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What Higher Education Can Take From COVID-19

The EvoLLLution | What Higher Education Can Take From COVID-19
COVID-19 is the wake-up call for higher education to see online education as the key player in adapting to an academic shift when it’s least expected.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is further proving the value of online environments. Not only have many organizations moved to remote work in order to continue their operations, but many educational institutions are also conducting courses remotely in order to maintain academic continuity. As someone who has been in the field of online education for a decade, I’m very intrigued by how this movement will affect the online learning landscape.

On one hand, this crisis is pushing those who still had reluctance toward online teaching to give it a try. There’s a lot of potential that can come from this move. It could increase openness and the development of more online programs, which will produce a bigger boom in the online education market. It could add value to the services that instructional designers provide on college campuses, and it would be great to have instructional design services used for maximum benefit.

On the other hand, the consequence of this crisis response might be disastrous for the quality of online learning. If faculty rush to put courses online on their own, they run the risk of committing significant missteps. If they repeat this same approach for future development of online courses, the product could suffer. In other words, there is the potential to set a precedent for poor, hurried course design. This wouldn’t be their fault but rather an unintended consequence of ceasing on-campus class time. This is just the beginning. There are other benefits and drawbacks of the remote teaching and learning phenomenon necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We need digital technology more than we realized

Obviously, being able to continue courses remotely is a great thing. The need for physical distancing came at a time when digital technology is ubiquitous. Had social distancing been recommended during the flu pandemic of the 20th century, formal education would have either been done through correspondence courses by mail, or it would have come to a complete halt. The digital 21st century lends itself to some easy alternative methods to allow schools and businesses to continue their essential functions. It also allows health care professionals to practice medicine virtually, for church congregations to meet virtually and for friends to stay connected. During times like these, the beneficial side of digital technology shines brightly. It’s no longer a “nice to have” but rather a “need to have.”

Online education becomes the commonplace

Although online education has been increasingly accepted over the last several years, there is still some resistance to it. Some administrators, program managers and faculty have been hesitant to launch new online programs. This shift to remote learning may provide them with the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to initiate study through the online modality. Will the critics who said that students could not form a true community online find out otherwise?

In these ways, online education could become even more commonplace than ever before. It has the chance to break away from being seen as the secondary method of learning and rather be seen as a method of learning equal to residential learning. Many speculate that the pandemic could consolidate the higher education market. It seems that the universities that are successfully delivering courses online are the ones who will become the market’s rising stars; an exception is elite universities where on-ground education will always be highly valued.

Forming relationships

Most universities employ instructional designers to help faculty create effective online learning experiences. The recent move from residential courses to remote learning has caused many faculty members to rely on instructional designers for support. This is a good thing because it allowed relationships to form that can be carried over to future semesters when faculty are getting ready to launch new online courses. Instructional designers now have greater leverage to help create alignment between course outcomes and assessments and to use educational technology appropriately to meet course goals. It’s good that higher education is being forced to think strategically about online delivery.

Risk of poor online course delivery

The move to remote learning happened quickly. The dark side might be courses that are being delivered poorly. Faculty need to note that there is a fundamental difference between the way they are teaching courses now and the way they would teach them if they initially constructed the course for the Internet. Courses that were originally occurring on campus tend to include synchronous learning methods whereas true online courses are largely asynchronous. If synchronous methods are replicated in an online course with an adult audience, it’s likely to introduce problems. I’m not convinced that all faculty who moved to remote teaching solicited the help of an instructional designer. I’m also not convinced that they all approached it with the mentality of finding ways to accomplish the same learning objectives through a different modality. The consequence could be courses that don’t meet their intended goals.

The hope is for online learning to be seen as a way to facilitate community and for people to find more ways to do that. I also hope that courses will maintain rigor and effective design, and that the product’s worth is not diminished. The practices used now will spill over into online programs and play a part in determining the future of online education.


Editor’s note: This article was submitted on April 2, 2020.