Online education continues to be a hot topic of discussion as schools and universities prepare for the fall semester. Primary and higher education institutions have worked diligently to respond to the pandemic, but questions remain about what we have learned from online teaching and learning experiences and how they can be improved to the future. Let’s reflect on the many paths to online learning, the shifts that have been made along the way, and how fast we should be heading down the teaching and learning highway of tomorrow.
Certainly, online learning provides a personalized learning experience tailored to the student, which avoids the pitfalls of one-size-fits-all models for student populations. Online learning also helps schools be more cost effective by not relying on traditional physical environments. Reducing the footprint of institutional buildings and providing more flexible schedules are just some of the benefits of this teaching modality, but there are many considerations to ensure a truly effective and efficient online experience.
The genesis of e-learning can be traced back to the University of London in 1865, when exams were made available to students remotely without them having to be physically in London. Nearly 100 years later, the University of Illinois created an intranet that linked computer terminals, allowing students to access recorded lectures. This system will eventually be transformed into PLATO – Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations. From those early days of delivering materials remotely, a new online ecosystem has been created consisting of technology, learning modules, online tests, distance learning resources, experiential activities, interactivity and an anywhere, anytime teaching and learning environment. The key to success is ensuring that instructors know how to teach and students know how to learn in this online environment.
While the idea of online learning continued to grow and innovate in the 2000s, the pandemic has created a tidal wave of dramatic and sudden changes in 2020. Face-to-face, online teaching and in hybrid modalities changed overnight. Higher education and K-12 have had to shift gears to ensure students can continue to learn effectively in a remote environment.
FIRST SPEED: QUALIFIED TEACHING AND PROFESSIONAL STAFF
The first gear we need to move into is to ensure that institutions have the qualified teaching and professional staff needed to make appropriate use of online education. At the onset of COVID-19, there were questions about whether instructors teaching remotely had the qualifications, motivation and time to do so. In some cases, instructors teaching only face-to-face have first tried to take their traditional curriculum and “dump” it into an online model, some with marginal results. The quick and sudden transition to distance learning has been a challenge for many. In their 2021 paper for the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology“The Transformation of Higher Education After COVID Disruption“, underlined the researchers Garcia-Morales, Garrido-Moreno and Martin-Rojas: “This sudden change has forced universities to evolve towards online teaching in record time, implementing and adapting the technological resources available and involving professors and researchers who lack innate technological capabilities for online teaching. The university system must be able to provide quality education in a scenario of digital transformation, disruptive technological innovation and accelerated change in the educational framework. The emergence of disruptive innovation is a time of risk and uncertainty, but it is also a time of opportunity, bringing talent and innovation to the education system.
SECOND GEAR: TRAINING STAFF AND STUDENTS
Although educational institutions have been using online learning for some time, there can still be a gap when students are not professionally trained and acclimated to the environment. Some institutions believe that most students are fully prepared for technology and an online environment, but while this is true in many cases, students can still benefit from a good understanding of the online learning experience. online, coupled with the confidence to use it appropriately.
Writing last year for the Times Higher EducationNikita Hari, Scholar from the University of Oxford, said: “While Generation Z are well versed in digital technology, they have yet to learn how to use it effectively to support learning. Institutions have a responsibility to provide a structured program to teach students how to identify, research and interpret the content they find online.
THIRD GEAR: IT INFRASTRUCTURE
Properly preparing instructors and students for an online environment is part of the formula for success, but equally important is having the necessary IT infrastructure and technology resources in place 24/7. A campus must have a robust and secure network and server capacity, as well as the software applications necessary for successful teaching and learning. In the 2020 harvard business review article, What the shift to virtual learning could mean for the future of higher education, authors Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava underlined: “We have no doubt that digital technologies (mobile, cloud, AI, etc.) can be deployed at scale, but we also know that there is still much to be done. On the hardware side, bandwidth capacity and digital inequalities need to be addressed. The framework (face to face) presents many differences, because the pupils of the same class receive the same service. Online education, however, amplifies the digital divide.
FOURTH GEAR: INNOVATE
The shift to online learning during the pandemic has created an environment that has fostered new, innovative teaching approaches. The mere idea of using Zoom in the classroom turned the word from a noun into a verb. In a 2020 article on Cambridge’s World’s Best Learning Blog, Nigel Caplan wrote: “I started seeing references to holding a Zoom, rather than a Zoom meeting or a Zoom class, and there are hundreds of results for Zooms (or Zooms) as a plural noun with this meaning in the NOW Online English Corpus. IT departments provided the technological prowess to rapidly deploy and implement Zoom teleconferencing capabilities, and faculty and students quickly found innovative ways to make remote learning more engaging and interactive.
New technological tools such as virtual tours and labs, gamification, digital storytelling, flipped classrooms, and sophisticated student information management systems have transformed the teaching and learning environment. Although these tools have developed during the pandemic, it is the post-pandemic environment that institutions must plan for now.
Govindarajan and Srivastava said, “Current experience may show that four-year (face-to-face) college education can no longer rest on its laurels. A variety of factors, including the continued rise in tuition fees, already out of reach for most families, imply that the post-secondary education market is ripe for disruption. The coronavirus crisis may be just that disruption. How we experiment, test, record and understand our responses today will determine if and how online education will develop as an opportunity for the future.
FIFTH GEAR: SUSTAINABLE FUNDING
We are now ready to move up a gear, the fifth. All of our options and resources depend on institutions’ ability to sustain their online success. A large number of federal and state COVID-related grants have been distributed as one-time funding. Schools have made significant investments in hardware, software and staff. While this funding has helped institutions transition and thrive in a remote COVID-19 environment, there is a need to sustain these investments moving forward. Online learning should continue to grow. According Forbesthe global e-learning market is expected to be worth $325 billion in 2025, and business thread estimates that corporate online learning is expected to grow by more than 250% between 2017 and 2026. Online learning is entrenched in both educational and corporate environments. As we head into the future of online learning in a “fast and furious” world in fifth gear, we need to keep in mind who and why we shifted gears in the first place. Checking your rear view mirror, monitoring your speed and knowing when to apply the brakes will give you a margin of safety as you move forward into the future of e-learning.