A recent survey shows how the pandemic has changed the way students view a successful college experience.

The persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the challenges it has presented for education, has prompted institutions to re-examine the concept of student success and what it means to deliver on the expectations of students. As our wait for a return to normal has turned into acceptance of a new normal, it’s clear that learning will remain virtual for the foreseeable future.

In an effort to address these high stakes in higher education, Instructure conducted a global benchmark study with Hanover Research, “The State of Student Success and Engagement,” asking 7,070 educators and students in 13 countries how they define student success and what they consider to be driving factors of engagement.

Of all the results, the following statistics made it clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented institutional leaders with a catalyst for change:

  • 85 percent of students said COVID-19 has had the largest effect on their ability to succeed
  • 71 percent of respondents said the pandemic has affected students’ academic progress
  • 70 percent of faculty said more students are falling behind on their studies than before

Given the expectation that courses will remain at least partially online indefinitely, it’s critical for higher education institutions to understand what students believe they need to be successful and engaged. As I continue to connect with educators and institutional leaders in our Canvas community, which includes thousands of users of the Canvas learning management system, I am amazed at the resilience and creativity they’ve displayed as they evolve to meet these challenges.

Here are three ways institutions are adapting to focus on a more holistic approach to student development.

1. Aligning College Course Objectives to Future Careers

Beyond the disruptions in education, the workforce has also experienced a great deal of change, and students want to know that what they’re learning in their courses is directly preparing them for their next steps. A key finding from our study supports this notion, citing career readiness as the No. 1 priority for students.

“If you had asked me pre-COVID what student success would look like, I would have had a laundry list: Here are our course objectives, here are our department objectives, here are the university objectives that we want to accomplish,” said Karen Freberg, an associate professor of strategic communication at the University of Louisville, during a recent webinar I hosted.

“But with COVID, what I’ve realized … is that it’s not only about knowing the material and understanding their field of study a little bit more. A lot of my students have been asking me how they can apply their learning and bring assignments to life,” Freberg said.

This paradigm shift has presented institutions with the challenge of transferring hands-on learning experiences to an online format that is collaborative and rigorous enough to prepare students for real-world applications.

In response to this, many institutions are using this challenge as an opportunity to connect with local organizations and community partners to provide educational opportunities that align with jobs.

2. Leading with Empathy in Online Course Design

As students strive to keep up with their courses, it’s important to remember that, like many of us, they are balancing multiple roles in their lives while also addressing the impact of COVID-19. Now more than ever, educators need to think beyond the lecture and provide flexibility, enabling students to demonstrate mastery of skills in many different ways.

Sean Nufer, an educator at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and one of the Canvas 2020 Educators of the Year, said it best in a recent livestream discussion. “We need to be listening to our students more than ever,” he said. “We need to be patient with them and recognize that while there is more than one way to teach, there are also multiple ways to learn.”

I see many educators leveraging technology to create a more immersive experience that allows students to discuss and collaborate virtually, rather than watching a one-way video lecture. We also see institutions using audio and video tools to give personalized and targeted feedback to individual students, transforming the traditional grading process into another opportunity for connection.

3. Creating Opportunities for Faculty-Student Engagement

Amid the increasing use of technology today, both students and faculty continue to value the hands-on learning and collaboration that technology simply cannot replace. When asked what factors they consider to be the main drivers of student success, respondents named quality of faculty (88 percent), technology availability (86 percent), and hands-on instruction (86 percent), reinforcing that technology is best used when paired with interactive content and opportunities for connection beyond devices.

“The community that you have in a traditional classroom is not replicated online,” said Nufer, who said he prioritizes establishing a connection with students in a fully virtual learning environment. “We have to be purposeful in building those connections … and those connections are vital, because without that network, what are we? We’re not just repositories of information. What brings education value are the connections we make that last beyond the three credits or 16 weeks.”

It’s becoming clear that the accelerated evolution that has been forced on education will result in long-term changes to instructional delivery. Connecting educators and learners with technology and helping those learners connect with careers is becoming key, not only to the success of students but also to the success of institutions. Educators, technologists, instructional designers, academic leaders and students will continue to come together to forge a pathway to the future, celebrating and supporting each other along the way.

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