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The Online Shift’s Enduring Value

The EvoLLLution | The Online Shift’s Enduring Value
Faculty have the time to create well-designed online programs for the fall, which is when students will form strong opinions about online learning.

In the wake of the pandemic, programs were forced to shift into the online environment in the matter of weeks. As a result, online education’s reputation has taken a hit. Now, institutions have a chance to show staff and learners what true online learning looks like, and its added value to education. As the fall semester nears, faculty finally have the time to create intentionally designed online programs rather than content copy-and-pasted from on-campus learning materials.  In this interview, Frank Dooley discusses the negative impact of the quick remote shift, what makes a well-designed online program, and the common challenges of scaling access to online offerings.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How concerned are you that the recent growth of “remote” programs—designed to serve as a temporary solution in the wake of the pandemic—will negatively impact the broader perception of online programming, especially for younger learners?

Frank Dooley (FD): Faculty and universities’ responses to provide remote learning quickly this spring has to be appreciated within the context of the times. Overnight, courses migrated from their traditional delivery modality–one familiar to students and faculty—to remote learning as part of the national response to the pandemic. And most individuals understand that the efforts to provide remote learning were the best that could be given under the circumstances.

Two key factors are likely to influence future perceptions of online learning.

First, what will our learning environment become this fall? Rather than shift courses over a few days, we have had time to carefully build a course designed for online learning. Rather than judge online learning based on the spring’s events, I believe it will be this fall’s student and faculty experiences that will shape opinions.

Second, if these changes were confined to higher education, we might judge them more severely. But all aspects of society (e.g., work, play, family, etc.) have been changed by the pandemic, and it’s unclear when we will return to some semblance of “normal” or find the new normal. Given that life is simply different now, students are probably comparing their educational experiences against other aspects of their remote lives that have changed as well.

Evo: What are the characteristics that define a really high-quality, student-centric online offering?

FD: The principles of course design are independent of delivery modality; good courses engage students in their learning. Processes to build such courses can be gleaned from associations such as Quality Matters or award winning programs such as IMPACT at Purdue.

An important consideration is that the learning environment may not be the same for all students, especially for those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds or those in rural students. With the advent of COVID-19, some students have found themselves trying to learn with limited bandwidth. In other cases, timed courses also create challenges for students because their households could be sharing a single-family computer for work.

In either case, a course designed to be offered in a set time frame at a defined location may not work for students trying to access the course online. This means that courses must be designed to reflect the learning environment as well as the structure of the course.

Evo: What are the structures, policies and tools that universities need to have in place to ensure they’re delivering a high-quality online student experience?

FD: This is a very important question, and the short answer is all of them, especially for a residential university. We need to contemplate academic supports such as tutoring, academic advising, career counseling and disability resources. Moreover, how do other aspects of student life, such as leadership development in student organizations, the loss of speaker series, research in a lab, etc. change?

Evo: How do your respond to traditional academics who say online learning is subpar to in-person learning?

FD: A decade ago, the U.S. Department of Education published a meta-analysis and review of online learning. It said, “The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction (p. ix).”

Evo: What are some of the most common challenges postsecondary leaders are likely to face when trying to scale access to online offerings?

FD: The first challenge is time and staff support. Many universities are taking time this summer to build more truly online courses as part of their approaches to teaching this fall. But most, if not all, don’t have enough staff time to carefully build an online course for their entire catalog.

A second challenge is appreciating the difference between content delivery and assessment methods. Arguably, recording a great presenter/teacher deliver a lecture offers the potential for scaling. But it is much more difficult to find efficiencies in grading the student’s work. A reader can only grade so many papers per hour. The key to education is not delivering high-quality content but rather assessing whether students understand and can apply what they have learned.

Evo: How do you respond to the belief that online learning should be cheaper—both to produce and to enroll in—than face-to-face offerings?

FD: I always reply that one needs to very careful in cost comparisons. For example, are we including the cost of a classroom in which a lecture is delivered or only the time of limited term lecturer? I’ve not done a cost comparison, but my hunch is that the cost is comparable.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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