With the Fall academic term just weeks away, many educators are dissatisfied with the plans, level of clarity, and support they’ve received from their schools to teach online effectively, according to a new survey of more than 800 higher education faculty and instructional support staff. The survey was conducted by Top Hat, the leading active learning platform for higher education, and the results were summarized and presented in an infographic.
“Effective online teaching is so much more than just uploading lecture slides and video-conferencing classes in real-time,” said Nick Stein, CMO, Top Hat. “As we look ahead to the new academic term, students will have high expectations for the levels of engagement, interactivity, and connection built into their courses. Based on the results from this survey, there is still opportunity for institutions and educators to get this right before the Fall.”
The Top Hat Field Report: COVID-19 Faculty Preparedness, Fall 2020 survey follows on Top Hat’s release of its student survey in May, 2020, which shared responses from more than 3,000 higher ed students regarding how they felt about their remote learning experience in the Spring. This new faculty preparedness survey polled 808 higher education instructors and instructional support staff, with the vast majority based in the United States. The goal was to learn how they are preparing, what support they are receiving from their institutions, and what their concerns are. Top Hat hopes that sharing these survey results with the broader community will improve our understanding of how the pandemic is impacting technology adoption and usage in higher ed, and ultimately help administrators and educators make more informed decisions that drive effective course design and delivery.
“As we near the Fall term in North America, there are growing concerns from faculty about institutional plans in terms of protecting health and helping students to succeed,” said Phil Hill, partner at MindWires, LLC. “Top Hat’s survey allows for broad-based input from faculty, providing clarity on some key questions that have not been resolved, and is a valuable resource for the community.”
Majority of Respondents Not Convinced Students Will See Value in Their Educational Investment
Almost half (45 percent) of respondents are not satisfied with their school’s plans for the Fall. The survey found an underlying theme of uncertainty and lack of clarity that 51 percent and 40 percent of respondents have around what the learning experience will look like and how they are being equipped to support the desired approach. Additionally, more than one-third (38 percent) of respondents felt the quality of the training and support provided by their school was poor or just fair.
Many respondents are also feeling uneasy. One-third of respondents are concerned about the overall level of effort their schools are undertaking to accommodate their personal needs (35 percent) and ensure their health and safety (33 percent) and that of their students (33 percent).
One of the top concerns among respondents is whether students will see value in the quality of the learning that takes place in the Fall term. Approximately half of respondents expressed a lack of confidence that students will see value in their educational investment (53 percent) and their ability to be successful based on how courses will be delivered (47 percent).
Overall, almost one in four (23 percent) indicated that their perception of their school has worsened as the crisis unfolded.
Uneven Tech Adoption Within Classrooms and Across Institutions Raises Concerns About Students’ Ability to Succeed
More than four out of five (84 percent) respondents said their school’s planned approach to the Fall is to teach either primarily online or through a hybrid combination of in-person and online instruction, indicating that there will be a heavy reliance on digital teaching tools and technology.
In all or some of their classes, 84 percent of instructors use their Learning Management System (LMS) and 80 percent supplement the LMS with other digital teaching tools. An LMS alone is clearly not sufficient to teach effectively in online and blended environments.
Among those for whom tools and technologies are required for teaching in the Fall, only one in five (21 percent) respondents indicated their school has fully mandated or prescribed tools for educators to use. The rest of respondents indicated their school had mandated only some tools (35 percent) or they either were not given instructions or did not know what tools to use (44 percent). The risk in this environment is that a lack of standardized tools often creates inefficiencies and support challenges in terms of choosing, adopting, navigating, and ultimately supporting a variety of different technologies.
There is precedent for this scenario. According to Top Hat’s student survey from April, 2020 about the abrupt transition to remote learning that left many educators scrambling for solutions on their own, many students experienced difficulty using online learning tools (28 percent) and accessing online learning materials (22 percent)1. And it affected their study habits — 50 percent of students spent less time on their coursework2.
And it appears educators are wary of this as well — heading into the Fall, many respondents have concerns about students’ ability to navigate tools (51 percent) and access online learning materials (42 percent).
Educators Are Not Confident About Their Ability to Engage Students in Active Learning and Ensure Equitable Learning Experiences
Many of the concerns respondents have about being equipped and trained to teach effectively relate to their ability to infuse active learning — a proven student-centered teaching pedagogy that promotes deep understanding, critical thinking, and subject mastery — and its principal focuses on student engagement and learning outcomes.
More than half (58 percent) of respondents are concerned about their ability to create engaging learning experiences while eight out of 10 (81 percent) are concerned about their ability to ensure students stay motivated outside of class. Half of respondents reported receiving little to no support on learning how to use tools to engage students in real-time in remote environments (50 percent) and outside class (55 percent).
One of the major challenges of the abrupt transition to remote teaching in the Spring was the need for educators and administrators to address inequitable online learning experiences. These include situations caused by students’ sudden lack of access to technology, loss of income and shelter, health of a loved one, and the physical dispersal of students off campus to homes in other time zones, among many other factors. Taking this into account, 45 percent and 54 percent of respondents have taken steps to manage student equity issues arising from teaching synchronously and asynchronously, respectively. However, given the prominence of online teaching for the Fall academic term, it is concerning to note that roughly a quarter of respondents indicated they were aware of student equity issues but had not taken steps to address them while about 10 percent of respondents indicated they were unaware of potential equity issues for students.
Community and Connectedness Are Top Priorities for the Classroom but Training and Support Aren’t Measuring Up
Connecting with students and creating a sense of community is a top concern among respondents. Almost nine out of 10 (87 percent) rated the importance of fostering a sense of community among students as moderate to high, but almost six out of 10 (58 percent) rated students’ ability to stay connected with classmates in the last term as low or moderately low. This aligns with students’ own perceptions — according to Top Hat’s student survey, most students (86 percent) missed socializing with other students, and almost seven out of 10 (69 percent) said they no longer had regular access to peers3.
Given the importance of creating a sense of community in the classroom, it is noteworthy that 54 percent respondents have received little to no training on how to build connections with their students while 63 percent acknowledged a similar lack of support on how to build connections among students.
Rising to the Challenge of Fall 2020
Although the response has been less than perfect for many, concern for students has been a powerful motivator. As ever, higher ed instructors and instructional staff are rising to the challenge as they work to deliver meaningful learning experiences to their students against a backdrop of change and ongoing uncertainty. They are embracing technology and proven pedagogies like active learning, and have made human connection and community in the classroom top priorities. Doing this well in the Fall will be a test like no other — one that will no doubt shape the role of online teaching in higher education for years to come.
Survey responses were collected by Top Hat from 808 college and university faculty and instructional support staff in Canada and the United States between July 13 and 19, 2020. Demographic breakdowns are as follows:
4-year private: 30 percent
4-year public: 45 percent
2-year public: 25 percent
United States: 86 percent
Canada: 6 percent
Other: 8 percent
Adjunct or lecturer faculty: 31 percent
Tenure track faculty: 16 percent
Tenured faculty: 35 percent
Instructional designer / academic technologist: 2 percent
Faculty development staff: 2 percent
Other: 14 percent
About Top Hat
Top Hat is the only all-in-one courseware platform that enables active learning — a proven student-centred teaching pedagogy that promotes deep understanding, critical thinking, and subject mastery — with interactive content, tools, and activities. Millions of students at 750 leading North American colleges and universities use Top Hat to teach and engage with students before, during, and after class, in both in-person and online education.
1 Top Hat, “COVID-19 State of Flux: 3,089 College Students on their Plans for the Fall 2020 Semester,” (April, 2020). Retrieved August 1, 2020.