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Most colleges and universities quickly pivoted to remote instruction after COVID-19 forced suspension of on-campus activities. Academic leaders and faculty across the nation did yeoman's work to effect such a drastic change. Yet we learned this spring that the basic transition of face-to-face courses into remote delivery did not provide the comprehensive learning experience students require.

Expectations are higher now. Students attending virtual classrooms in the coming months will have assumed our institutions had all summer to create a dynamic online experience. A successful online fall semester will require institutions to focus resources on five key areas that differentiate true online education from remote instruction: culture, course design, support services, technology and student preparation.

Online Education Culture

Misconceptions about the quality of virtual learning have plagued online education for years. Recent events have only served to exacerbate the fears and reluctance of some on-campus faculty and staff who feel online learning disconnects them from students.

In truth, when online education is offered correctly, the connection between professor and student is emphasized; the goal of online instruction is personalized, virtual engagement with each student.

With only three months until the fall semester, now is the time to help faculty members overcome any resistance to online education by demonstrating how their existing teaching and learning talents translate into online instruction. Leverage professional development days to cover effective use of online instructional technology and best practices in online instruction. Add online education tutorials to your faculty resource center and use early adopters to provide peer support throughout the semester.

Review Course Design

In-person course design does not generally lend itself to effective online learning. Although online courses meet the same student learning outcomes, the delivery and assessment of student learning in online courses is specifically designed to overcome the challenges of learning remotely.

I understand that instructors may be uncomfortable modifying their courses’ design, but with a few creative adjustments, their courses will better meet the learning needs of students this fall. I recommend an unbiased assessment of course effectiveness using the Online Learning Consortium’s free OSCQR rubric. The aforementioned faculty training, led by instructional designers, can help faculty members make easy and agreeable changes to their course design.

One of the most overlooked online education tenets is designing all courses with a consistent look and feel. This ensures students can easily navigate the learning materials, access support services and submit assignments from any course. Utilize early adopters to help design a standardized course template that marries student and faculty needs and creates an intentional online experience.

Reimagine Student Support Services

In online education, all student support services (advising, the library, counseling services, student life and tutoring services) are available remotely to create a comprehensive virtual campus.

Some student services, like advising and peer tutoring services, easily pivot to an online application through web-conferencing platforms. Others are better served by vendors, including TutorMe for 24-7 professional tutoring, and YOU at College or a formal student assistance program to offer resources that support the mental and emotional well-being of students.

Most importantly, you need to provide students, faculty and staff with clear instructions on where and how to access these services.

But remote access must extend beyond direct support services; students need to connect with each other. The heart of the on-campus experience is student life. Provide your student government and clubs with the tools to meet remotely and continue their missions. Encourage student life employees to reimagine a virtual student life experience that makes use of online event providers.

Technology Investment

Effective online education is dependent on technology that creates an efficient and simple delivery of the student experience. At its core, technology should connect your students and institution in a virtual campus.

This technology centers on a learning management system that makes use of grade-book applications and communication tools for synchronous classes, a phone system that allows students to connect with remote instructors and staff, and an integration between the student information system and a customer relationship management system to track student interactions. Students access this technology through a portal or app that is device agnostic, with a responsive design made for a generation raised on technology.

Finally, online learning should be accessible to all students, regardless of economics, via computer lending or reduced-cost computer purchasing programs. Help students to identify and connect with Wi-Fi providers offering free products and services to displaced college students across the country.

Prepare Students for Learning Online

An exceptional student experience in online education originates with the onboarding process. It is incumbent on you to fully orient and prepare students to learn online. This initiation begins with a welcoming and supportive enrollment process that extends through orientation and into the first few courses.

This fall, our institutions will need to orient both new and returning students for a revamped and dynamic online experience. Begin with a summer communication campaign to share updates on decisions that affect the fall semester. Since fall orientation will likely be virtual, consider using a vendor like VFairs to design an interactive remote experience that includes instructions on accessing and navigating the online technologies and services at your institution. New students will need a first-year experience program with courses taught by faculty who are prepared to guide and engage students in remote university life.

Success Depends on Adaptability

As an industry, we’ve already shattered the stereotype that design of higher education is immutable. Our collective call to action as educators in response to COVID-19 was a good start.

We know our students are eager to return to campus (just as we are eager to see them!), but the return to traditional classroom instruction may not happen quickly. Colleges that invest in enhancing their online experience now will fare better than those who rely on simple techniques used this spring.

Support on-campus faculty in their transition to online instruction. Migrate student support services online. Explore opportunities to reinforce online technologies and infrastructure. Prepare your students to learn online.

And, when students return to your virtual campus this fall, welcome them with (digitally) open arms.

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