You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

I've been asked by a Japanese media company to answer seven questions about the future of online education. They tell me that my answers will be translated into Japanese and then made available to a readership of over 4.6 million education and business professionals.

Having written my answers to the seven questions they asked, I thought it would be interesting to uncover what I'm getting wrong. One of the gifts of Inside Higher Ed has been its role as a place for all of us to share ideas and receive critical feedback.

So here is my invitation to you. Please feel invited to answer any or all of the seven questions, and share them as a letter to the editor.

Q: What are the key factors for making an online course effective?

A: When we talk about online courses, it is essential to distinguish what type of online courses we are considering. The big dividing line is between credit-bearing online courses offered as part of a degree program and noncredit online courses that result in a certificate or other nontraditional credential.

In general, although this is changing, credit-bearing online courses tend to mirror the size and costs of residential (face-to-face) courses. Noncredit online courses can enroll many more learners (sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, but usually much less) and are often (although not always) considerably less expensive.

For either online course scenario, credit-bearing or noncredit, what is most important is that the design of the online course achieves its goals. To judge success, we need to know what job the learner is hiring that course to accomplish. These goals will be different between and within various credit-bearing and noncredit online courses.

If I had to pick one factor that drives online courses' success, I would say engagement. If a learner is not engaged in the course, their fellow learners, and the educator leading the course, then the learning will not occur.

Q: Regarding the use of technology in education, are there any particular technologies you feel excited about?

A: It is hard to get excited about any educational technologies during COVID-19. Mostly, we all are looking forward to getting back to campus. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it has shown us the limitations of technology-mediated learning. There is simply no substitute for educators and learners (professors and students) sharing the same physical space for much of what we do in higher education.

I do think that when the COVID-19 public health emergency abates, some aspects of higher education will be stronger than ever. While I am anxious about the pandemic's impact on the financial viability of many schools, I think that we will learn a great deal from this experience. Mostly, I believe that we will see how precious a non-technologically mediated education can be. When we can come together in a physical space, we will make that time as productive and efficient as possible.

So the technologies that I'm excited about will be ones that make face-to-face learning better. In reality, we will see better use of existing technologies for hybrid (or blended) learning. Going forward, I expect that professors will utilize digital platforms to offload much of what had previously occurred in physical classrooms. This means less lecturing and more time for discussing, mentoring and active learning.

Will emerging technologies in mobile learning, adaptive learning platforms and augmented/virtual reality help in this goal? Sure. At least I hope so. But we need to keep in mind that technology is only a tool. We design our learning environments based on our goals (sometimes articulated, often not) for learning. Technology can hinder as much as it can help educators collaborate with learners to reach those goals.

Q: Have you designed a hybrid class (a combination of virtual and physical class)? If so, what was the subject and how was it designed?

A: While I started my academic career as a professor, the professional path I've taken is of a nonfaculty educator. The most well-known nonfaculty educators are likely instructional designers (sometimes called learning designers), although there are many academic roles on campuses that do this work. A nonfaculty educator is a professional who works directly with professors on the design, running and continuous improvement of classes and other educational programs.

Academic librarians who work with professors on developing and teaching a course are examples of nonfaculty educators. So might be a media professional who works with a professor to develop video lectures for hybrid or online courses, or an assessment expert who partners with a professor to evaluate and improve a course.

As a nonfaculty educator, most of my work involves integrating residential and digital teaching methods, program design and student learning experiences. The goal is to leverage technologies to meet a diverse group of students' needs and respond to the context in which learning occurs.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, every college and university needed to pivot from residential to remote learning. As we plan to come back to campus in the fall, every course is now a hybrid (or blended) course. Some classes may be fully online, but no classes will be entirely residential. By necessity, there will be a strong digital component to everything that higher education does for at least the balance of 2020 and 2021.

This shift to 100 percent remote/hybrid (online/blended) across all higher education is both exciting and daunting. Over the next year or so, we will have a fantastic ability to learn new things about constructing a higher education system that works for all of our learners, regardless of their circumstances and locations.

Q: How do you ensure the quality of online courses?

A: To the question of "how do you ensure the quality of online courses," my answer is always the same: How do you ensure the quality of face-to-face courses? If I had to point to any single trend that has raised the quality of teaching and learning in higher education over the past two decades, my nomination would be online education.

