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A wise humanities faculty member once said to me, “Please no more talk about academic innovation. Instead, let’s talk about good maintenance and upkeep.”

I think the next iteration of online and hybrid education should follow such an approach. It's time to move away from the debate about whether it's worse or better than x or y or it is/was/will be an over-hyped failure or a massive sea change.

It's here. It's staying. Let's make the most of it.

As an example, both the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association annual meetings featured sessions on online learning in the humanities. And while the sessions were well attended, one constituency was notably absent: faculty members from research universities.

The pressure to offer more online courses at the undergraduate level, even at flagship and other residential campuses, is enormous. 

For administrators, online courses present the possibility of tapping new audiences, especially family caregivers and working adults; expanding enrollment without adding facilities; and, of course, scaling and staffing courses in cost efficient ways.

But much of impetus comes from students who find it difficult to travel to campus or to juggle class attendance, extracurricular activities, and work responsibilities. Online education also holds out the prospect of better serving students with disabilities.

The session I chaired addressed four questions:

1. How can faculty create Online Learning 2.0: forms of online teaching that are highly interactive, that engage students in active, hands-on learning, that maximize faculty presence, that incorporate frequent, substantive feedback, and are social and collaborative by design?

2. How can institutions facilitate the development of Online Learning 2.0? How can administrators motivate, incentivize, and support faculty members who will teach online? How can they make it worthwhile for faculty to assume the burden of creating and offering high quality online instruction?

3. How should faculty design online courses that successfully engage students, keep them on track, and achieve desired learning outcomes? What kinds of activities and assessments work best in an online environment? How can we ensure academic integrity and provide the appropriate scaffolding and feedback that the students need?

4. Are there educationally appropriate ways to offer online learning at scale, which might allow institutions to re-deploy more faculty in high impact practices, such as mentored research, supervised internships, and field and clinical-based experiences?

One conclusion that quickly emerged is that quality online education doesn’t come cheap. Truly effective online classes rarely save money, except in the indirect sense of reducing the need for new facilities.In fact, effective online classes generally cost much more than a standard face-to-face class to develop, since they require instructional designers, educational technologists, and assessment specialists, as well as teaching assistants.

Of course, it is possible to deliver online education on the cheap, combining digitized lectures with PowerPoint slides and a discussion board. Indeed, much online education is just like that. Then there is something even worse: the self-paced, self-directed courses that simply ask students to go to a variety of web resources then take a test. That is little more than a digitized correspondence course.

But if online education is to truly offer the equivalent of a face-to-face experience, it requires investment in design, development, and production of instructional assets.

Here one might draw on a historical analogy. Humans were unable to fly as long as they attempted to imitate birds. Flapping wings, it turns out, is extremely inefficient.  Only when inventors broke away from the bird analogy were they able to facilitate flight.

Ditto for online education. Online education 2.0 emphasizes instructor presence, frequent Interaction with the instructor and classmates, and active learning, and includes powerful social and collaborative experiences.

Several next generation approaches to online education that can be especially successful.

There are small-scale synchronous courses in which an instructor can monitor all students simultaneously and all students can see each other, regardless of their location. This is the model that the Minerva School has adopted. It is the equivalent of a face-to-face seminar.

Then there are the large-scale synchronous courses that incorporate a constant stream of activities: surveys, poll-taking, debates, film clips, interviews, hangouts, and problem-solving exercises, alongside mini-lectures, question-and-answer opportunities, and discussions.

The most effective asynchronous online classes rely on interactive courseware as a spine. Courseware, the next iteration of the textbook, includes simulations, animations, a host of activities, and embedded assessments that allow a faculty member to continuously monitor student engagement and mastery of essential concepts and skills. The best asynchronous courses invariably include regular live synchronous section meetings. 

Many of these asynchronous courses also adopt a design and architecture built around the metaphor of a gamified journey in which a student accumulates points, overcomes hurdles, and advances from one level to the next.

Truly effective online learning requires a user experience that moves beyond the constraints imposed by standard Learning Management Systems. The tab and file structure of the standard LMS is nothing like the seamless user experience on a commercial website.

Effective online learning also requires easy to use communication and collaboration tools. Hangouts and Google Docs offer cost-efficient mechanisms.

Thus far, online learning has largely appealed to innovators and early adopters who enjoy experimentation and view these classes as an act of love.  As a result, many online courses are at least equivalent and often superior to face-to-face classes. However, there is the danger that as online learning becomes more pervasive, average quality will decline, mimicking the unevenness we see in face-to-face classrooms.  

We can do better, and should.

Online learning offers an opportunity to reinvent our classes more intentionally, incorporating what we have learned from the learning sciences. We can make learning outcomes more explicit, design activities aligned with our learning goals, and create assessments that truly measure student achievement.

Higher education is undergoing a paradigm shift. Let’s seize this chance to bring our courses to a higher level.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the forthcoming Higher Ed Next: Advancing Access, Affordability, and Achievement.

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