Creating positive learning environments that reflect best pedagogical practices is essential as students return to school during this COVID-19 pandemic. Though some have expressed concern over losing in-class time, online higher education has progressed since its early days with neuroscience showing the way.
Distance education is not a new concept, having evolved from correspondence courses through mail to online learning. It became well established in the mid-1980s, significantly changing higher education. Although distance education provides a flexible medium to advance one’s education, online classrooms “can seem like an artificial environment for students – one where reality simply does not exist.” For some students, distance-education course experience “amounts to sitting in front of a computer screen in solitude.” Online students can feel invisible, disconnected, isolated and disengaged.
This is in part because the brain is a “social organ” – social interactions and perceptions influence how students learn and react to their social learning milieu. Learning environments that evoke positive or negative emotions influence the perception of quality learning experiences. While negative emotions distract from learning, positive emotions facilitate learning. For instance, an educator’s enthusiasm, encouragement and expressed caring have positive influences on biological processes that facilitate learning.
COVID-19 has put evidence-based distance pedagogy to an extreme test. Many face-to-face instructors have been surprised to find themselves striving to create positive online environments amidst fear, anxiety and lack of technical resources for students. Instructors have had to take into account that it is challenging to learn when you are juggling children, illness, pets, techno stress and/or the general fear of the unknown. Striving for accessibility, many institutions have responded quickly in unprecedented ways, postponing or virtually monitoring learning assessments that traditionally had been done in face-to-face settings or adjusting what had been closed-book assessments into open-book exams. Institutions quickly undertook systems theory analyses to deal with changes in patterns of behaviour forced by COVID-19 and provide snapshots of how external variables were affecting universities and its online programs.
Learning environments must continue to evolve to reflect the needs of the 21st-century student and include evidence-based pedagogy to promote healthy learning neuroscience. Neurobiology and neuroscience studies suggest that as humans, we learn best in social environments. Therefore, in promoting healthy learning environments we must consider social learning milieus as supportive resources for learners. COVID-19 has magnified boredom, isolation and lack of motivation as barriers, further unmasking the limitations and challenges within distance learning and teaching as a whole.
To engage distance learners, online educators should utilize teaching techniques to “reduce the sense of remoteness.” Amidst this pandemic, it is clear educators must create online identities that facilitate positive environments and support both high-quality learning and perceptions of learning experiences through instructional strategies of building communities, encouraging participation, facilitating collaboration and modeling enthusiasm for supportive, caring interactions.
The needs of students have changed significantly over the past 50 years and with COVID-19, these needs have substantially changed once again and must be reflected within online pedagogical best practices.
Jose Esteves, who holds a PhD in software information systems, noted in a 2019 video that a digital revolution is just getting started with 30 billion devices connected to an Internet source and 2.5 billion people owning smart phones. With technology doubling every two years, distance education institutions are faced with constant curriculum and program updates.
Mobile learning is defined as “learning across multiple contexts through social and content interactions using personal electronic devices” using devices such as smartphones, personal digital assistants or tablets. With its focus on the mobility of the learner, it may be a remedy to some of the barriers now facing distance educational platforms. It is convenient for learners because of its accessibility and has been shown to encourage community building through almost instantaneous sharing of content among students and instructors and creating networks of friendly interaction.
Moving forward, a critical analysis should be a priority to determine the mobile friendliness of program learning systems. How many current programs are accessible through mobile devices? What system components do not translate well in the mobile environment? These are vital questions to address in the innovative and evolving nature of distance education.