Must Read Blog June 9, 2020

Beyond the Noise: Debriefing the Great Transition to Remote Learning

In this newsletter, Tyton Partners is pleased to share early insights from a national survey of faculty regarding the key challenges they and their students faced this spring as they undertook a rapid transition to remote learning. The preliminary findings paint a picture of a sometimes disorganized response to a pandemic that exacerbated underlying inequities in higher education. But they also point to a flexible professoriate readily adapting to change and keenly focused on its students’ best interests. This two-sided story is still playing out as plans and preparations are being made for the coming academic year.  We’ll be following up with faculty this summer and fall to tell their stories, listen to their challenges and to make sense of the long-term implications for institutional planning and teaching and learning.

We will be publishing a full report early next month in partnership with our colleagues at Digital Promise who have undertaken a student study of the remote learning transition.  In the meantime, we continue to maintain a list of supplier offers via our Summary of Higher Ed Suppliers’ Actions. Click here to access our index of higher education resources from 80+ suppliers being made available to institutions during the pandemic.

As you debrief the Great Transition and consider implications for the future, we’d love to hear from you.

Best Wishes,

Gates Bryant, Partner

Trace Urdan, Managing Director

Kristen Fox,  Director


The Great Transition to Remote Learning: Key Implications for Institutional Planning

This spring, higher education institutions engaged in a massive movement to remote learning that exposed a new cadre of faculty with no prior experience teaching online to the use of digital learning techniques. This transition left most with a more positive perception of online learning; however, the shift also exposed major challenges. These challenges include instructor and institutional readiness, consistency of experience, gaps in student access and readiness, and in institutions’ ability to fill in those gaps. This survey was conducted online between May 11-20, 2020 and targeted a nationally representative sample of full-time and part-time faculty at two and four-year institutions. Over 4,000 faculty who worked to transition a course from a pre-pandemic face-to-face or hybrid format to online graciously shared their thoughts.

Faculty reported engaging and motivating students as a top challenge

Of the 90% of faculty who noted that they transitioned a course, fewer than half had any prior experience teaching online. Across the board, faculty noted their biggest challenge was keeping students engaged and motivated to learn in a remote environment. Secondary challenges were related to the delivery and assessment of instruction (adjusting practice to teach online, transitioning content to a remote environment, providing support and remediation to students, and administering tests and exams). Faculty who taught for the first time online were almost two times more likely to note they were challenged to adopt their instructional practices to a remote environment and can benefit from additional resources and professional development.

Institutions, providers, and academic associations were key sources of faculty support

Seventy-five percent of faculty note that their institution was the most helpful use of support during the transition to remote. However, one quarter of faculty also noted that a digital tool or platform provider, LMS provider, or content provider was a helpful source of support – both in terms of providing free access and discounted services as well as guidance to support the transition. One-third of faculty say they adopted a free service as part of the transition, primarily from an existing partner or vendor; though half are undecided on whether they will continue to use that tool going forward in a paid scenario.

Faculty note serious and ongoing concerns about equity and access for their students

Not all populations could be equitably served in the transition to remote due to challenges including access. Many faculty noted these challenges for their students, noting “many of my students are low income (low equipment in the home, poor to no internet access) and many students tried to complete course requirements (such as watching [sic] podcasts, turning in workbook sheets, or composing English essays) using cellular phones.” These access issues, in addition to challenges with family and work responsibilities and financial and health concerns brought on by the pandemic, compromised student learning.

In addition, 50% of faculty reported they needed to adjust learning outcomes this spring, which means as students progress into their fall term courses from pre-requisite courses, additional remediation and support may be needed. This, coupled with the fact that fewer than 40% of introductory-level faculty believe that tutoring and supplemental instructional services were adequate post-transition, means remediation efforts need to be audited to ensure they are accessible for a remote or hybrid re-opening scenario in the fall.

Two-thirds of faculty were satisfied with student learning and most said they came away with a more favorable perception of online

45% of faculty said their perception about online learning has become more favorable since the start of COVID-19, whereas only 17% said it had become more negative. In their May assessment, two-thirds of faculty said they were satisfied with student learning.

Faculty, anxious about the fall, are gearing up to teach in online and in hybrid formats again

While most institutional leaders say they anticipate an on-campus fall, 90% of faculty are preparing for a reality that is not face-to-face. As they prepare for a fall that includes online instruction in some form, almost two-thirds of faculty are planning to supplement their core materials with digital tools to solve engagement, collaboration and assessment challenges. Additionally, faculty report they are seeking to build courses that can transition between different modalities. Faculty are generally anxious about the fall and are grasping for resources that can help them succeed.

Planning for fall

As institutions and providers work to ensure that teaching and learning can continue this fall, scaling professional development to enable faculty to teach online, to select and adopt effective tools, and developing longer term plans for building an efficient and effective digital learning infrastructure must be institutional priorities. As we continue to analyze this preliminary data and monitor continued activity and concerns moving forward, things we are exploring include.

  • How does support need to targeted to faculty by discipline, course level, and experience?
  • What institutional, course-level, and faculty-related factors are associated with faculty who report higher rates of student learning? How can we replicate and scale those?
  • How does the faculty perspective compare to the student perspective? Where is there faculty-student alignment or disconnect?

Have other questions about this work or comments about our findings?  We’d love to hear from you. Email us here.

Higher Education Transactions Increase in May

After greatly reduced activity in March and April, May saw a sharp increase in the size and quantity of investments. In terms of substance, the deals began to reflect the reality of the new COVID-impacted landscape. Notable were the $30 million investment in study tool provider Quizlet which hopes to fill some of the gaps in student experience as they work from home, and the $80 million acquisition of Entangled Solutions by Guild, which has pivoted in recession to guiding disenfranchised workers toward re-skilling education options. Another big winner was ApplyBoard, a Canadian-based student recruitment business, with a $75M raise that elevated its valuation to the $1 billion unicorn status. Also north of the border, Top Hat followed up its $55M February raise by putting its money to work purchasing its fellow Canadian publisher Nelson, the country’s largest postsecondary publisher.


Curated and Open Emergency Response Indexes

Supplier Offers

Institutional Remote Teaching Resources

Technology Access