Online teaching has long been an option for higher education faculty, but most have rejected online education and have chosen the traditional mode of teaching face-to-face in physical classrooms.
As colleges and universities grapple with the possibility that the coronavirus outbreak will keep campuses closed through summer and into fall semesters, educators may no longer have that choice. Emergency remote teaching in response to a campus closure may be tolerable to finish out a semester, but students who do return in the fall will expect a higher-quality learning experience than online files and video conferences.
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This leaves administrators and faculty with a challenge: Do we bet on another semester of “good enough” remote teaching? Or do we scramble to develop online versions of all scheduled courses to meet established standards of course design?
Looking beyond fall 2020, how will institutions adapt to be more resilient in the face of future closures? Some have suggested that the current crisis may cause a permanent change in higher education, motivating greater investment in and attention to high-quality online offerings.
High-quality online teaching is not easy. While some classroom teaching practices can be adapted to online, expectations and behaviors may be different. Terry Anderson wrote about the sense of “distance” that is all too common in online environments. Faculty who prefer face-to-face environments talk about the value of dynamic interactions, and being able to “read the faces” of students. It’s true that the online modality has different strengths and weaknesses.
Some have called the COVID-19-related campus closures education’s black swan event. It may well prove to be. At the very least, the current moment presents higher education with an opportunity to adapt how it designs and delivers education in ways that anticipate future crises, and ultimately make teaching more effective and engaging for students. I don’t mean that every faculty member must become an ardent online teacher, content with remote interactions over face-to-face. But every faculty member must become fluent with critical technology, leveraging it in even their traditional brick and mortar courses as naturally as they might.
We call this mix of face-to-face and online teaching “blended,” and I predict it will become a key component in the professional development strategy for many colleges and universities going forward.
Blended learning will reshape the future of learning
The key to effective blended learning is understanding the fundamental differences between online and onsite environments, recognizing that each has strengths and limitations. This allows teachers to choose learning activities according to the strengths of one mode, without sacrificing the strengths of another.
For example, while a face-to-face discussion may be ideal for creating personal connections between students and generating enthusiasm about a topic, a major limitation of in-class discussions is time — there’s never enough time for each and every student to share what’s on their mind or respond to every peer. Further, the pressures and expectations of a live class discussion may cause some students to opt out of participating. A teacher can blend this class discussion with an online discussion in order to leverage the strengths of each. A topic discussion may begin face-to-face but continues asynchronously in an online course environment, which gives all students a chance to reflect, draft, and post their response — in text, with images, or even as recorded video.
Perhaps it’s because blended learning enables the best of both worlds that, compared to both fully online and face-to-face course designs, blended learning tends to win out in both learning outcomes and teacher opinions. This suggests that blended learning may be a better cultural fit for US higher education, one that’s easier to adapt to for many teachers than fully online courses. And even though a blended learning course is not fully online, teachers who blend have an online course environment that is already used regularly and consistently by students and teachers. A well-designed blended learning course will reduce both the stress and the workload on teachers and students in the event they must suddenly shift to remote teaching.
Higher education institutions that set a goal of blended learning for every course are staking a claim on a future for their institution that acknowledges how quickly and dramatically the environment can shift. As millions of new students become more familiar with online learning in coming months, many may decide they do not want to go back to a purely onsite learning experience. Schools need to be ready to meet these students’ expectations, and the ones that find the most success will be those that commit to learning as much as possible from our current coronavirus-driven transition.