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Using Lessons Learned in 2020 to Shape the Future of Education

The lessons learned from the paradigm shift in response to the pandemic are ones that will be carried forward and used to create a better future for higher ed. 

As much as we all yearn to leave 2020 in our rearview mirror, the road ahead doesn’t appear to look all that different. However, something truly paradigm-shifting happened in education this year that will change our course: we learned our lesson—several, actually—and the corollaries will be key in helping us move forward in 2021 and beyond.

Lesson one 

The single most important thing we learned is that we can change—full stop. Overcoming inertia, legacy structures and culture is absolutely possible because we did just that when the pandemic’s consequences on education became obvious.

In the Grand Pivot of 2020, the immediate goal was academic continuity. We focused on moving the entirety of our curricula online over a week or two, so students could continue their education. That was the clear goal. And it was largely well-accomplished through the near-24/7 support of the instructional designers, online faculty, and other educational staff with expertise and resources in online learning. 

The corollary to lesson one is that such unplanned change brings unexpected consequences. Administrators learned that moving online without proper preparation isn’t good for anyone. Of course, experienced online educators recognized this from the start and encouraged using the label “remote learning” to distinguish what was happening from the intentional development of quality online instruction. 

What really struck us was the extent of the inequities in access to remote learning because online education has been promoted as a means to equalize access. The numerous accounts of the challenges that disadvantaged learners faced—and the sheer number that fall into that category—were eye-opening and underscored the need for investment in national and institutional infrastructure and practices, including:

  • Universal broadband
  • Sufficient technology resources
  • More inclusive pedagogical practices
  • Increased student support
  • Better preparation for faculty and students for online learning

Lesson two 

Nearly all faculty can teach with technology at a distance and live to tell the tale. During the pandemic, teaching with technology became an imperative. Traditional classroom faculty, even those adamantly against any form of digital learning, did not abandon their students but met the challenge. That some were able to do so with little support is remarkable, as was the effort made by institutions to provide technology training for their faculty. Globally, over 1 billion learners were affected by the pandemic. Locally—institutionally—faculty had to be prepared to teach them.

The corollary to lesson two is that it takes more than competence with a technology to use it well. Selecting appropriate technology tools and using them to facilitate good pedagogical practices for online is also necessary. If the focus of spring 2020 was getting the curricula online, then summer and fall were about recognizing and beginning to address the quality concerns raised by students. In particular, students were aggrieved by the lack of interaction and engagement in their remote learning experiences. Efforts to address student concerns led to using platforms such as Zoom to increase engagement with video-based, synchronous class time. With too few faculty having an appropriate foundation in online pedagogy, the resulting educational experience was inferior and more difficult for both students and faculty. In my world, a hotly debated question is whether to require students to keep their video on during a synchronous class. A better question to ask, however, is whether Zoom is the best solution for remote learning. Are there other ways to foster interaction and engagement besides conducting real-time lectures or attempting to replicate the in-person experience with a video-based meeting application? 

Lesson three 

We learned that investing in the development of quality online learning demonstrates great ROI during a pandemic. Institutions whose administrators wisely invested in infrastructure, faculty training, skilled staff, program management, quality standards, and administrative expertise in online education had a real leg up (see CHLOE 5). These institutions were able to make more effective and efficient transitions for their in-person students and faculty. Many Quality Matters member institutions shared how heavily they relied on their online faculty and those with online training, especially in light of the universally inadequate number of instructional designers available to facilitate and scale the effort. Success in spring 2020 relied on previous investments in online education and the goodwill and overarching concern of all faculty for their students.

The corollary to lesson three is that the institutions without enough previous investment ended up putting the burden of scaling remote learning squarely on the backs of educators and students. In the summer and fall, many institutions were still “flying the plane as they were building it,” attempting to develop infrastructure and prepare faculty, staff, and students as the online vs. on-campus decision fluctuated. This fluidity led to significant experimentation with variations of hybrid delivery modalities. It’s too soon to know the full impact, but with so little research around best practices and inadequate faculty training and support, it’s safe to say we can do better. And we will.

Implementing what we’ve learned

Looking at the road ahead, it’s time to create real and lasting change in higher education—change that doesn’t just happen in the margins. We’re already starting to see an increased focus on workforce-relevant curriculum; efforts to improve student mobility between academic institutions, alternative providers, work, and life; and momentum for removing inequities in the pursuit of education.

And it’s happening with a sustained focus on quality education for all students regardless of delivery modality. 

Now that we have widespread experience with teaching and learning with technology, we expect to see practices that further blur the lines between face-to-face and online education. According to a recent study by the World Economic Forum, only 29% of adults globally expect higher education to be delivered primarily in-person while 50% foresee a split between online and in-person, and 23% expect it to be primarily online.

The lessons we learned from the pandemic are fueling the investments we are starting to make in quality education, including:

  • Preparing courses and programs in ways that make it more efficient to switch from in-person to online as an investment with a significant return
  • Investing in the infrastructure, tools, and training to design quality online courses and programs to ensure alignment of materials, tools, practices, and policies with course and program objectives
  • Investing in expertise, especially in professional development for online teaching 

What we hear loudly and clearly from faculty is that learning about online teaching and course design is making them better instructors in their in-person courses as well as onlineThis recognition provides the impetus to conduct new research that can deepen our understanding of multi-modal education, including: 

  • The educational goals best accomplished in-person vs. at a distance with technology 
  • The relative affordances of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning
  • Providing faculty and students with guidance about personalizing the educational experience in ways that make appropriate and selective use of technology rather than being dictated by it

In spite of the looming economic and political challenges, the focus for 2021 and beyond is on quality education for all. Those who prosper will not be focused on student enrollment, tuition dollars, or institutional survival but on student success. We have an opportunity to advocate for education as a public good—one that yields a well-educated citizenry, economic advancement, and a more equal and fair society. However, this happens only by applying the lessons of 2020—and their implications—to create a future wherein a quality education can truly be had anytime, anywhere.

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