Finding Windows for Student Online Learning Experiences

An educator considers post-pandemic online learning—and lessons learned.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jessica Sain

As a STEM educator, I cringed as I watched hands-on activities in K-12 STEM education dissipate in the virtual shift elicited by the COVID-19 pandemic. As an education researcher, it only felt natural to look at ways to improve the current, at the time, situation.

Were hands-on activities realistic for the time being?

Could teachers attempt anything that resembled a STEM lesson when their students weren’t guaranteed to have internet?

Did students even have access to materials, or interest, in hands-on activities with everything swirling around them?

To get answers promptly, I started interviewing teachers attempting design-based learning, a hands-on approach to STEM, in virtual or blended elementary classrooms. Across interviews, all teachers alluded to almost all the same barriers, and one stuck out to me: a lack of control in a virtual setting. 

‘Across interviews, all teachers alluded to almost all the same barriers, and one stuck out to me: a lack of control in a virtual setting.’

Where is the gap? 

What happens when students across K-12 are set loose to complete assignments or research on their devices? As the interviews uncovered, teachers view the lack of control during students’ online activity as a significant barrier. Without a way to monitor or help during students’ online assignments, the only way teachers can assume what is occurring while students are online is in the final product.

Teachers need a window to students’ online experiences and research practices, allowing for intervention when needed. Without this window, teachers cannot see where to improve their instruction in guiding students to the correct sources with research skills, and they cannot see where students may be straying from the course. While many students intentionally travel beyond the scope of their assignments online, it is possible that many also get lost in the amount of information available to them, which is hazardous itself.

As we pick up the pieces and continue to reassemble following the shockwave COVID-19 unleashed on education, many digital tools were created or enhanced during the immediate shift to virtual learning that will remain. More Learning Management Systems and stand-alone apps surfaced to address this virtual shift.

Among these new or enhanced tools, how could we not have something available to help teachers view students’ online learning experiences while they are working?

With the prominence of researching online even before the pandemic, how do we not have a way to navigate this when we hand off the baton to students? Spoiler alert: it is out there; many just aren’t aware of it yet.

How do we address it?

Teachers may already have access to students’ online data through monitoring software and Learning Management Systems depending on their capabilities, but it isn’t always presented in a digestible format or intended for instructional purposes.

This data, known as online learner analytics, gives teachers a front-row seat to students’ digital trails.

Online learner analytics produces a substantial amount of valuable data, but teachers are likely to be overwhelmed by the presentation of the data, and how it can be used to teach research skills. In its raw format, learner analytics is a data dump, but making sense of this data across K-12 classrooms provides teachers with an opportunity to guide their instruction and promote self-reflection among their students.    

Learner analytics in action 

With the need for online learner analytics in a reasonable format for oversubscribed teachers, there are emerging tools allowing teachers to digest learner analytics without having to sort through and make sense of the raw data.

While monitoring software has been around for years, there are now companies piloting programs to provide teachers with online learner analytics inclusive of URLs visited and time spent on each URL for instructional versus monitoring purposes. These online learner analytics provide teachers with a snapshot of how students are spending their time online and what sources they are using to complete an assignment.

Teachers can use these innovative windows into their students’ online experiences to intervene, facilitate dialogue with their students, or prompt peer-to-peer discussions on their online research. Online learner analytics also provides a platform for teachers to address research skills with their students which are essential for the new digital age.

For students, this opens a door for metacognition when reflecting on their learner analytics and touches on many pieces of social and emotional learning, which many states across the nation are embedding within their curricula. 

The education community heard a call to action and is actively working to fill the gap teachers expressed in supporting their students during their online experiences.

We must continue to identify these gaps, find a solution, and refine the products to better serve our teachers and students who will continue to experience education in virtual formats, whether at home or in school.

Jessica Sain is a postdoctoral research fellow through the National Science Foundation (NSF) SBIR Innovative Postdoctoral Entrepreneurial Research Fellowship working with Learnics, a company specializing in Learner Analytics for a K-12 audience. Dr. Sain has an M.A. in Elementary Education and Ph.D. in Integrative STEM Education from Virginia Tech. Connect on LinkedIn


    Leave a Comment

    %d bloggers like this: