5 Research-Informed Principles for Switching to Online Learning


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

With the continuance of the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, colleges and universities across the U.S. have had to switch to online learning methods at the last minute. What are five research-informed principles for making the big switch to online learning?



The following five principles, all informed by research and experience, can help higher education institutions plan for transitions to online learning. This article is brought to us by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Open.

  1. Partner with university students during the transition
  2. Reduce goals, but strategically
  3. Identify and support disadvantaged student groups
  4. Help students from their own study groups
  5. Prioritize time for making individual connections

Students that have strong self-regulated learning skills, such as the majority of students who are enrolled at many of the top colleges and best universities such as MIT, do well in online learning. Now, this has never been tested at the last minute with the rise of an emergency pandemic, but we think it will hold up well.

The downside is that online learning research typically finds that disadvantaged students—from poverty-impacted neighborhoods, from underrepresented minority groups, with low grades/prior achievement consistently suffer a so-called “online penalty” relative to traditional, face-to-face courses. Susan Dynarski, an economist, has written about this subject in a New York Times article titled “Online Courses Harm the Students Who Need the Most Help”. 

Students in this last month have had to also deal with the stress and struggle of moving out. Students who are under maximum stress levels are most likely the ones who are going to struggle with the transition from contact classes to online, distance learning education programs. We must make these young people the top priority.

Perhaps the first question in the transition to online learning is not “What technology should colleges and universities use?” but “How will colleges and universities maintain human connection with the most struggling and vulnerable learners?” 

(1) Partner with university students during the transition

Ask students for their help in the transition. Ask for advice about how they learn online, or find out what defines their best experiences in online courses.

This allows for colleges and universities to:
Learn about useful, actionable ideas.
Encourage students to invest in their own education.

Students will be more motivated when they experience some forms of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


(2) Reduce goals, but strategically

What are the highest priority learning goals for this time of online education? It is better to decide now what to cut from a course’s syllabus. For instance, a course on Learning, Media, and Technology might be more effective focusing on the state of education and online learning in a pandemic rather than going through the traditional syllabus. But, do remember, instructors have a responsibility to students and colleagues to keep everyone on track.

(3) Identify and support disadvantaged student groups

Identify college students with the lowest grades, and be ready to spend more time supporting them. Struggles that students have when participating in traditional contact classes are likely to amplify while home or in temporary accommodation. Perhaps colleges and universities can use surveys, exit tickets, or synchronous sessions to ask students how they are feeling, what challenges they are thinking about, and what difficulties they face with the current state of the world.

(4) Help students from their own study groups

During this time of social distancing, it is important to continue to form and develop human connections. Colleges and universities should think about creating online spaces for students to come together and share, similarly to how they did on-campus. This may help the transition to online education. 

Small peer groups, through synchronous sessions or discussion board spaces, may help students engage in social learning, and make contact with their peers that they will be missing during quarantine.

(5) Prioritize time for making individual connections online

The best online teachers organize time to prioritize regular individual connections. Open office hours are going to look different. In fact, it will most likely be easier to set up appointment times with students. Reserve time for tutoring and additional supports to individual students.




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