The emergency shift to remote learning that took place during the spring 2020 term in response to the COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented disruptions for students and faculty across colleges and universities, nationwide, and globally. As online and hybrid models of learning become prolonged solutions for institutions seeking to contend with the realities and continued uncertainties of the pandemic, the field can gain valuable and actionable insights from the lived experiences of students and faculty at the height of the crisis. In our new report, Student and Faculty Experiences with Emergency Remote Learning in Spring 2020: Insights from a Small Exploratory Study, we present findings and recommendations gleaned from a small exploratory qualitative study conducted shortly after the conclusion of the spring 2020 term, which aimed to understand how select undergraduate students and faculty experienced the shift to emergency remote learning at a large, multi-campus, and diverse higher education system in an urban, metropolitan city in the US. The report also includes the voices of the study participants, including their responses as transcribed during our data collection.

Overall, our study confirmed and provided additional nuance to the patterns of findings found in other studies on this particular issue and circumstance. Based on a total of 18 virtual focus group discussions conducted with 46 students and 37 faculty members at the participating institutions within the system under study, we found that students’ and faculty’s insights and experiences constellated around a number of common overarching themes. Both groups reported a wide range of experiences with their transition, positive and negative, with clear insights about contributing factors. Many lamented the transactional nature of the online platforms and models that left little room for spontaneous and organic learning, worried that student learning had been compromised—especially in courses that require hands-on labs and practicum, and yearned for compatible technologies to support teaching and learning in a more integrated and organized fashion. Both groups looked to the institution for support in navigating the new technological challenges and emotional demands brought about by the pandemic and the coinciding racial justice movement, and many wished for more robust and accessible support services at the height of the crisis.

Both groups also faced their own unique sets of challenges. For instance, students across the board voiced a desire for more consistency and flexibility around course expectations and requirements to help them meet their learning goals while dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. Faculty, on the other hand, constantly weighed flexibility against academic rigor in their course design, with no reliable way to know if they struck the right balance. Many students reported that their ability to work with peers, connect deeply with faculty, and feel a sense of belonging in the campus community suffered greatly during the spring term. They were keenly aware of the impact on their well-being, engagement, and overall learning. Faculty members in our study remained highly engaged, and in fact leaned into the pronounced increase in their workload during the spring term, reporting herculean efforts to quickly acclimate to online instruction and support students as well as colleagues through the transition. Though faculty members acknowledged this level of effort was unsustainable, they also gained valuable lessons and practices from this work.

We end the report with recommendations for the field, and, despite the challenges reported by our participants, a positive outlook on the potential of online learning to offer more flexible and equitable educational options for many students both throughout and beyond the pandemic, if designed thoughtfully and strategically. The disruptions caused by the pandemic have illuminated, and further exacerbated, the inequities in education both in terms of access and success. As the field continues to grapple with this new challenge, and invent (and re-invent) systems and processes, iterative evaluations that continually document learnings and glean actionable insights—including those gleaned from students and faculty on the frontlines, will be integral in helping us navigate this uncharted territory.