The Uneven Impact of Remote Learning

 

By Robin Migdol  |  Illustration by Jeannie Phan

 

Among the classes in UCLA’s vast course catalog, “Health Disparities and the Environment” might not stand out, but undergraduates who enroll in it have a remarkable opportunity: They get to do research under the guidance of senior faculty in the ecology and evolutionary biology department.

A yearlong research course series with biology professor Paul Barber, the class is geared toward sophomore pre-med students from underrepresented groups to support their success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors and maintain their path to medical school.

When UCLA transitioned to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Barber and his students were faced with a question: How do we continue the research component of the class?

They had been preparing to research food-insecure communities of color in Los Angeles by interviewing people fishing at local piers and testing fish samples for chemical and microbial contaminants. But with the rise of COVID-19 and UCLA’s switch to remote learning, interviewing people in the community became impossible.

The students could easily have put all their research projects on hold until they could return to campus. Instead, they embarked on a new project to research disparities in how they and their peers were adjusting to remote learning.

RESEARCH IN REAL TIME

“The students decided they wanted to develop a survey to under-stand the experiences of UCLA students during remote instruction and try to understand whether the challenges that they were facing were unique to them,” Barber said.

Soon after UCLA had transitioned to remote learning, the campus launched several initiatives to help students. The Bruin Tech Grant provided laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots and tablets to students who needed them. The Administrative Vice Chancellor, UCLA Student Affairs and UCLA Library also published guides to help students stay organized, access digital resources, and manage their health and wellness.

Yet despite UCLA’s efforts to support students as they began learning remotely, the students in Barber’s class knew there were gaps in how they and their peers were managing.

“Our students realized that the experience they were having with remote learning was not necessarily the same experience that other students were having,” said Barber, who also directs the Undergraduate Research Center’s Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences (PEERS).

With the support of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Center for Educational Assessment, the Academic Advancement Program, the registrar’s office, and then-Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Patricia Turner, the students created a survey that was distributed to a random sampling of 20% of the undergraduate student body.

The survey included questions about student satisfaction with remote learning, technological barriers, ability to focus, student time demands, living situation, added responsibilities, financial issues, food insecurity and other COVID-19 related obstacles. The results showed that first-generation students and students from underrepresented communities, as well as STEM students, found the transition to remote learning more difficult than other students.

“One staggering statistic found was that technology limited the ability to engage in remote instruction for 42% of first-generation and 36.6% of underrepresented minority students,” said Jennifer Navarez, one of the student researchers who is now a senior majoring in human biology and society. “In addition, STEM students were less satisfied than non-STEM students with remote instruction.”

Student researcher and junior psychobiology major Alison Menjivar said, “All three groups experienced technological challenges such as Wi-Fi problems because they didn’t really have any access to a computer at home; they always relied on the technology at school. And then, this probably interfered with their participation in the classroom. So some people might not have been able to participate in discussions or attend lectures.”

INSIGHTS INFLUENCING CHANGE

Barber and the students organized their data in a report that was shared with Turner and others in the UCLA administration, including the Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT) and the COVID-19 continuity task force. Barber said there was “tremendous” interest in the survey’s findings, and while the campus had already enacted initiatives to support students during the pandemic, simply raising awareness of students’ experiences made a difference.

“Just by understanding the challenges students are facing, it increases faculty empathy for what students are going through,” Barber said. “Having that data and seeing the results is quite sobering. It’s made me think a lot more about the welfare of my students, and I checked in with them more to see how they’re doing.”

Marc Levis-Fitzgerald, director of CAT’s Center for Educational Assessment, said for him the report’s most important takeaway is that challenges faced by underrepresented and first-generation students are the result of disparities that existed long before remote learning began.

“Given that feedback from quarterly surveys of our students during COVID remote learning was generally positive, minus challenges with feeling a sense of community, this deeper look at different groups was enlightening,” he said.

The resulting paper was accepted for publication in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. Levis-Fitzgerald pointed out that completing and publishing a research paper in less than a year is a rare achievement, especially for undergraduates.

