Connection and Flexibility: Unexpected Benefits of Moving Class Online

Exploring the unanticipated benefits of remote learning across the Frontier Set


While the quick shift to remote learning forced by the COVID-19 pandemic certainly brought inequities and challenges to the forefront, Frontier Set sites also found advantages in this shift, including opportunities to strengthen students’ sense of belonging, and an increase in accessibility for students. Most institutions spent the early days of the pandemic building and launching training and tools for faculty and staff to effectively teach online, as well as programs that provided students with greater connection to staff and additional flexibility in coursework—both of which are positive changes for student success.

At some institutions, moving course content online gave professors more time to meet with students and meaningfully connect.

At Santa Fe College, the shift online accelerated the trend of practitioners spending less time lecturing live, and more time problem-solving with students; at CUNY College of Staten Island, the student success office facilitated that connection by providing resources to help faculty and students reconnect in a completely remove learning environment, and help students develop and maintain a sense of security and belonging. These benefits didn’t stop in the virtual classroom: Wake Technical Community College established virtual advising as the norm, which expanded flexibility and access for students who even before the pandemic may not have been able to come to campus outside class time.

Remote learning also allowed Frontier Set members to innovate on new flexible practices that may not have otherwise been implemented, to meet various student needs. For example, Fayetteville State University pivoted to allow students to withdraw from classes without affecting the number of allowable withdrawals while at the university. At CUNY College of Staten Island, a special COVID-19 grading policy allowed students who took classes during the Spring and Fall 2020 semesters to convert letter grades to credit/no credit grading. At New Jersey City University, the mathematics department opened its summer bridge program to any student who had been unsuccessful in a developmental mathematics course. Santa Fe College realized that “with less focus on attendance, we are getting closer to recognizing more basic needs for flexibility among all students, which will further the equity goal of meeting students where they are.”

Students at Frontier Set institutions come from a range of backgrounds, and the shift online made inequities such as access to technology more apparent than ever before. Institutions had to pivot quickly to address issues around lack of access, often by providing devices and hotspots to students and turning parking lots into Wi-Fi zones. At Jackson State University, each instructor created a detailed plan to address issues including student access to the internet and technology, plus plans for thoughtful communications with students in order to address their unique scenarios.

In addition to advantages in online learning for students, the pandemic has allowed for more flexibility and access to other institutional services such as student services and advising.

University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley noted that students need more support now than ever before, and have extended resources to offer advising and career guidance in this online environment. As another example, Delaware State University developed remote procedures “to continue to engage with students to provide advising for registration, course withdrawals, and student support services, such as access to supplemental instruction and 24/7 tutorial services.”

As Frontier Set institutions continue to grow their remote offerings, the quick pivots and innovations made on campuses continue to show benefits to students. The focus on student and staff connections, flexibility in coursework, and increasing equity will continue to be top-of-mind for institutions as they take learnings from this current moment and implement them into their practices for years to come.