What Does the Rush for Colleges to Go Remote Mean for Online Higher Education?

online learning for higher education

The tectonic shifts rolling through nearly every aspect of society in the spring and summer of 2020 have had a profound impact on the world of higher education. The sudden shuttering of on-campus classes and the rush to move to a remote setting put many colleges and universities on “wartime footing,” according to an article in the LA Times.

The displacement of expectations and circumstances presents a challenge for teachers and students unprepared for such a fundamental shift. For many, it feels like uncharted territory. The good news is that there is, indeed, a chart.

With the pangs of change brought on by the pandemic, the broader discussion of the efficacy of online higher education comes to the fore. What does the rush to get classes up and running remotely portend for the future of online learning?

With insight from some of our clients, we discuss what online learning means and how the rush to remote learning impacts the future of online higher education.

Remote vs. Online Learning

It is important to remember that remote learning is not the same as online learning.

“Well-planned online learning experiences are meaningfully different from courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster,” says an Educause article entitled The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning. “Colleges and universities working to maintain instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic should understand those differences when evaluating this emergency remote teaching.”

The article goes on to warn that “the temptation to compare online learning to face-to-face instruction in these circumstances will be great”. Such a comparison is “highly problematic,” say the authors. A confusion in terms (emergency remote vs. online learning) leads to fundamental misconceptions about “online learning”.

“Established programs have experienced faculty trained to teach online, years of course development, content refinement, and measured student outcomes,” says Dean Gething, Vice President of Client Services at Sextant Marketing. 

Compounding the crisis-induced move of on-campus courses to remote learning is the reality of the pandemic in every other aspect of life. Comparing this to what Gething describes betrays the efficacy of well- planned, intentional, student-centered online learning.

Lessons Learned

Assuming the abrupt shift brought on from the health crisis equates to established online learning denies the value of one to inform the other. The lessons already learned. Once the initial task of providing access to course material is accomplished, attention must turn to a holistic focus on the student experience.

“Part of that discussion should include how students adapt,” says Mike Taberski, former Vice President of Student Affairs at New England College. “This goes beyond basic adaption to learning online and includes socio-economic factors, availability of computers, wifi at home, and the availability of designated space to work within the home free of disruptions.”

“Schools must discover what students need to effectively go online,” Taberski says. “How can the school help them with technology like laptops, and the availability of free or affordable wifi?”

“Tech is so advanced now that it is allowing us to be just as engaging in video (and) remotely as we can be in person,” says Lisa Csencsits, Associate Director of Leadership Development and Human Resource Development at Cornell University. “We have the ability to see each other, interact, and participate in group chats.” Students in major metropolitan centers will typically have access to broadband and fast wifi, easily able to take advantage of the advanced technology that Csencsits describes. An important lesson is remembering this is not always the case, especially in underserved areas.

“The needs assessment should change to accommodate how students will learn in a virtual setting,” says Wayne Lesperance, Vice President of Academic Affairs at New England College. “Some more rural communities did not have access to good wifi,” Lesperance says.

Whether technical, socio-economic, or course design the takeaway lesson is ‘how will this improve the student experience’?

In the Educause article Student-Centered Remote Teaching: Lessons Learned from Online Education, author Shannon Riggs says the “most significant” lesson learned from established online learning is how to create a “student-centered perspective” in this new learning environment.

Put simply, as Taberski says, “Keep students engaged and happy.”

Student-Centered Learning in a Community of Inquiry

One of the principal arguments from detractors of online higher learning is of the disconnect of human interaction when education is mediated between computer screens. Research counters such thinking, going all the way back to 2000 when online learning was in its infancy.

The paper Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education argues that “a worthwhile educational experience is embedded within a Community of Inquiry that is composed of teachers and students – the key participants in the educational process”.

The paper goes on to describe how three types of “presence” serve as a foundation for a Community of Inquiry:

  • Cognitive presence: This entails how well communication is understood and sparks a “sense of meaning” among members of a community.
  • Social presence: Social presence is broadly defined as allowing individuals to express their emotions and exert their personality into the community.
  • Teaching presence: This is about an intentional, well-planned, and implemented instructional design.

Both research and experience prove the “considerable potential” of online student-centered “communities of inquiry” in higher education. It is a potential already realized by top universities across the country.

Is the Future of Online Education a Hybrid Model?

To the letter, every one of the clients with whom we spoke talked of a “blended approach” as a future model for higher education.

“The theme is adaptability,” says NEC’s  Mike Taberski.

“The future may be a much more blended reality, and then the students will be in the position to choose what they want and maybe choose a little of each,” Taberski says.

“In theory,” write Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava in Harvard Business Review, “lectures that require little personalization or human interaction can be recorded as multimedia presentations, to be watched by students at their own pace and place.” Govindarajan and Srivastava describe a starting point for a hybrid model, but the ideas of a student-centered community must – and can – always prevail.

“Everything you build should have the potential to go online,” says Taberski. That includes student support and social interaction.

“There is more opportunity to interact with peers in a virtual space, says Cornell’s Lisa Csencsits. “through chats, email, and other connections even outside the sessions, and not just on breaks but chats within the class time. There is more personal interaction with the professors too for the same reasons.”

Students enjoy interacting and sharing “a more diverse perspective” doing so with people “possibly all over the world”. It brings richer dialogue and perspectives,” Csencsits says.

Building on Campus Traditions for Online Higher Education

The current situation notwithstanding, online learning does not replace on-campus education. Nor is it a distant “second-best”. Online higher education broadens the scope and builds on the best traditions of on-campus learning. They are mutually inclusive.

What does the future of online education look like? We don’t have a crystal ball. What we do have are data and experience. We have an established model for online higher education. We know that the world will not be the same in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research into college enrollment and related factors by Mckinsey indicates “steadiness” in the short term, but an “uncertain future” ahead. And why should higher education be any different than the rest of the economy?

Learn from the trial and error of the past few months, adopt the lessons already learned. Keep students at the center of everything you do. Learn from and incorporate campus traditions.

Whether in a lecture hall or online, the goal is the same (or should be) for all educators: guiding their students in the learning process.

What happened in the spring of 2020 when on-campus classes went remote under crisis circumstances is not online learning. It is important to remember that. Some detractors may seize this crisis as proof that online higher education isn’t effective. They’ve got it backward.

Even in a crisis, educators managed to get their classes accessible remotely and support their students and instructors.  It was a learning experience for everyone. For those more prepared, the transition came easier. For everyone, the future is clear. Education is moving online. “Just be prepared,” says Mike Taberski.