US ‘risks missing out’ on long-term benefits of online learning

American universities appear to be wasting an irreplaceable moment in making critically important shifts to online learning by reluctant to seize the opening created by the Covid pandemic, some pioneers in the field warn.

As the United States seeks normalcy after what is hopefully the worst of the pandemic, many universities and their faculties are instinctively embracing the revival and primacy of traditional in-person methods, said Anant Agarwal, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of the edX platform.

But that’s a mistake given the clear benefits of virtual formats for generating transformational teaching approaches, Prof Agarwal said. Times Higher Educationit is US Digital Universities Week Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“If you wait too long,” said Professor Agarwal, now director of open education at online education provider 2U, which bought edX last year, “I think this moment in history will never come back again.”

Professor Agarwal was among a series of industry leaders at the conference wielding data suggesting that online education options must be much more than an emergency measure, or even just an occasional option for young people. busy professionals or shy undergraduates in class.

Others included Sanjay Sarma, professor of mechanical engineering and vice president for open learning at MIT, who gave examples of how online tools could pave the way for widespread use of techniques that, according to the research, align with how people’s brains process and retain information.

These examples, Prof Sarma said, include repeating information at specifically calibrated intervals that maximize the formation of dendrites that create long-term memories in the brain. Commercial language-learning software routinely leverages this understanding as a core design element, but university instructors typically don’t, he told the conference hosted by THE and MIT.

This same basic idea helps explain the urgency of convincing university leaders to make a major effort now to create sustainable online options, before professors forget about it, Professor Agarwal said. The pandemic immediately pushed all instructors to online modes. “Teachers who said ‘not on my corpse’ did so regularly,” he said. But “if you don’t get them to rehearse, they rust,” he continued, and they won’t come back.

Others joined the event, including Christopher Rush, senior adviser for innovation and educational technology at the US Department of Education, who pledged the Biden administration recognizes the value of online innovation. in education, but admitted that the pace of its advocacy and implementation could be greatly affected by the as-yet-unknown willingness of Congress to fund major initiatives.

Rush also acknowledged, in response to questions, the risks of rushing too quickly into the online education arena, given high-profile concerns about the behaviors of tech companies as a whole, in areas such as as the exploitation of personal data and the use of computer algorithms. that can perpetuate and amplify human biases.

Yet, he said, “Every useful tool that has ever emerged is a double-edged sword.”

“The truth is, it’s going to be a bit like a stock – it’s going to go up and down – and we can’t just be scared every time it goes down, as long as it’s definitely heading in the right direction,” Mr. Rush. “And that’s part of the innovation process.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com