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    Unique insights from Ray Schroeder, senior fellow for UPCEA: the Association for Leaders in Online and Professional Education

The placid ivy-covered walls and calm quad will remain when COVID is vanquished, but the university will never be the same. We are forever changed -- by the disease and by the advance of technology and competition in this, the fourth industrial revolution.

October 6, 2021

It has been said that you could walk into a classroom at the dawn of the 21st century and it would be barely distinguishable from one at the dawn of the 20th century. Not just that the fixtures of the classroom were only slightly changed, but the pedagogy and practice were nearly identical. The professor, the “sage on the stage,” was up front at the lectern; the students were aligned in neat rows of writing-arm chairs -- oftentimes seated below the elevated dais of the professor with an expensive textbook in the book bag at their feet. Students furiously hand-wrote notes (laptops were often banned due to the temptation to text or game instead of transcribing the “words of wisdom” of the professor). Assessments were based on multiple-choice answers to rote memorization questions. Sadly, perhaps you can find such lecture halls and practices on your own campus today.

Increasingly that is changing. The remote learning of 2020 has evolved toward true online learning in which refined pedagogies and practices are applied to ensure engagement and achievement of learning outcomes. Increasingly assessments are authentic and relevant to the workplace and society. They have become learning opportunities and demonstrations of application of knowledge rather than merely memorization tests. Mixed-mode teaching and learning are the norm, with synchronous and asynchronous online learning mixed with face-to-face options -- each selected for the best elements of access and learning outcomes for the specific learning module.

Learning at a distance has not gone away with vaccinations, masking and testing; rather, the pandemic has accelerated the shift to distance learning. The advantages of technology-assisted learning are apparent. It opens access to the classroom for those who are place-bound for a whole host of reasons ranging from disability to job and family obligations and more. Distance learning allows for live engagement with environments outside the classroom. Distance learning practices enable students to replay lectures, conduct simulations at any time and collaborate with other students anytime and anyplace.

As campuses reopened, students and some faculty began insisting that the online and hybrid/blended delivery of classes continue on a wide scale in the wake of the pandemic. As breakthrough infections and associated pandemic conditions became the new normal, educators needed flexibility to move beyond Zoom and video lectures to create inclusive learning environments.

Much press was given to the prospect that students who were not comfortable with online learning would drop out of college. Surprisingly, though, the reverse seems to be true in many cases -- a large number of learners are returning to colleges after having dropped out or stopped out years ago.

Yvette Mozie-Ross and her team last summer identified 2,700 students who left [the University of Maryland, Baltimore County] in good academic standing with at least 60 credits and who did not earn degrees elsewhere. They quickly launched a “Finish Line” campaign, offering application fee waivers and other support to dozens of students … Similar initiatives to re-enroll former students have taken hold at Morehouse College in Atlanta, which in February announced it would launch an online undergraduate program with adults who never completed college in mind. Morgan State University in Baltimore recently unveiled “Morgan Completes You,” a collection of 18 new interdisciplinary degrees programs designed for adults with some college experience but no degree.

It is clear that the percentage of online students is continuing to increase. The decades-long growth of online will be accelerated by the addition of students who are new to online courses, having taken them first during campus closures in the past two years. Wiley Education Services conducted a poll of college and university students, the results of which were reported in the Voice of the Online Learner 2021.

One-third of the more than 3,000 students Wiley polled that take some online courses said they would consider a move to fully online learning. More than half said they are so impressed by the value, implementation and flexibility of remote learning that they are considering enrolling in those programs … Those learners have clear expectations of what an overarching online program should contain. The first is faster paths to earn credentials … The second is flexibility, and that means several dates throughout the year to begin classes, far more asynchronous course options and an adjustable degree plan. The third is cost assistance.

Not only is the mode of delivery in the post-pandemic university going to shift to include more delivery alternatives, but the learning materials are also shifting from the traditionally published textbooks to a more targeted, up-to-date assembly of open educational resources. This shift is motivated not only by the cost of the traditional text, but also by the advantages of open online materials to address specific topics chosen by the instructor that may not be deeply addressed in a broadly adopted text. Framingham State University is an example of this shift.

While Framingham State faculty are participating in OER training provided by the state of Massachusetts, providers such as Open Stax and the Open Education Network have over the last several years scaled up the quality of peer-reviewed -- mostly online -- open educational resources, González adds. The library also sends out a newsletter to faculty covering the latest trends in OER. “We’re at that tipping point where there’s a lot of interest, whereas before there were a lot of questions in terms of the quality,” González says. “Right now, the materials that are available are so rich, we want to pass that tipping point by providing support.”

The successful university to which students return post-pandemic will be significantly different from the one they left for remote learning in 2020. The new normal will be technology enhanced and accessibility committed. The path to a successful future is paved with responsiveness to student needs, accessibility, connectedness to society and to the workplace. Are you part of building that path at your university?

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