Education

Navigating online education post-pandemic: advice for colleges

The landscape for digital learning has changed dramatically since Robert Ubell published Going Online in 2016: an explosion in outsourcing to online program managers, intensifying competition between would-be cheaters and technologies designed to thwart them — oh, and a global pandemic that turned almost every student into an online learner and every professor into a technologist.

In a new book, Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education (Routledge), Ubell, vice dean emeritus of online learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, brings together his writings in Inside Higher Ed and other publications about a wide range of topics.

He answered questions via email about his new book and the evolving landscape for online learning. An edited version of the exchange follows.

Q: As someone who has led institutional strategy around online education and watched the landscape closely since the late 1990s, do you believe the forced experimentation of students, professors and institutions with remote instruction has significantly (and permanently) reshaped the standing and status of technology-enabled learning? And if so, in ways that will increase support for it?

A: Emergency online learning, despite its largely amateur delivery last year, was a really big deal — shock therapy for higher education. According to a number of recent reports, remote instruction during the pandemic accelerated wider acceptance and expansion of online learning, revealing how quickly institutions have responded to extending online learning and how unexpectedly positively students and faculty have reacted. One survey this spring concluded that a majority of students are surprisingly eager to keep studying online, while faculty say they now feel far more confident about remote education than ever.

Even Harvard, a longtime holdout, launched its first online degree this spring, followed by other institutions, eager to get on board, with many either signing on with OPMs — commercial vendors who build and market virtual programs — or planning to launch new online degrees on their own.

But the nation’s headlong dive into digital education last year was not an entirely radical departure. Over the last decades, online education moved like an airplane on a runway, taking off slowly at first and then persistently, to occupy an ever greater share of higher education. If you look at this eloquent graph, cleverly devised by the ed-tech guru Phil Hill from federal data, you’ll see how the online wind has been blowing, with residential enrollments sliding as online steadily rises. These trends, evident for decades, but etched in sharper relief in the pandemic, are now more perilous than ever.

Two realities account for these altered directions: the campus downturn is largely a direct result of the nation’s skidding number of high school graduates, while the online climb comes from the country’s vastly changing economy, swelling with great numbers of students who must work to go to college, filling virtual classes with nontraditional students.

To earn digital degrees, midcareer adult learners are also enrolling in remote classes to get a leg up on securing a more rewarding stake in our postindustrial economy. Along with fresh batches of 19-year-olds, academic leaders must now pursue nontraditional and midcareer students, Today, digital education has a double duty, not only crucial in securing the continuation of higher education, but as an ethical practice.

Q: If online/digital/virtual learning is going to be a meaningful part of more (if not most) colleges and universities going forward, what are the biggest issues they will have to confront? Are the issues more technological, educational or organizational?

A: All three, actually, since colleges that have not yet joined the rush online will need to get their ducks in a row, making sure they have everything they need in place, with up-to-the-minute digital magic, sophisticated pedagogy to keep students glued to their screens and dynamic leaders, keeping the online ship floating and flexible.

But there’s yet a fourth requirement: commercial acumen. Colleges and universities admit they are not very good at it, but they will need to get up to speed to exploit digital recruitment, at which for-profits and OPMs are far ahead; otherwise, even if they master the right virtual skills, they may be outmaneuvered. Effective digital recruitment requires yet another art that higher education has been reluctant to practice — spending serious money on marketing. To succeed, colleges and universities will need to break some stuffy old habits.

Q: You close your new book with an admirably honest chapter about past assertions that, on second thought, you realize missed the mark (at least partially). How did your mind change about massive open online courses and streaming video instruction?

A: Changing one’s mind is an essential feature of the human condition. If we get stuck in childhood, rather than being open to experience, how would we ever learn to love olives or other foods most kids find unappetizing? I dug my heels in opposing MOOCs and streaming video because they both lacked what I held as the gold standard of quality virtual education — leaning forward in active student engagement, rather than sitting back, passively viewing lessons.

But after years of following how students actually participated online, I learned that digital education is not a one-size-fits-all garment, but a coat of many colors. It turned out that even though learning science tells us that active participation is the most effective way of learning, MOOCs and streaming videos can be a useful alternative to conventional education. Certainty is the bullheaded enemy of mind-changing behavior.

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