We must transition from a content-centered approach to a human-centered one, recognizing students as the fulcrum of online learning design.

From crisis to catalyst: Online education four years later


Leveraging AI-driven adaptive learning technologies can personalize the online learning experience, catering to individual strengths and areas for improvement

Key points:

Prior to the seismic shifts of 2020, online learning was steadily gaining acceptance and effectiveness. Single course providers were growing, and even Ivy League schools were experimenting with massive open online courses. But when the pandemic arrived, it brought forth an undeniable disruption, forcing educators to provide learning in an online format–regardless of capability or preparedness and often without an understanding of virtual learning best practices and how learners engage with online material. 

Because many institutions didn’t have time to upskill and approach online learning with pedagogical expertise, this unprecedented shift drew attention to flaws in online learning and challenged its effectiveness–exposing a need for human-centered, authentic, inclusive, and dynamic online learning environments. In fact, a 2021 study in the American Journal of Distance Education found that students in emergency online courses during the pandemic reported lower levels of engagement and satisfaction compared to pre-pandemic online courses.

The pedagogical expertise honed by years of evidence-based shifts in online learning design positions longstanding online education and distance learning providers to drive this change. Despite all eyes turning to online learning in 2020, distance education is far from a new concept. In fact, many institutions have been pioneers in the field for over a century and have evolved and grown to offer online learning programs. I’ve had the privilege of leading and participating in real-world, evidence-based research that underscores the importance of these transformative shifts. Spoiler alert: Integrating AI into student learning will further support today’s online learning models. 

First, we must transition from a content-centered approach to a human-centered one. This entails recognizing students as the fulcrum of learning design, empowering them to actively engage with the material in a meaningful way. For instance, instead of simply delivering lectures or presenting information, educators can employ interactive tools and collaborative platforms that encourage students to take ownership of their learning journey. Leveraging AI-driven adaptive learning technologies can personalize the learning experience, catering to individual preferences, strengths, and areas for improvement.

Secondly, we need to shift from passive learning to active learning methodologies, through a focus on “doing” and not “memorizing.” Rather than relying solely on rote memorization, educators should foster environments that promote experiential learning and critical thinking. One innovative way to accomplish this is by integrating AI into the learning process, empowering students to actively engage with AI-generated responses, fostering critical thinking through analysis, examination, and evaluation. This approach cultivates a culture of inquiry, skepticism, and intellectual curiosity, enhancing students’ cognitive abilities and preparing them to navigate the complexities of an increasingly interconnected and information-rich world.

Lastly, we must embrace dynamic learning approaches that adapt to students’ evolving needs and preferences. Static, one-size-fits-all curricula are no longer sufficient in today’s diverse educational landscape. Instead, educators should tailor instruction based on students’ schemas, prior knowledge, and learning styles. AI-powered analytics can provide valuable insights into student performance and engagement, enabling educators to tailor instruction, interventions, and support services accordingly. Furthermore, dynamic learning platforms can offer personalized learning pathways, adaptive assessments, and real-time feedback, empowering students to progress at their own pace and achieve mastery.

Equipped with real-world data and the massive potential of technological advancements such as AI, we now possess the tools to drive actionable change in how we educate our learners. By combining the transformative power of AI with the accessibility of flexible, self-paced online learning models, we can open doors for historically disenfranchised learners. Learner profile surveys show the need for accessibility–one survey notes that with over half of learners earning less than $30,000 and 58 percent working full time, the majority of learners chose their platform because of the ability to work at their own pace or because the courses are online. With this in mind, I believe that technological advancements can ultimately democratize education, break down barriers, and ensure widespread access and equitable opportunities for all. 

The dichotomy of online learning versus traditional approaches is now obsolete–virtual school enrollment has continued to climb, with more than two in five U.S. students participating in online learning each day. Instead, our focus should be on collaborative knowledge-sharing. As we navigate this era of rapid educational transformation, educators bear the responsibility of distilling the lessons learned over the past four years into informed pedagogy and new best practices. 

As we reflect on the past four years, we must recognize that the journey from crisis to catalyst is ongoing. It is imperative that we continue to prioritize innovation, accessibility, and inclusivity in education. By harnessing the power of technology and embracing dynamic learning environments that may be outside of the traditional norm, we can empower learners to thrive in an ever-changing world. Together, we can build a future where education knows no bounds, where every learner has the opportunity to succeed, and where knowledge is truly transformative.

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