Parenting Online Remote Students When You’re a Leader in Online Learning– Adventures from Spring 20

Published by Joana Jebsen
on Jul 01, 2020

Parent Log:

April 6

“It is Day Eternity in quarantine and I have lost my mind.”

So responds one of my college-aged daughters to my question inquiring about her online classes. She elaborates, “I’m extremely upset that three of my classes no longer meet on Zoom because that has limited my interpersonal actions to just my family members and I’m slowly losing my mind.”

Full disclosure: My question was not motivated purely by parental interest. I was conducting informal market research on behalf of my firm, O’Donnell Learn (ODL) a leader in learning design for Higher Ed with expertise in creating optimal online learning experiences. Tapping into our large network of college students for polling, my kids included, helps us know what it’s like for them during the COVID-19 crisis.

At ODL, we believe in purposeful design, a whole people-centric journey around building courses that easily takes 12 – 16 weeks to accomplish. My hat goes off to the professors tasked with getting online in a much shorter time frame. And it’s no surprise that the remote learning experience of Spring 2020 bears little resemblance to the online degrees adult learners willingly sign up for.


March 20

Our empty nester house is filled with three college age students, my two daughters returning from their respective universities and my nephew escaping NYC. And by filled, I mean the entire house is now a dorm.

My work life is already consumed with our own rapid response. Launching an online Design Center with free tools, resources and learning design consultations to help universities and faculty respond to the urgent COVID-19 mandate: Move all classes online. Campus is closing to keep you safe.

March 27

Sleep and order requirements my husband and I wonderfully function by have been overrun by a dorm-at-home schedules. As the built-in Resident Advisors, we call a now-famous family council. We revisit House Rules, deliberating, arguing and finally agreeing to a set of rules, printed and posted on the kitchen cabinet.

  • No loud conversations after midnight

  • No cooking between midnight and 7 am

  • No dishes in the sink

  • No HouseParty apps during family dinner

  • One study area per person

  • Keep your stuff in your own room

These are promptly ignored.

March 30

Low expectations and low delivery, my daughters hate their first online class experiences.

Like refugees, they returned home, backpacks in hand, clothes and belongings still in their dorm rooms. Campus independence has been replaced by childhood bedrooms, in-person connections with Zoom. Friends, peers and professors all at a socially difficult distance. (Of course, I kid with the word refugee given what it truly means —but it reflects the displacement my stunned kids were feeling.)

If my kids are in shock and feeling anxious, what about the students under truly adverse circumstances? In our home, the kids are fully equipped with wifi and laptops, and given privacy, support and quiet to navigate learning virtually from home. There’s no worry about sick relatives, or caring for younger siblings. No job-searching for work to cover income loss from suddenly unemployed parents or caretakers.

Observing this, I find myself concerned professionally for community and communication. Providing students with the right response and support over perfect course content and grades. Plus, given what I’m seeing in my own home, support must include help dealing with anxiety, for students and families alike. We provide some help for faculty in our Daily Tips.

Parent Log:

April 15

My daughter proclaims: “If school is online in fall, I’m not going.”

As we now know, students surveys show she’s not alone in her view.

May 10

Spring semester finally ended, and with little pomp and circumstance. The mom in me missed the anticipation of welcoming my daughters in as they returned from their semesters on campus. Instead, we moved into the next new normal, wondering what’s going to happen in the fall.

Learning Debrief: What worked and what didn’t?

Back to my research participants, who mostly corroborate the national student research I’m reading.


  • Providing structure around time management; communicating understanding around the sudden changes. Holding classes and office hours via Zoom.

“Classes that meet over Zoom are the best. You feel like you’re on the same wavelength as everyone else. If all you’re getting is lecture notes you might as well go to YouTube university…with Zoom, you feel a better sense of routine and connection to the outside world.”

  • Experimenting with Zoom breakout rooms. Thumbs up! Student Tip: Check-in on break-out room frequent enough to redirect the occasional obnoxious student.

  • Allowing the Pass/Fail choice. This really reduced my daughters’ anxiety. They used it sparingly, but for some students, a real lifesaver.


  • All videotaped asynchronous lectures, no communication or student interaction.

“Can professors try harder than just giving me slides and lectures notes? What did they do for the rest of the semester?”

  • Piling on more homework in an already stressful situation. Being at home didn’t me extra time for students or increased productivity.

  • Final exams [three times] harder than normal.

June 15:

“It’s useful professors got some experience with online learning. But I’m sorry it had to happen in such a painful and traumatic way.”

Everyone gets a pass for what was accomplished in record time. But we have to improve on Spring 2020. Most schools don’t have the luxury right now to complete a purposeful design journey around learning experiences. There is still an enormous amount of course content to convert from on-ground to online/blended. Fall 2020 will come with different student expectations – and appreciation for anything resembling “normal”. Students won’t accept sub-par virtual learning. They’ll want learning experiences that engage, with clear communication, connection and community.

Looking towards the Fall 2020 semester:

Perhaps this pain and trauma will open doors to experimentation, to reimagining modes of delivery and learning. My hope is that with some training and/or design support, faculty can be empowered to bring human-centered learning to the table, whether on-ground or online.

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