Surviving and Thriving in a COVID-19 Remote Learning Context: A Survey of Post-Secondary Students and Instructors in Ontario

CHASI Faculty Associate Dr. Karun Karki recently completed a report on remote learning in Ontario during COVID-19, which was funded by eCampusOnatio, and has generously agreed to share the widely applicable findings with us. His co-authors for the report are Anna Markov, MSW; Rachel Yavnai, MSW; Ginette Lafrenière, MA, MSW, PhD; and Michael Woodford, MSW, PhD, all from the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work, Wilfrid Laurier University.

The post-secondary learning landscape was irrevocably altered in March 2020, resulting in swift changes to the way post-secondary classes and services were delivered throughout Ontario. In this report, we have unearthed many important factors students and instructors identified as helping and hindering their educational progress during the shift, and recommended key areas for wraparound support strategies. Through person-centered, technology-enabled solutions, we have proposed recommendations for students and instructors to best navigate the current remote learning reality and ways to sustain momentum in a post-pandemic environment.

Photo of a young person sitting at their open laptop, studying a book with a pen resting on their keyboard.

A total of 793 participants (611students and 182 instructors) from across Ontario participated in the study, providing their perspectives on the current remote post-secondary educational landscape. Findings from this research shone a spotlight on the teaching and learning opportunities created for both instructors and students, as well as the challenges and needs experienced in the transition to remote learning. The report findings identified important factors that impact students’ experience as online learners, including academic factors (i.e., aspects related to course design; instructor-specific factors; class engagement; concerns regarding the perceived quality of learning; interest in the course; opportunities for skill development) and non-academic factors (i.e., difficulties learning from home; impacts on mental health and wellbeing; flexibility, independence, and access to learning; comfort and convenience of learning from home; opportunities to connect with peers; use of student supports/institutional resources; feedback solicitation).

Overall, the findings suggest that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning online. Learning is a textured experience between student and educator. College and university administrators and instructors should not be the only stakeholders meaningfully responding to heterogenous student needs; other institution stakeholders must also be responsive, such as campus service providers, peer mentors, student experience coordinators, and community connectors. According to our findings, while students overwhelmingly felt supported and engaged by their instructors, there is room for a holistic and coordinated approach to remote teaching and learning. With the help of the provincial government, policymakers, students, and staff, an environment can be created to foster academic success. Students are needed in key stakeholder roles to infuse their expertise into the development and sustainability of supportive educational measures. They must be thought of not just as consumers in the educational system, but stakeholders that shape the ongoing evolution of the post-secondary experience.

Additionally, equitable resource allocation amongst instructors must be a priority in order to deliver high-quality, responsive, and engaging remote education for post-secondary students. The findings also revealed the inherent strengths in remote teaching and learning that were not initially evident. Neurodivergent, mature, and other equity-seeking students identified helpful aspects of online learning that in-person learning did not provide, thus highlighting opportunities for growth in all areas of education. Furthermore, findings suggest that students and instructors value academic factors differently, which can be seen in the discrepancy of survey respondents; while students and instructors agree that interest in the course and course design are important factors in a student’s online learning experience, they disagreed on factors such as classroom environment and available supports for students. Discrepancies such as this are useful in understanding how to best allocate time and resources in online teaching and what instructors can prioritize for an optimal remote classroom. From these findings, we have conceptualized the following recommendations:

  1. Enhanced institutional and departmental supports for instructors.
  2. Flexible, engaging, realistic, and student-centered instructional and course design.
  3. An infusion of an equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) lens into the requirements and practices of remote learning and teaching.
  4. Coordinated, accessible, wraparound student-centered supports and services.
  5. Enhanced investments in student experience, community building, and peer-to-peer programming.
  6. Development of practice guidelines, best practices, and evaluation and quality assurance mechanisms for remote course delivery.
  7. Continued creation of knowledge, collaboration, and information sharing of best practices in online education.

The information presented in this report suggests that post-secondary institutions, academics, researchers, policymakers, and our provincial government have an important role to play in enhancing post-secondary student’s remote learning experiences. We are acutely aware that this will not be an easy feat, given the financial constraints created by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, if we do not prioritize resource allocation for the enhancements discussed by instructors and learners in this report, then the post-secondary education system in Ontario cannot thrive. Investments in enhancing and responding to remote student needs will, no doubt, lead to long-term societal gains for Ontario’s socio-economic and cultural expansion post-pandemic. As such, it is important to prioritize creative remote learning initiatives and embrace best practices to continue building an innovative educational environment for all Ontario postsecondary students.