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May 01, 2020

Justin Nolan on How Educators Can Improve Students' Learning During COVID-19



In the last several months, COVID-19 has shut businesses, closed borders, and uprooted our daily lives. As the virus continues to destroy our sense of normalcy, one thing seems certain: everything is changing, and the education sector is not exempt.



With schools and universities closing their doors amidst escalating lockdown laws, the future of formal education feels incredibly uncertain. Denied the luxury of physical spaces and traditional classroom setups, many institutions (from grade schools to grad programs) have shifted to fully online models.

In many ways, interactive technology has stepped in to bridge the gap. Open online course platforms, self-directed learning content, mobile reading applications, and collaborative platforms like Zoom and Skype (News - Alert) have each played a role in this new experimental realm. However, these new models and cutting-edge resources come with their own distinct challenges. Amidst the total uncertainty of a global pandemic, many of today’s students are also faced with the burdensome challenge of learning how to navigate new learning structures, often with little help.

Now more than ever, the educator’s role is essential. As we move forward in this uncharted digital landscape, educators like Justin Nolan, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthology at the University of Arkansas, seek novel ways to help students overcome hurdles and anxieties in order to improve their learning experience overall during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Redefine the Educator’s Role

In the days of the great philosophers, educators were understood as knowledge-holders who worked to impart wisdom on their pupils. In this way, education was viewed much like a transaction. If knowledge and information are power, educators existed to transfer that power to the next generation.

These days however, it is generally understood that educators are no longer mere gatekeepers of knowledge. Instead, they must become facilitators and enablers of the learning process more generally. With a world of information readily available at the click of a mouse, the educator’s role has transformed drastically in the 21st century. Guiding students with tools needed to identify and access academic sources and citations for their own research projects, for example, is one area where entry-level instructors may wish to intensify their efforts.

This distinction has become especially apparent amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, where distance learning platforms have quickly become the new norm. To best serve their students, Justin Nolan believes educators must be prepared to completely redefine their roles and responsibilities.

In place of long lectures, today’s students need learning experiences that encourage adaption and curiosity. In lieu of delivering pure facts, educators are tasked with the challenge of counselling students as they mature in a way that drives them to seek understanding as they progress.

Invest in Student-Educator Relationships

Because teaching requires trust, relationships between educators and students have always been a foundational element to student success and engagement. Unfortunately, the digital models brought on by COVID-19 have made building and maintaining these connections harder than it ever has been—arguably when students need it most.

That said, Justin Nolan asserts that now is not the time to be concerned about over-communication. Alongside formal grading, assignment sheets, and homework, he recommends that educators reach out to students directly through more informal mediums. A quick video catchup, podcast update, or message check-in can go a long way in motivating discouraged students and fostering a healthy learning environment.

Practice Transparency

The present circumstances are having drastic impacts on everyone’s lives. Saddled with navigating new learning models, students are often left feeling confused and overwhelmed. Unfortunately, there is nothing that educators can do to wholly resolve those challenges for pupils. They can, however, be open and transparent with students about their own disruptions to facilitate a transparent and open learning community. 

The fact of the matter is that teachers are also struggling to adapt. Being transparent about hiccups and openly sharing experiences and frustrations will convey to students that you are all in this together, ultimately creating a stronger sense of community. Justin Nolan believes these measures will not only soften frustrations, but also motivate students to keep moving forward despite any emerging barriers.

Check-in sessions, individual catchups, or ongoing discussion boards may prove valuable as resources for extending and advancing these conversations.

Make Course Content Topical

With a global crisis demanding much of our attention, it can be difficult to focus on matters that do not relate directly to the pandemic itself.  If course material is divorced entirely from current affairs, students will be far more likely to become disengaged.

Instead, Justin Nolan recommends that educators adapt their curriculum to connect directly to COVID-19 and current news stories. Beyond facilitating healthy discussions that may help students process the world around them, this tactic is also proven effective in keeping students engaged and involved with the course material.

Embrace Collaboration

COVID-19 forced schools and universities to convert to e-learning in the middle of the semester—a feat which many educators struggled to achieve. Among many new challenges, the switch to online learning platforms required educators to quickly translate their teaching materials into easily sharable digital formats. While converting content to suit new platforms was initially stressful and labor-intensive, it is likely to prove beneficial in the long run—perhaps even long after the pandemic subsides.

In short, Justin Nolan highlights that the mass digital conversion of these education resources has opened the doors for increased teacher collaboration. While there always has been a culture of collaboration among communities of educators, the content shared is now better curated and more widely used than ever before.

The challenges presented by distance learning may be less than ideal, but they also present the possibility for transformative positive changes in the field of education. As these trends towards resource pooling continue, Justin Nolan recommends that teachers seize the opportunity to share their materials and lighten each other’s loads. When educators work strategically and collaboratively together, it is often the students who will benefit the most.



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