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Get the Most Out of Digital Education

Interview with Dr. Regan Gurung on how online learning can be done well.

Regan Gurung, used with permission
Source: Regan Gurung, used with permission

Education systems across the globe are adapting to remote learning and digital platforms. Instructors and students alike are figuring out what it looks like to provide quality online learning. As summer courses continue and the first full semester of COVID-19 approaches this fall, here are some tips on engaging students and navigating e-learning.

Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D., is Interim Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, Director of General Psychology program, Professor School of Psychological Science, Oregon State University. He is a social psychologist working on Applied Cognition in the classroom. He is the recipient of the American Psychological Foundation Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. He is the author/co-author/editor/co-editor of An Evidence-Based Guide to College and University Teaching; Optimizing Teaching and Learning; Big Picture Pedagogy; Evidence-Based Teaching for Higher Education; Exploring Signature Pedagogies, Studying Like a Champion: Metacognition and Learning; Getting Culture: Incorporating Diversity Across the Curriculum. He is also the founding co-editor of Scholarship of teaching and learning in psychology.

JA: How would you personally define digital education?

RG: I see digital learning as any learning supported or conducted with the use of technology. This encompasses online or extended campus (Ecampus) classes, blended and hybrid learning, and face-to-face classes that utilize learning management systems such as Canvas or electronic collaborative tools such as Google Jamboard or Zoom. The learning may vary to the extent it is synchronous or asynchronous and the level of interaction between instructor and student, student and content, and between students.

JA: What are some ways digital education can help us become more resilient?

RG: One of the biggest ways that I see digital learning varying from traditional face to face learning is in the level of accountability on the student. In digital learning, the learning itself plays a significant and large role in their learning. They make the decision on which parts of the course or material to interact with, how much to connect, and eventually are in the position to influence how much they will learn. This takes more motivation than the traditional classroom where the synchronous meeting with an instructor force attention and the instructor often is more likely to increase accountability. Correspondingly, digital education forces resilience as it can be more challenging and often more time-consuming.

In many cases, a physical location (a classroom) and the physical presence of an instructor in front of you and classmates you can turn to and see, provide a sense of security and support that may not come naturally online, and is part of well-designed digital education. Students, again, become more resilient when they navigate an online environment where it is easy to feel more like you are on your own.

JA: What are some practices teachers can use to cultivate a productive digital learning environment during COVID-19?

RG: There are six key ways faculty can cultivate learning online.

  1. Be compassionate. Faculty sensitive to the challenges of academia and the stressors of the lives students lead in general modify courses to be careful of how much is being asked for students every week. They also communicate their care and concern for their students. They are kind, thoughtful, and even in the face of their own personal turbulences, care for their students’ well-being.
  2. Faculty need to be clear. Courses with clear expectations and detailed, well-structured, learning management system (LMS) content are easier to learn in.
  3. Organization is important. A well-organized instructor and class have always facilitated better learning. Paying close attention to the alignment of student learning outcomes to class activities and assessments stands to increase student motivation as their efforts are better justified.
  4. Multifaceted courses, which provide students with many ways to learn and to interact with the content, the instructor, and other students, tend to be easier to keep attention.
  5. With the many extra challenges faced by students and faculty alike, teachers need to be flexible. Successful instructors are more flexible on due dates, attendance, and how learning is demonstrated.
  6. Finally, instructors need to consider ways to build engagement. Faculty who pay close attention to students end up having students who were more engaged in the material.

JA: Any advice for how we might use tools from digital education to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation during COVID-19?

RG: I would guide a friend to the many resources provided in a special course designed for coping with the pandemic. In uncertain times like these, it’s normal to feel anxiety, stress, loneliness, and other feelings of isolation. Stress effects can be invisible and damaging even if we are not consciously aware of them. We are all concerned about the health and well-being of our families, friends, and the world. Experts in psychology will help you handle these feelings and learn ways to cope and communicate in “Punch Through Pandemics with Psychological Science.” Materials are free.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

RG: I enjoy having a good blend of active empirical research in progress as well as larger-scale writing projects. I am analyzing data on pandemic learning and teaching looking at what pedagogical techniques worked better than others and what individual differences and student behaviors predicted better learning outcomes. The data comes from over 600 students who took the course, Intro Psychology. Some fascinating results have shown how preferences for online learning and the extent to which instructors used synchronous versus asynchronous activities influenced learning and even general outlook on education. I am also finalizing a manuscript reporting on what near 1,000 instructors of Intro Psychology do in their classes and what works well.

From a writing standpoint, I am working on a student-focused book translating cognitive science into practical strategies that are actually tested and used by students. This is a lot of fun to write and I am working with John Dunlosky on this Study Like A Champion project due out early next year. I am also working on a book for faculty at primarily teaching institutions (with Pamela Ansburg of Metropolitan State in Denver and Mark Basham of Regis College), and a new take on Research Methods in Psychology.


Gurung, R.A.R. (2020). Pandemic teaching prescriptions. Inside Higher Ed.

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