The future of online learning at Brown


Since March 2020, student experience at the university has been largely relegated to zoom meetings and recorded lectures. But the novel prevalence of online technology in the university curriculum has given the university an opportunity to study how it educates and challenges Faculty and students alike.

As COVID-19 positivity rates decline nationally and more community members To be vaccinatedOne question remains: how does online learning fit into the Brown experience?

Online pre-pandemic learning

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the university had tried to increase the use of online resources and distance learning. The University 2013 Building on the strategic plan announced plans to develop new online curriculum resources and experiment with online courses.

The plan identified “considerable uncertainty about how online courses (could) affect the university market.” However, by increasing the use of technology among Brown academics, the plan hoped to “increase the quality of education, strengthen the curriculum in key areas, and expand opportunities for Brown students.”

“There has been this wave of online education in recent years … and it has seen (it) as a complement to the residential experience,” Provost Richard Locke P’18 told The Herald. “I don’t think anyone at Brown ever thought in 2013, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do online education instead of housing.'”

But members of the community began to wonder if increasing the use of technology in courses would better help Brown students in their educational endeavors. Many advocates of online learning at the time thought that recorded lectures were a more effective way of conveying “timeless” information – course fundamentals that would largely remain constant throughout the life of a course – Locke said. This would give students time to apply these theories to more “timely” information relevant to the present, as well as more time to delve into the interactive aspects of each course.

The faculty hesitated, Locke explained, since a full residential experience had long been standard at the university.

“When I became provost in 2015, we conducted a survey of faculties and asked them how they felt about online learning,” he said. Of nearly 400 faculty respondents, around 70 percent used some kind of web-based resource like canvas. “But when you asked her, ‘Are you interested in online (teaching)?’ … 40 percent said: ‘I have no experience (with it)’ and 30 percent of them said that online education is not and will not be part of the future. “

In March 2017 the university professional master’s courses created with courses, some of which are offered online and some in person. Online technology was already part of Brown Academics, albeit to a limited extent.

All at once: COVID-19 and the transition to remote operation

When the university all personal courses and programming canceled Due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the gradual transition to online teaching took place immediately, as the university suddenly had to create remote alternatives for all educational establishments.

Before switching from face-to-face to online classes, English professor James Egan taught selected classes asynchronously in order to give a “wider group of students” from different disciplines access to English courses.

But when the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic forced all classes to switch to distance learning, Egan was left with no option to teach in person.

Where distance learning previously served to improve access for students interested in Egan’s courses, the universal acceptance of distance learning has emerged stark differences how students came to grips with Brown’s curriculum.

During the move to distance learning, Egan felt that there were “a lot of people struggling … psychologically,” particularly with the introduction of online-only learning, which “required different (types) of learning strategies”.

Distance learning took place during the pandemic faced with challenges on the mental health of students. Recent efforts from the university and nonprofits are aiming to better serve students during this time, but many students are still struggling with mental health issues while studying online.

Harshini Venkatachalam ’23, who studied remotely from home in Arizona last year, said her “distance learning experience has been tough”.

“I wasn’t ready to move to distance learning and I found it difficult to motivate myself and get things done on time,” she said.

Similarly, accessibility barriers have posed a challenge for many students to engaging with the university curriculum after leaving campus.

Some students need the “visual stimulation” and the “kinetic movement” to be in a classroom, said Tere Ramos, interim director of Student Accessibility Services. Those aspects are lost in remote learning environments, which can make it challenging for students who appreciate traditional personal teaching methods, she added.

In finding ways to support the mental health and accessibility of students, the university as an institution has learned how to better serve its student body, Locke said. University administrations listened to student feedback and found that resources such as pre-recorded lectures, lecture recordings, and alternative forms of class participation actually improved their engagement and experience with courses.

This improved accessibility to online resources was a highlight of distance learning for some students like Christopher Vanderpool ’24 during the pandemic. Vanderpool agreed that recorded lectures provided a degree of flexibility that he enjoyed, being able to access the lectures at will.


Some university offices including Digital design & learning, worked with professors to incorporate “digital tools” into their courses through online activities during the pandemic, Shankar Prasad, deputy provost for strategic initiatives, wrote in an email to The Herald.

According to Prasad, the pandemic has helped the university uncover “innovation opportunities” in both teaching and learning that can be used to “improve experimental education and faculty research” in the future.

“What I’m thinking about going into the future (fall semester 2021) is (to make sure) that … a sufficient number of courses at every concentration are accessible remotely,” said Locke. “There may be some students who cannot return to campus for health reasons or who cannot come here due to travel restrictions. But they should be able to continue their education, ”he said.

In the coming semesters, many faculty members have opted for distance learning and are offering recorded lectures, especially for large introductory courses, Locke added. Still, Residency Requirements would ensure a level of “faculty contact”, including “personal recitation and consultation hours”.

Faculties’ increased interest in online teaching was a by-product of teaching during the pandemic, according to Locke. Both after the fall semester 2020 and the spring semester 2021, professors’ feedback on online teaching improved, and by the end of the spring semester, around 90 percent of professors felt well prepared to teach online, he said.

Egan said he will continue to teach some of his courses online as he believes “they can really help a lot of students”. He also noted that he has become more creative with content for his courses during the pandemic and “feels excited to … teach these courses in the future”.

Locke also found that student feedback showed increased “post-pandemic satisfaction and engagement,” compared to Fall 2019, the last fully face-to-face semester at the university, suggesting that, on average, students were increasing with the Technology feel more comfortable in their courses. “It seems to work for students – not every course, not every instructor … but on average, student feedback is higher,” he said.

“Going forward, I hope that Brown will continue to offer these online courses… (and) that it does at least three things. For one, you enrich the dormitory teaching and learning experience … (by using valuable class time to do more interactive, engaging things). Two are promoting accessibility … (and three are) creating more opportunities for students, ”said Locke.

In terms of opportunity creation, many students who are hoping to study abroad forego because they can’t afford to miss course requirements, Locke explained. The increase in online courses could mean that students can live overseas or even work in a personal internship, nonprofit, or start-up while taking university courses, he added.

Locke also hopes online resources could reach a larger community than the university’s curriculum can currently serve.

The university has previously courses offered with edX, a remote educational platform that enables students to take free online courses. Now that the university has started creating so much recorded and web-based educational content, Locke said that offering online courses to the public could improve economic accessibility.

“We only have 1,650 places per class when we take in students, and we have 46,000 applicants. It’s hard to get in, but there are a lot of really qualified people who could benefit from what we have to offer, ”said Locke.

“We’ve been working really hard with a number of community colleges lately,” said Locke. “Imagine if (your students) can now take some Brown courses entirely online, they can show they are getting the grades – that will really bolster their transfer student applications. And they don’t have to be in Rhode Island, they can be anywhere. I see this as another opportunity for us that lives up to our mission of being a truly accessible university and a more diverse university. “

But after more than a year since the university’s first transition to online learning, many are thrilled to just get back to face-to-face learning. “(I’m) not sure if students will be interested in online classes for a while,” said Egan.

For Venkatachalam, the past year has been enough online learning for the foreseeable future. “I would (consider online courses) if they would help me meet my concentration needs,” she said. “But if it wasn’t absolutely necessary, I wouldn’t.”

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