Preparing for the 2021 fall semester will still be a challenge with such high levels of uncertainty--digital learning will be critical

What happens when digital learning surpasses in-person learning?

Preparing for the 2021 fall semester will still be a challenge with such high levels of uncertainty--digital learning will be critical

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, universities everywhere shifted online almost overnight. What started as a gradual transition with the rise of MOOCs in 2012 was rapidly accelerated, as more than 90 percent of U.S. classes moved to digital learning in 2020.

At the same time, however, student satisfaction, belonging, connection, and opportunity to collaborate with peers dramatically decreased. In fact, undergraduate programs in the United States experienced significant declines in enrollment over the year. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, community colleges have shown the steepest decline at around 19 percent, which is almost 19 times the pre-pandemic loss rate.

But where there are challenges lie opportunities. Colleges and universities now have a once-in-a-generation shot at completely transforming the learning experience—including the digital learning experience–based on their 2020 insights and investments in technology.

Universities are adapting to an unknown future

As universities and colleges reflect on their learnings from the past year, they recognize that it will still be a challenge to prepare for the 2021 fall semester with such high levels of uncertainty.  Will students return to roam the campus lawns and lecture halls? Will every class become hybrid or flexible? How many classes should be delivered 100 percent online?

Ultimately, the answer is that the era of hybrid learning is here–and this has an impact on educators, learners, and institutions alike. This change demands flexibility and thoughtful design. Academic institutions need to be intentional about the technology they adopt, their choice of physical learning spaces, and their long-term strategy to support every student, even those who never set foot on campus.

Providing the highest quality education in a world of constant change is challenging, but we have a responsibility to create better solutions. As the “new normal” emerges, it will require universities to be prepared for multiple modalities, and technology unlocks those capabilities.

Versatility is the key design principle for technology covering all aspects of higher education, including strategic planning, operations, academic content, student services, and effective teaching and learning practices. From now on, students and instructors should be able to make their own choices when it comes to how and when they teach and learn.

Learning that works: Driving learning outcomes with research based strategies

In the midst of all of this change, it’s important to take a step back and remind ourselves of the big picture. Why are we teaching? Why are students coming to our classrooms? What will actually support their learning and enhance their knowledge and skills? Decades of research have taught us the essential components of effective learning, and high-quality content is not the only factor.

Active, collaborative, and authentic learning are all important predictors of student success and should be an intrinsic component of any current and future in-person and digital learning experiences. Research has shown that learning in small groups can enhance learning outcomes, and participation in class discussions has also been a predictor of success in online learning environments. Solutions for active, social, and collaborative aspects of learning have been woefully inadequate in the shift to online education, even before the pandemic. Existing online tools attempt to add capabilities for interactivity, but in the majority of cases, these efforts are artificial and add significant cognitive load on the instructors.

Effective online and digital learning solutions for the future of hybrid education will be built with learning outcomes in mind, prioritizing active learning, engagement, and collaboration. With more students than ever opting for online or hybrid courses, educational technology should enable discussions, small group learning, and meaningful interactions with instructors and peers.   

Learning that works is active, collaborative and engaging. Technology should serve these proven components in order to drive learner success.

Empowering students and educators with data

Another major advantage of technology-enhanced learning is the significant level of actionable data it brings to the table. Data-driven teaching tools will allow instructors to identify students who are struggling, access instant feedback on whether students understand a new topic, and implement effective strategies to increase levels of mastery, even in large classes and in ways that were impossible in an in-person environment.

But we should always ask: what data are we tracking and why? Data for improving learning should be relevant, immediate, accessible, and actionable. We do not want our students to feel uncomfortable, unsafe or constantly judged. If the data we’re collecting won’t help us better support students, address gaps in understanding, or improve our courses over time, we shouldn’t focus on it. Data is only as valuable as the learnings we gain from analyzing it, so it is critical to build in time and resources to review, iterate and improve based on these insights. Our goal is always to drive better learning outcomes.

Re-focusing on human connection

If there is one thing the pandemic is teaching us, it’s that deep human connections are essential for student and instructor wellbeing and for impactful education. As we move into a hybrid future, technology should not (and cannot!) replace human relationships and communications–it should enhance, enable, and enrich them. The reality of social distancing, increased screen time, and significant uncertainty has only emphasized the importance of putting our humanity back in the center.

We need digital learning tools that bring us closer together, create meaningful experiences, and affirm our identity and belonging. There is a world of opportunity in the new digital learning space. Thanks to technology, anyone can learn from the very best minds and experts worldwide, from any place in the world. As we develop and implement new tools, we must keep the ultimate goal in mind: to provide a meaningful and effective learning experience to all learners.

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