Distance learning for computer science (CS) courses
May 12, 2020

Facing challenges in modern distance learning

Modern times require modern solutions. Whilst humanity is facing a global health crisis, many solutions are searched and found to keep life going as close to normal as possible. In a realm of weeks, universities and other educational instances switched to distance learning providing their students with the best education possible in these times. Luckily, we live in times where online teaching, video calls, and learning management tools like Canvas or Blackboard can help with setting up a good and effective distance learning course (read more about this here). There are, however, still some challenges that are being faced.

Steady increase

Even without the developments of the last couple of weeks, distance learning has steadily increased in the past decade showing the growing demand for this type of education. No matter what the reason is for choosing distance learning: remote work, geographical separation, or the high flexibility which it provides, it is crucial that the quality of education is as high as possible. Although distance learning has its advantages, challenges for both students and teachers like self organisation, lack of control for the teacher on students’ work, a sense of isolation, and lack of effective interaction with the teacher and peers still must be faced [1].

Social contact in traditional higher education is so trivial, that the importance of the interaction of peers and teachers is easily missed. It makes students participate, care, and learn effectively by studying together. In distance learning, teachers have a hard time keeping students motivated for their courses. The dropout rate of online learning is higher, often by 10 or 20% [2]. The same study looked at the patterns of student activity, showing that some students have the trait to do everything last minute which could affect their learning progress. An essential part of effective online teaching is using technical support and ICT systems like an LMS or Zoom. Automated grading can reduce the workload for teachers and help students with consistency.  As important is face-to-face contact with which teachers can motivate students, help them with their coursework, and show that they care about the student’s work. It helps motivate students because it makes the interaction more human. By showing that you care, for instance by replying quickly to questions, you motivate students to do the same. 

Want to learn more about effective distance learning for CS education?

Online platforms

The quality of the used online learning tools is important, and the faculty should contribute to good technical support for these courses. In the last couple of years, many online teaching platforms have been created to take some of the work out of the teachers’ hands. This way, teachers don’t need to juggle learning and creating online environments whilst maintaining valuable education, but can benefit from well designed systems made by people fully endorsed in online education. 

Feedback on students’ work is one of the most effectively proven ways to help students to learn the materials [3].  In an online environment this is harder to provide because effective online communication is very labour intensive. Some teachers even use social messaging applications like WhatsApp to stay in close touch with their students. Giving tailored feedback to students’ work and the ability for them to ask specific questions both in an easy and quick way is important for the learning process. 

Formative continuous assessment

Another way to maintain a high standard in distance learning is formative continuous assessment.  In traditional on-site education this has already been proven to improve the student success rate. The advantages of this form of assessment, such as the ability to track a student’s record, are even stronger in distance learning, helping them focus and get through the material. It could be used as an effective tool against drop-outs and students who, having little self organisation, learn everything last minute which could have negative consequences on the student’s performance. By using the combination of providing insightful feedback [4] and keeping track of the students’ performance, the rate of success will increase. Another side effect is that the often faced isolation in distance learning will also be addressed because the regular checks will make the student feel less on its own, and will engage more.

Distance learning and online teaching will continue to grow and will change the educational environment more and more. CodeGrade already provided an intuitive way for teachers to give inline comments and feedback in the students’ code. This way they could give specific and detailed remarks and with this tailored approach help students as effectively as possible. Now, CodeGrade has listened to the growing demand for good online communication and has added the option for students to reply to the comments in their code and ask questions about specific sections where they run into problems. Together with our automatic assessment options, which help with continuous assessment and an easy workflow for both teachers and students, our platform is an asset for distance learning. There are challenges that must be faced, but it has also been shown that, with the joint effort of teachers’ care and the right ICT teaching tools to help and motivate students, the benefits of online teaching will more and more outweigh its difficulties.


  1. Markova, Glazkova and Zaborova, Quality issues of online distance learning, Elsevier, Procedia Social and Behavioural Sciences, Volume 237, Pages 685-691, 2017.
  2. Arnon Hershkovitz, Rafi Nachmias, Online persistence in higher education web-supported courses, The Internet and Higher Education, Volume 14, Issue 2, 2011.
  3. Hattie and Timperley, The power of feedback, Review of educational research, Volume 77, Number 1, Pages 81-112, 2007.
  4. Ahea et al., The Value and Effectiveness of Feedback in Improving Students' Learning and Professionalizing Teaching in Higher Education, Journal of Education and Practice, Volume 7, Pages 38-41, 2016.
Devin Hillenius

Devin Hillenius


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