Doing research about their own challenges, then presenting that research to campus leaders who have the power to positively influence the students themselves, was a significant opportunity, Barber and the students said.

“I think the most significant outcome of this paper is that it will be used to influence change at UCLA and help assist professors in making equity-minded decisions to support all UCLA students,” Navarez said.

 

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Photo of students on a study abroad program in Scotland.

Early graduation within reach for most bruins

 

Photo of students on a study abroad program in Scotland.

Students on a study abroad program in Scotland. Photo Credit: Michael Le

To her surprise, Qiyuan (Grace) Miao realized during her sophomore year that she could graduate a year early, allowing her to begin graduate school ahead of schedule.

Miao is one of many Bruins who choose to complete their undergraduate degrees in less than the traditional four years. Although on different academic paths, these students all share a common message: With good planning and by taking advantage of UCLA programs designed to reduce time to degree, almost anyone can graduate early.

Miao, who graduated in June, pointed to several opportunities at UCLA that enabled her to get ahead on her coursework and finish her communication degree in three years while still enjoying a full undergraduate experience.

Opportunities start freshman year

UCLA offers two intensive programs to introduce incoming students to campus and academic life: the Freshman Transfer Summer Program in the Academic Advancement Program, for students from underrepresented populations, and the College Summer Institute (CSI). Students in both programs take courses that fulfill graduation requirements, giving them a head start before their first fall quarter even begins.

CSI is where Miao first met with Brian Henry, an academic adviser who helped her map out her academic path — something all undergraduates are encouraged to do at least once a year. In advising sessions, students discuss their academic, personal and career goals and learn about opportunities to enrich their university experience. Academic counselors can also advise students on effective ways to maximize their time to degree if their goal is to graduate early.

Another way Miao optimized her time at UCLA was by taking a Freshman Cluster course, “Frontiers of Aging.” These are year-long general education courses offered on topics such as “Evolution of the Cosmos and Life” and “History of Modern Thought.” Each cluster, over the course of a year, satisfies four general education requirements and the Writing II requirement.

“Clusters are a great way to fulfill a lot of requirements very quickly,” Miao said.

UC’s study-abroad intensives

Graduating early doesn’t require students to sacrifice meaningful experiences outside of the classroom.  Michael Le, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience in winter 2019, one quarter early, was still able to study abroad one summer at the University of Glasgow, where UC offers an intensive three-course physics program over two months.

“I completed all three courses in a mere eight weeks, something that would [normally] take 30 weeks,” Le said. “This is an excellent way to get your study abroad ‘fix’ in and be efficient with course planning.”

Shrey Kakkar, a junior majoring in computer science, is on track to graduate one or two quarters early and said many of his peers could do the same, even in a demanding major like computer science. He credits his fast track to his commitment to enroll in four classes every quarter, plus one summer class.  And he still has had time for other activities such as doing research and working for a startup.

Fitting more into four years

Graduating early isn’t every student’s goal. For some, like Mac Casey, maximizing time to degree meant packing a lot into the traditional four years: He was in the rigorous College Honors program, studied abroad for a year, and graduated in 2016 with degrees in both political science and business economics.

“The faculty at UCLA are excellent, and I loved taking courses – the more courses the better,” Casey said. “I really wanted to learn as much as I could and interact with great faculty and researchers.”

Casey said that accomplishing so much in four years is not out of reach for most students. By choosing courses strategically and enlisting the expertise of his honors academic counselor, he was able to complete all his major requirements and stay on track.

Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Patricia Turner said that although UCLA already does an excellent job of graduating students in a timely manner, she will continue to work with her faculty colleagues to develop new opportunities to allow students to graduate on time or early while still having a personalized, fully engaged undergraduate experience.

“A student’s undergraduate years are the perfect time to discover what they’re most passionate about,” Turner said. “Students who take advantage of credit-earning opportunities such as service learning, civic engagement and entrepreneurship often find themselves on career paths they otherwise might not have discovered. And because of the way these programs are designed, students can still graduate in four years or less.”