Online learning has served the largely unrecognized purpose of providing the broadest and most impact educator development program ever conceived. In traditional online programs, faculty work closely with a team of nonfaculty educators to develop and teach courses. These nonfaculty educators include instructional designers, librarians, media educators, assessment experts and others.

While it is undoubtedly true that every college or university has not been able to invest in a team of nonfaculty educators to collaborate with professors to develop online courses, I do think that this team approach is a hallmark of quality online programs. The development within colleges and universities of core competencies around learning science and instructional design is one of the reasons why I'm so concerned when schools outsource these competencies to online program management (OPM) providers.

In answering this question, I've intentionally used the language of traditional online courses. We need to keep in mind that what higher education has been doing during COVID-19 is not online education but remote education. Remote courses have not had near the level of time, resources or attention that traditional online programs at most schools receive.

Q: What kind of support do you offer to students (tech support, teacher's assistant, etc.)?

A: During COVID-19, the entire learner support infrastructure at my institution has had to pivot from mostly face-to-face to completely digital. This has been true of every college and university.

What we know is that students learning at distance, taking courses mediated by technology, require much greater levels of support than students in face-to-face settings. Combining the challenges of quickly pivoting to remote learning with the stresses of living under a global pandemic has caused the demand for learner support to grow exponentially.

The good news is that from what I can see, colleges and universities across the postsecondary ecosystem were able to lean into our learners' support needs.

This is not to say that everything has gone perfectly. COVID-19 has revealed, more than any other trend or event, the extreme levels of inequality in our society. Students who come from families with abundant resources could more easily navigate the shift to remote learning than were students facing multiple economic, family and social challenges. Having access to reliable internet and a relatively quiet place to learn cannot be assumed.

What colleges and universities have tried to do is offer all students the resources they need to support their learning. In some instances, this involves providing resources for internet connectivity or to have access to learning tools such as laptops. These resources have been combined with an "all hands on deck" effort to provide robust personal learning, technical and often social support to our students. Over the last few months, I'd say it is not an exaggeration to claim that issues of student care have risen to the top of the institutional priority list, where before student care was one of the items among a long list of priorities. I hope that ethos of student care remains intact once the COVID-19 crisis comes to an end.

Q: From a design perspective, what are the challenges of distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic? What do you think is necessary/important to overcome these problems?

A: The big design challenges of distancing learning during COVID-19 had to do with speed and with scale. We know how to create quality online learning experiences. Quality online learning, however, is resource- and time-intensive. Traditional online programs are designed over a period of many months. In March of 2020, colleges and universities had mere days (and sometimes hours) to pivot from residential to remote learning. And not only was this pivot almost instant, it had to be accomplished for every student and every class.

Schools that could make the pivot to remote learning more effectively were those with a history of running online, low-residency and blended programs. Schools that struggled are those with no online learning programs or that outsourced the core competencies of instructional design to outside companies (OPMs).

A key to institutional resiliency will be a commitment to invest in blended, low-residency and online learning. Finding the dollars to invest in instructional designers is no longer a "nice to have" or a "luxury" of well-resourced schools. Instructional design should be considered a cornerstone competency of every college and university.

Q: From a design perspective, online learning requires students to get online in the first place, which isn't possible for many families due to internet access. The availability varies widely from state to state. In Japan, some schools have decided not to provide classes online for now, worrying that it will worsen educational inequality. Please share your thoughts on this matter.

From what I understand, Japan is miles ahead of the United States in broadband access. So it is concerning to hear that even in Japan this remains an issue. The U.S. has completely failed to enact a national policy to develop our digital infrastructure. Large numbers of rural Americans are excluded from access to any broadband options. Still, many more pay exorbitant prices for slow internet connections.

Gaps in broadband access result from a concentration of power within a few telecom companies, the ability of companies to block state and local efforts around public fiber internet options, and the federal government's failure to provide the necessary funding and leadership.

Our failure in the U.S. to connect all of our citizens to broadband internet has made COVID-19 all the more devastating. It is impossible to participate in online education without a fast and reliable internet. The U.S. and I suspect Japan's answer is to understand that COVID-19 is the strongest possible wake-up call to spur government action to ensure universal broadband.

Next Story

Written By

More from Learning Innovation