students to talk to each other, like use breakout rooms, but it’s all very planned. It’s difficult to create a space for authentic social interaction online. You have to unmute or raise your hand to speak.

One important finding was about the impact of an in-person campus experience for students. For some students, even if they didn’t have a chance to do small talk before or after an online class, sometimes they would meet up outside of the class on Zoom. By the end, a lot of people felt like that allowed them to form authentic relationships. For people who did go to the in-person campus experience, they almost always said that it was a game-changer in terms of authentic relationships. Overall, students felt like they could form authentic relationships online, but there was still something important about the embodied experience.

We think the best way to meet the need for authentic interactions online is to push students to create opportunities to interact outside of class together. In addition, I would strongly recommend the cohort model, where students advance as a group through the program, so students have multiple opportunities to interact with each other over a longer time.  

TA: What were some of the issues students with different learning preferences or abilities faced in an all-online platform?

Pham: Using new technology requires a ramp-up time for people who are new to using it. In order to help people become more comfortable, students need to own the experience. Encouraging students to use technology for their own purposes outside of class is a major way to do that.

TA: What other questions do you have about online learning for the future?

Pham: When I was studying this, fully online classrooms were very new. Now we’re moving forward to hybrid and blended models. What we want to know is: What will student experiences be like in blended or hybrid programs? What will be most useful for them – is it maximum flexibility? Or are some things always better in person versus online?  

This post was originally published in NC State News.