The EvoLLLution | A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste
Even though the mass shift to online education is resulting from a pandemic, it might provide opportunity for a more flexible and student-centric postsecondary ecosystem.

Truly innovative ideas invariably encounter pushback from factions committed to maintaining the status quo.  The original annual Sloan survey — and more recently the Babson/Seamon study — show incremental improvement in the perception of online learning by education administrators, faculty members and learners over the last ten to 15 years, but the pace at which it has improved has been excruciatingly slow.

Those leading the online effort nationwide have several short-term goals:

  1. Improve the perception of online learning as a quality educational experience
  2. Train faculty members to teach effectively online
  3. Directly help learners be successful

Long-term, however, we are looking for true innovative transformation in education.

As an example, for illustration purposes:

What if we developed hybrid on-campus/off-campus programs in concert with employers?  They could start with a formalized four-year model. In the first year, learners would study fully on campus. In the second year, learners take one online course each term. Third-year learners would take one online course each term with one term of off-site interning at a partner company or organization. Fourth-year learner course work would be fully online while they work off campus at the partner site. Learners would then seamlessly transition into their respective work environments. Partner companies or organizations could have input into the curriculum while we reduce demand for physical campus facilities. However, more importantly, since the learner has an evolutionary path into the workforce, they are more inclined to realize the value of balancing their professional efforts with ongoing learning.

Obviously, a radical departure from the status quo such as this one will have its share of nay-sayers. It will take time for thinking to evolve. Evolution is an incremental shift that requires patience. However, even in Darwinian thinking there are occasional “evolutionary events.”  If a volcano erupts in the middle of an island, cutting off one side from the other, the flora and fauna’s evolutionary trajectories change dramatically.

It could be that we are in the midst an evolutionary event in education.

Because of the pandemic crisis, we are seeing institutions move entire programs online. This is unprecedented. When I was at the Indiana College Network in the early 2000s, we grew from serving 12,000 to 105,000 learners, but it took over seven years. At e-campus at Oregon State University, we grew from generating $12M to nearly $100M, but it took just under a decade. Now, programs across the country are moving fully online in a matter of weeks.

The concerns identified in the studies mentioned earlier have not magically disappeared. The faculty members who say this shift never work are still there. The administrators that dug in their heels to say “Not on my watch” are still in the power towers.

But a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Many faculty members, and even some learners, will not be persuaded. However, many will also see the potential in online learning for themselves. Many will see for the first time that online learning integrated into the curriculum will improve and perhaps offer opportunity for dramatic change, such as the scenario characterized above.

However, during the crash course shift that is taking place, it will be critical to continue paying strict attention to course quality, learner success and the metrics that can be gathered from this process. This will be the responsibility of those who know very well what makes online courses successful.

According to the most recent Babson/Seamon study, five percent of online programs are currently serving 50 percent of the learners. That is about to change, obviously. The weight of the responsibility for maintaining quality in the online environment will fall on these major programs’ shoulders. However, there will be innovation occurring in places that have not been heavily involved online. Sharing understanding, capabilities, learning modules, and ideas will be critical.

The pandemic crisis itself may be characterized by chaos, divisiveness and mismanagement, but education has the opportunity to step up and make some incredibly valuable short- and long-term changes that could lead to a truly innovative future. It will take unprecedented collaboration on and between campuses. It will require innovative thinking under fire. The outcome, however, could change the evolutionary trajectory for entire world of education.

Editor’s note: This piece was submitted on March 18, 2020.

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