Four Weeks In: 10 Lessons from Teaching Online at Duke Kunshan University

March 2020

At the end of January 2020, Duke Kunshan University became one of the first universities to make the decision to transition all classes to remote teaching and learning in the face of the growing threat of the COVID19 pandemic. Ithaka S+R produced a case study detailing the efforts of the collaboration between Duke Kunshan’s leadership, staff, faculty and teams at Duke (including Duke Learning Innovation) to move the university online in just 3 weeks. It has now been over a month since Duke Kunshan resumed teaching and learning activities February 24th. Leadership at Duke Kunshan recently shared a report summarizing student feedback and recommendations collected from a pre-survey on student online learning readiness, an end-of-session course evaluation survey, and individual communications with students. Here are 10 key points shared in the report that might resonate with all universities in the middle of transitions to remote teaching and learning:

1. Structure course materials within the Learning Management System in a logical way.

It is important to organize course materials on the Learning Management System (LMS) in a way that students can easily locate various course content, such as announcements, deadlines, meeting links and recordings, readings, assignments, discussion board, and external resources. It is equally important to identify and clarify communication channels that are used to inform students about availability of course materials at the very beginning of the class.

2. Keep the use of technology simple and accessible. Be flexible and offer alternatives when needed.

Limit the number of platforms/systems used for online courses and choose the ones that are easy, accessible and necessary. Alternatives should be provided to students who experience technical issues when using course-related platforms or tools. Students suggested that instructors share copies of articles instead of links for easy access, and create short clips of recordings or podcasts for easy streaming. Recordings of online meetings or mini-lectures organized by topics are helpful for students, especially those who cannot attend live sessions due to different time zones or other urgent commitments.

3. External learning resources can supplement online courses and address various learning needs.

Coursera provided emergency access to the full Coursera catalog of courses to Duke Kunshan (seeding an idea that they have now turned into a service helping many other universities impacted by COVID-19). Access to these courses and modules greatly enriched DKU courses. DKU students self-enrolled in Coursera courses they were interested in, and faculty also supplemented their courses with Coursera modules. Students also recommend using other external resources such as podcasts, adaptive eBooks, TED talks, and guest speeches to enrich their online learning.

4. Pre-class assignments motivate students to be prepared for online meetings.

Students reported that pre-class assignments such as quizzes, reading checklists and guiding questions motivated them to review previous course content, synthesize what they’ve learned and prepared them to contribute to synchronous and/or asynchronous discussions.

5. Synchronous sessions promote faculty-student and peer-to-peer interaction.

Students have a strong desire for interpersonal interactions to maintain and strengthen academic and social connections with peers and instructors. To alleviate the isolation and stress caused by the global crisis and increased workload, students would like to meet regularly with their instructor and peer students synchronously in the form of class meetings, small group discussions and live office hours.

6. Discussion boards offer an effective venue for students to exchange ideas and seek peer feedback asynchronously.

Students used discussion board features in the LMS, such as Sakai Forums, to engage with course materials, exchange opinions, and get peer feedback. For large classes, students can be divided into small groups to make online discussion more manageable. Have students take turns being the discussion leader, initiating and managing online discussions, to increase student ownership and engagement.

7. Provide clear guidance for collaborative learning activities to enhance student engagement.

Collaborative learning activities, in the form of group labs, team problem solving, group presentation, and in-class group writing, reinforce peer interaction and promote peer coaching. However, without clear guidance, such as structured peer evaluation and detailed rubrics, some students may work extremely hard, while some may take a “free ride” more easily in such a virtual learning environment. Instructors creating groups should also consider group size and time zones to maximize the ability for groups to connect.

8. Students would like to have more experiential learning activities to apply what they’ve learned in an authentic context.

To maintain experiential learning, a key feature of the Duke Kunshan curriculum, students requested more opportunities online such as: hands-on projects and experiments in applied and natural science courses; practice speaking with instructors and learning partners via Zoom in language courses; and writing policy memos or working through case studies in social science courses.

9. Foster an inclusive and supportive online learning community to ease student stress and anxiety.

Some students reported that they are more prone to confusion and frustration when learning independently online, and some feel uncomfortable or stressed with expressing their opinions in an online environment. Instructors can alleviate such anxiety by initiating bonding activities, meeting regularly with students in groups or individually, modeling desired online learning behaviors, setting discussion guidelines, and providing timely feedback, support and encouragement.

10. Care and encouragement from academic staff and peers promote and strengthen student motivation.

Faculty’s care and encouragement effectively motivate students. Sending an encouraging email, offering to help when students are struggling, or simply being flexible show students that you really care and want to help. Regular communications with faculty and peers prompt students to stay on track and foster a sense of community and strong bonding. Encouragement and support from other academic staff (e.g., TAs, tutors, advisors, and peer mentors) also helps. Instructors may encourage students to take advantage of other academic support (e.g., academic tutoring, academic advising, and Writing and Language Studio) offered by the university (which also transitioned to online services during remote learning).