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When it started to become clear that institutions would have to end in-person instruction and begin teaching students remotely because of the coronavirus crisis, whom did presidents call first? Probably their institution's chief online officer, the highest-ranking official responsible for whatever they do in terms of distance or digital learning.

A new survey of those officials, released this week by Quality Matters and Eduventures -- respectively, a nonprofit group focused on ensuring quality in online education and a research and advisory group -- was conducted in spring 2019, well before COVID-19 was on any of our radar screens. As is true for most surveys being released these days, the data for this one, "The Changing Landscape of Online Education, 2020" (CHLOE for short), must be read in light of the fact that the coronavirus has dramatically changed the environment for online learning like so many others.

But the data still provide some potentially useful insights into the current situation by giving a sense of how well prepared campuses were, on various fronts, to respond to the current imperative that they conduct most of their instruction virtually.

The answer, not surprisingly, is a mixed bag.

About 70 percent of respondents to the CHLOE survey said that they did not require students to take training or orientation in studying online before they took a virtual course. That varied significantly by sector, as the graph below shows, with regional private institutions being most likely to require such training and public institutions of various kinds (flagships, regional publics and community colleges, which collectively enroll most of the nation's students) being among the least likely to require it. Four-year institutions with low online enrollments and what the study calls enterprise institutions, which tend to have large online operations, were in between.

"Given the known difficulties of students adjusting to online study, we considered the figures for required online student orientation … as surprisingly low," the report's authors write.

With dropout rates for online education being higher than for face-to-face courses, the findings were surprising, wrote one of the authors, Ronald Legon, executive director emeritus of Quality Matters. He wondered why institutions wouldn't take the extra step of requiring students to prepare for online study.

Much talk and a fair number of horror stories circulating on social media in recent weeks focused on whether college faculty members are prepared for the sudden, required move to virtual classrooms. The CHLOE survey suggests that a majority of them have at least had some training, unlike their students, as noted above.

About 60 percent of chief online officers said their college or university required faculty members to engage in some formal training before teaching online. Such training is most common at community colleges and four-year colleges with low online enrollments. It is less so at flagship universities and at enterprise institutions.

The survey also asked the online learning leaders whether their institutions had teaching and learning centers that provide support to faculty members for using technology or innovative practices in their classrooms. More than three-quarters did, with some reporting multiple such centers, as seen below.

Those data collectively show that most institutions aren't prepared to flip a switch and move all their learning into truly online settings, said Legon. That perhaps explains why most colleges -- for this spring semester, at least -- are generally embracing a very low-technology form of remote learning, involving Zoom or other video platforms and various tools for communicating about assignments and assessments.

"That seems to me the only thing sensible that can happen right now, to use our online tools for communication, to put out material and assignments, to accept back results and perhaps give exams online," Legon said. But as the weeks pass, if colleges remain shut down physically, the pressure on institutions will grow to "actually design and build structured online courses that use the online tools as effectively as they can," he said.

It will be important for colleges to signal clearly to students and professors that the brand of virtual education most of them are seeing right now isn't the sort of high-quality online education that is possible when it is designed thoughtfully with help from professionals and well-trained professors.

The brand of virtual instruction that most professors and students are doing on the fly right now could damage perceptions of online education, Legon said. Based on it, "those who have only a limited understanding of online learning, or have avoided it all together, are likely to be disappointed, frustrated and perhaps confirmed in their belief that this is not a viable alternative to traditional classroom education."

If the current situation lingers, and colleges are forced to continue to offer most or all of their instruction at a distance into the fall, how well prepared will most institutions be to produce truly high-quality online courses across the board?

This year's CHLOE survey finds that a majority of instructors at most colleges produce their online courses either by themselves or with optional support from professional instructional designers at their institutions. Legon noted that previous iterations of the survey have shown that most colleges have relatively small numbers of instructional designers, with the typical community college having no more than one or two such positions.

What would happen if colleges tried to hire instructional designers in large numbers to try to ramp up high-quality online offerings in a hurry for the fall? "I don’t think there’s a pipeline that could respond," Legon said. "That's a real problem if you're trying to do this at scale."

Other Findings

Nearly one in four chief online officers (24 percent) said their institution had at least one contract with a company that provides assistance on creating and managing online programs, called online program managers, or OPMs, up from 12 percent in 2017. Officials cited student marketing and recruitment as the most common areas for which they sought outside help, but about half of those that used online program management companies said they were involved in online course and program development, too.

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