While there clearly are still lessons yet to be learned from the ongoing pandemic, the ebb and flow of emergency remote instruction versus the return to in-person instruction has already brought one of higher ed’s simmering issues to a rolling boil: What are we going to do with online learning?
During the past decade, online education has been driven by enrollments, especially out-of-state enrollments. Online courses have been developed as cash cows for years, by many of the institutions that have them at all. Not only is this approach pedagogically bankrupt, but it hasn’t worked. Many universities initially seduced by the promise of increased revenue signed deals with Online Program Management companies—but some have since turned away. The University of Florida is one of the best-documented examples of this, and it’s worth noting that they specifically cited unmet enrollment targets when they broke their OPM’s contract. In the wake of this decision, the University of Florida also made explicit its new goal of high-quality pedagogy and individual advising to produce a better student experience. That this was framed as a contrast to the OPM-designed program, and accompanied by plans to invest in faculty incentives to teach online, suggests some of the weaknesses of OPM programs, further emphasized by the Century Foundation’s 2019 report, “Dear Colleges: Take Control of Your Online Courses.” The report urges schools away from all-in-one service bundles that outsource design, construction, and sometimes even teaching of online courses, and especially from contractors who promise hugely increased revenue.
In-house course design and fiscal responsibility alone, though, will not be enough to create really robust online programs. We also need innovation and creativity. We need to expand beyond the primarily self-paced and asynchronous approach we have already tried. The content and design of online courses to date has often focused on achieving parity with the in-person experience. In a purely asynchronous format, even that basic goal has not been easily achieved. We see the tracks of this struggle in federal directives to include substantive interaction; the focus on instructor presence and student engagement in our faculty development offerings; and the common practice of including things like designated social fora in online courses, hoping to achieve the in-passing social connection that being physically in the same classroom supplies.
Indeed, if emergency remote instruction has taught us anything, it’s surely that interpersonal interaction is one of the most vital elements of teaching and learning, one that cannot be easily substituted and must not be neglected. Without that element, student dissatisfaction surges, and one has to doubt that regular comments and announcements from an instructor, no matter how detailed and well thought-out, really suffice. In light of this, it seems obvious that the barely-equivalent courses that too many universities still use as a legacy of their OPM experiences are desperately in need of overhaul, or even discarding.
Once we stop allowing higher enrollment to be the driving force behind online programs, what do we let drive development? I would argue that we need to start with our institutional missions and goals. Who are the communities we serve and draw our students from? What do they need in order to fully partake of our offerings? What can technology add to our school’s mission? If we start with these questions, a very different and far more diversified approach to online learning may emerge. We’ve already seen some first steps in this direction, from a few schools; let us continue that way.
A school with distributed campuses that wishes to provide students at all locations with the benefit of a wide range of courses and faculty perspectives may find itself best served by investing in hybrid technology to connect far-flung classrooms as seamlessly as possible. A school that focuses on experiential learning might want to invest both equipment and faculty development funds in the creation and support of augmented reality and virtual reality. A school that prides itself on providing an intimate classroom experience for its students might well wish to use the platforms that are designed specifically to mimic the small, in-person, and synchronous classroom. A liberal arts institution might gain the greatest return by putting funds toward remote guest speakers and the technology to make their presence seamless and accessible, thereby increasing the variety of speakers and events the students can attend. A professional school might be well served by exploring simulation technology. A local college whose mission is to provide equitable access to education for the whole community might wish to continue focusing on equivalent online course options, but also develop a robust equipment-loan program to make sure all students can access those courses.
In all of these cases, actually, infrastructure and support must also receive significant attention. To date, the students self-selecting into online learning already have access to computers, network connectivity, software, and peripheral devices sufficient to do the required coursework. Many online classes list outright what equipment the student must have to participate, and few offer options for students who don’t have or can’t afford those items. To create a broader and more robust online footprint, universities and colleges must give thought to how students without such access may be provided for.
So perhaps, in the end, it does come back to money after all—not how online learning can rake it in, but how we can apply what we have to best effect, to create online learning that truly reflects our institutions and benefits the students who came to us because of the unique opportunities we each provide.