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Given the skepticism voiced by many students, administrators who oversee online learning share a surprisingly sunny outlook on how well their institution handled the pivot to remote learning this spring, according to new survey data.

The Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report, published today, is the fifth in a series of annual surveys on online learning conducted by Quality Matters and Eduventures. This report, however, focuses specifically on the pivot to remote teaching that occurred this past spring. The report includes responses from 308 chief online officers at two- and four-year public, private nonprofit and for-profit institutions.

Numerous recent surveys on the spring semester have reflected student dissatisfaction with the remote learning they experienced. But 78 percent of online leaders surveyed in the CHLOE report said the pivot to remote instruction at their institution was completely or largely successful in keeping students academically on track.

Bar chart: Was the pivot to remote learning at your institution succesful?

It didn't come easily, though: 19 percent described the steps to carry out the pivot as “smooth and straightforward,” while 44 percent considered them “somewhat difficult” and 36 percent “very challenging.”

The average institution moved more than 500 courses to remote instruction between February and April 2020. This pivot most profoundly affected the 50 percent of faculty members, 51 percent of undergraduate students and 27 percent of graduate students at U.S. institutions that the online administrators surveyed by the groups estimated had not previously taught or experienced a fully online course.

Unsurprisingly, institutions with greater online experience were more likely to describe the transition to remote instruction as smooth and successful. With institutions employing on average just three full-time instructional designers, resources and time to move courses online this spring were extremely limited. More than two-thirds of reporting institutions (69 percent) said they provided additional financial or staff resources to support this transition. This support included procurement of new technology such as videoconferencing tools, faculty training and laptops for students. Few resources were dedicated to ensuring online accessibility for students with disabilities.

“Everything was turned on its head in the spring,” said Richard Garrett, Eduventures’ chief research officer and co-lead of the CHLOE project. Faculty with limited online experience faced a lot of pressure to quickly convert courses from face-to-face to remote instruction. “No one is pretending that equivalent design and care and attention was taken to build out these classes as would be normally be taken to design a high-quality online course,” said Garrett.  

While most online leaders described their spring pivot to remote instruction as a success, most also recognized that plenty of improvements could be made to their remote courses. Many respondents felt that their remote courses fell short in terms of student engagement when compared to their fully online courses, said Ron Legon, executive director emeritus of Quality Matters and co-lead of the CHLOE project.

In contrast, a small minority felt their remote courses were superior to their online courses in terms of student engagement. These respondents were mostly at community colleges, “who may have a lot of experience online, but feel they do not have sufficient resources to build quality courses,” said Legon. As colleges improve their remote courses over time, the distinction between remote and fully online courses is “going to blur,” creating a spectrum of different approaches, said Legon.

While many colleges have announced plans to return to face-to-face instruction this fall, many chief online officers reported that their institution plans to continue developing and investing in the remote programs they developed in the spring. That finding suggests some discrepancy between public plans to reopen and continue face-to-face instruction and “what is going on behind the scenes” as colleges prepare for a fall likely to heavily involve remote learning, said Legon.

Table with data on plans for Fall 2020 remote courses

More than 80 percent of online learning officers said they are planning to continue making improvements to the courses they offered remotely in the spring, with 35 percent saying they intend to convert these remote courses to fully online courses. Just 4 percent of respondents indicated that their priority is to return to in-person instruction as soon as possible.

“Remote teaching is not the same thing as online. We know that,” said Jennifer Mathes, CEO of the Online Learning Consortium. “Preparing a course for a remote environment does not take advantage of the best practices that need to be implemented in order to offer students an effective learning environment.”

Colleges need to go beyond the quick steps that were taken earlier this year to make classes remote, and make sure faculty are adequately prepared, said Mathes. A lot of institutions recognize that they need to do better in the fall, she said. “They are putting a lot of effort into developing quality programs and making sure that their faculty are prepared to teach in an online environment. This means that the faculty not only understand how to use the tool but are learning how to be more effective in teaching in this modality.”

Whether the experience of remote instruction will positively change attitudes toward online learning will likely vary, said Mathes. “I think that students and faculty that view online learning more favorably after the spring switch are those that likely had good support from their institutions. With the right communication, training and tools the next academic year still has the potential to be much more successful than the past spring for both students and faculty.”

As institutions look ahead and plan for continued or expanded distance education, online leaders are focusing on providing more faculty development and training in online learning, investing in tools and technologies, and setting minimum expectations for faculty-student interaction.

"While chief online officers acknowledge specific challenges, the majority portray a largely positive view of online learning in the wake of the pandemic crisis. Many also expressed optimism about the future of online learning, which should reassure the online community that some benefit will come from their hard work in these perilous times," said Legon.

Most online leaders were optimistic about the long-term impact of the spring semester on attitudes toward online learning among faculty and staff. Asked to project demand for online learning in the near future, 64 percent of respondents predicted increased demand among undergraduates for online classes.

Few institutions turned to online program management companies to assist in their pivot to remote instruction, but many OPM users said they are interested in expanding their relationship in the future. Nonusers of OPMs expressed little interest in working with OPMs at this time, but Garrett thinks that could change. Many institutions are realizing where they have gaps in online expertise, and they may more seriously consider outsourcing to a partner in future, he said.

“There were some schools that said that this experience has made them think more seriously about working with an OPM down the road,” said Garrett. “It’s definitely underlined that online is becoming even more important in the higher education landscape."

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