In higher education, online learning has suddenly become the focus of administrators, teachers, students, and even many parents around the world. While teaching a course online has long been an option for many higher education faculty, most have chosen not to, preferring the more traditional, face-to-face interactions and set schedule of a “brick and mortar” classroom.
Yet faced with nation-wide campus closures as a response to COVID-19, most faculty have adapted to remote teaching using online technology to finish out the year. Even now, administrators are deliberating if and how online courses should be the norm come fall start.
While not new, online education has long been a second-class citizen in higher education. Despite research that regularly shows no significant difference in learning outcomes, online courses are less desirable to many — especially teachers. The prejudice against online courses is in part due to their association with degree mills, or based on individual experiences with poorly designed or independent study online courses, or perhaps simply because online courses are necessarily different than what we are used to in physical classrooms.
The bad news for many teachers is that campus closures are forcing their hand, and online holds the only winning cards. As campuses remain closed, teachers must adapt to teach online, even though they may not appreciate the modality, let alone have been trained for it. This can be bad news for students, who may have a haphazard learning experience that frustrates them or turns them off from higher education. This, in turn, would be bad news for everyone — but especially for institutions that are already heavily dependent on enrollment budgets.
The good news is that, today, education knows more about how to develop and teach effectively online than ever before, and the technology available to educators is easier to use, more flexible, and more resilient than has ever been available.
Learning management systems (LMS), the core technology supporting online courses, have seen their usage rates quadruple at a minimum, and some have seen as much as 25 or 35 times their usual usage rate.
A crisis like this is, by nature, unpredictable, and technology is not perfect. Some of these core teaching and learning tools struggled under heavy load. Zoom found itself at the center of controversy as some class video conferences were the target of disturbing and malicious “Zoombombing”. But just as teachers and students are adapting, ed tech providers are adapting, too. Adding support staff or rethinking scalability is a natural and necessary response, but the real opportunity for ed tech providers is to understand this influx of new users, identify pitfalls or dead-ends in the technology, and improve usability and power of their tools.
Given the speed at which institutions, educators, teachers, students and technology providers have had to adapt, there is much to be proud of. We are seeing the community of educational technologists and instructional designers broadly and openly sharing best practices and supporting educators who are new to teaching with technology. Not only does this help teachers and their students in the moment, this can accelerate the diffusion of innovation in teaching with technology, and stimulate new ideas for online learning.
We should not underplay the disruption that campus closures are having on students, teachers, and other education stakeholders. Many colleges and universities will undoubtedly look different after campuses finally open back up, especially since the transition out of social distancing may not be immediate and schools will have to be vigilant about the health and safety of their students. But from what we’re seeing, it’s clear that higher education is making the best of the situation — and learning as we go. Though emergency remote teaching may not measure up to experts’ standards of high quality online education, even that simple acknowledgement can serve to foster conversations on the strengths and limitations of both fully online and traditional face-to-face instruction in a post-COVID-19 world.
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- Adapting to online learning in a pinch (Part 3) - April 15, 2020