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Using Technology to Teach in the COVID-19 Era: Some Considerations

20 May 2020 3:06 PM | Deleted user

By Richard J. Harnish, Ph.D., Penn State University, New Kensington Campus

Beginning in the 1970s with the use of televisions in the classroom to the video teleconferencing of today (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams), computer technologies have impacted how students learn and how instructors teach. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the widespread use of computer technologies to deliver instruction is unprecedented. Thus, the purpose of this blog post is to briefly discuss various challenges associated with using computer technologies to deliver course instruction.

Although there are different ways of thinking about and classifying the challenges instructors face when using computer technologies to deliver course instruction, I find it useful to classify them into three broad categories: physical, environmental, and psychological. Physical challenges are issues related to the learner’s physical and learning disabilities that may impede the use of technology. Environmental challenges are those pertaining to the richness of resources available to the learner. Psychological challenges are those issues associated with the learner’s attitudes and motivation to use such technology. Each of these challenges are discussed briefly below.

Physical Challenges: Physical and Learning Disabilities

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2017), approximately 19% of undergraduate students reported having a physical or learning disability. Physical disabilities affect a student’s motor control (e.g., Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, Arthritis). Given that discussion boards are frequently used to engage students in online course material, students with physical disabilities will require more time to post comments and may post less often or have shorter posts due to the fatigue experienced while typing. Other students with physical disabilities may not be physically able to type, and may dictate into a voice-recognition program. If the voice-recognition program is not compatible with the learning platform, comments will not be posted (Knopf et al., 2018).

Students with vision impairment or loss may use a screen reader to access the text that is displayed on a computer screen. This is done by various computer programs that convert text into speech (using a speech synthesizer) or into braille. Some screen readers are free (e.g., NVDA, Serotek System Access, Apple VoiceOver), while other screen readers charge a licensing fee (e.g., JAWS). Those with less severe vision impairment may use magnifiers, or digital screen protection glasses to reduce digital eye strain. Regardless of the tool used, it will take longer for students with vision impairment or vision loss to access, read, and respond to course material.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may have found the transition from resident instruction to online instruction to be particularly challenging because many deaf or hard of hearing students rely on an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter to understand speech and to communicate with others in the class. Online lectures can be especially challenging if the lecture format is an instructor’s preferred method of transferring knowledge (i.e., “sage on stage”). Providing key points to lectures or lecture notes prior to class is a simple accommodation that instructors can make. Although some students may use hearing aid compatible, computer-assisted note taking, all media used in the course should be closed captioned. 

Students who have learning disabilities (e.g., Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Dyslexia) may have difficulty comprehending concepts explained in lectures and applied in assignments. Providing instruction in a multi-modal way (e.g., providing printed text, visual aids with lecture, videos, simulations) may meet the needs of these learners. Instructors should be flexible in their method of assessment by offering alternatives (e.g., performance, project, application) to traditional multiple choice or essay exams. Additionally, instructors should permit the use of assistive technologies like speech recognition, offer extended time for exams, and provide an alternative exam location that is monitored, quiet, and distraction-free (Orr & Bachman Hamming, 2009). Finally, the instructor should ensure that the course is highly structured and organized (Knopf et al., 2018).

Environmental Challenges: Low Resource Environments

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the digital divide more pronounced as instruction has moved online. The digital divide, however, is not a single gap which divides a society (Gorski, 2005); rather the divide is comprised of multiple gaps ranging from computer ownership, lower-quality connections (narrowband vs. broadband), disparity in cost for connections, difficulty of obtaining technical assistance, and lower access to subscription-based contents. Essentially, if students do not have Internet access, they are cutoff from course instruction and content. Universities have acknowledged as much when they set up free Wi-Fi “hot spots” in parking lots and garages to allow students to practice social distancing while accessing the Internet. However, this approach assumes that students own or have access to a car.

One potential solution to gaining Internet access is through the use of mobile technology. The Pew Research Center (2019) reported that 37% of Americans access the Internet using a smartphone because they do not have broadband access at home. Indeed, college-age students, as compared to other age groups, were more likely to report using their smartphones to access the Internet. However, the use of smartphones to access course materials has its own challenges. Some of these challenges involve the ease of navigating the university’s learning management system (LMS), the ease of reading text or accessing media via the smartphone, and the ease to which students can submit assignments, post on discussion boards, or complete exams (Christopherson, 2018).

Psychological Challenges: The Learner’s Attitudes and Motivation

Even in resident instruction courses, students fail to engage with course materials; some do not read the textbook, do not take notes, skip lectures, or fail to complete assignments. Engaging in course content can be more challenging in online courses where personal attention can be difficult for students to obtain and for instructors to provide. Many LMSs can provide students with immediate feedback through the use of low-stakes quizzes or practice quizzes. Instructors also can facilitate engagement with course content by providing students multiple attempts on assignments (Miller, 2014).

Discussion boards are a popular method for engaging students. However, research has shown that students can become bored, inattentive, frustrated, or feel isolated when discussion boards are used (Du & Xu, 2010). Perhaps as a result, their posts tend to contain basic facts rather than insight (Morrison et al., 2012). To engage students in discussion boards, one alternative to text-based replies is for students to reply using video. Students need to understand that their posts and replies are expected to be substantive and, at all times, they use good netiquette. Instructors can make their presence known by making weekly announcements (these can be videotaped as well as provided in text form), provide commentaries on class performance, and monitor student participation.

I hope the challenges and potential solutions I have identified and discussed will be helpful to your teaching. For a more detailed discussion of these topics, please see the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s eBook, The Use of Technology in Teaching and Learning.


Christopherson, K. M. (2018). Going mobile in the college classroom. In R. J. Harnish, K. R. Bridges, D. N. Sattler, M. L. Signorella, & M. Munson (Eds.). The Use of Technology in Teaching and Learning. Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Du, J., & Xu, J. (2010). The quality of online discussion reported by graduate students. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 11(1), 13-24.

Gorski, P. (2005). Education Equity and the Digital Divide. AACE Journal, 13(1), 3-45.

Knopf, A. H., Knopf, E. K., Anderson, S. G., & Waranka, W. J. (2018). Designing inclusive online environments for students with disabilities. In R. J. Harnish, K. R. Bridges, D. N. Sattler, M. L. Signorella, & M. Munson (Eds.). The Use of Technology in Teaching and Learning. Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Morrison, J. R., Watson, G. S., & Morrison, G. R. (2012). Comparison of restricted and traditional discussion boards on student critical thinking. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 13(3), 167-176.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). Digest of education statistics: 2017. Chapter 3: Postsecondary education.

Orr, A. C., & Bachman Hamming, S. (2009). Inclusive postsecondary strategies for teaching students with learning disabilities: A review of the literature. Learning Disability Quarterly, 32, 181-196.

Pew Research Center (2019, June 13). Mobile technology and home broadband 2019.

Author Bio:

Richard J. Harnish is Professor of Psychology at Penn State University, New Kensington Campus, where he has taught since 2003. His scholarship includes research on maladaptive purchasing behavior, volunteerism and the scholarship of teaching and learning. He is a Fellow of the Eastern Psychological Association and is the special issues editor for Psychology & Marketing. He was an associate editor for The Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s eBook series and serves as a reviewer for The Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Project Syllabus. Prior to joining Penn State, he worked in marketing and advertising for 13 years with his last position being director of research for a large advertising agency with offices in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Washington DC.

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