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The rush of colleges and universities to complete the current academic year online in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and possibly prepare hastily for the same delivery mode this coming fall, could well result in unprecedented turbulence for faculty, students and families. The unavoidable haste of implementation presents a highly uneven and potentially unsatisfying educational experience -- threatening to further discredit distance learning as a viable educational platform. The potential backlash from students, parents and faculty members is well described in a recent commentary by Peter Stokes and Mark Johnson.

The challenge then is to identify how to deliver high-quality learning at a distance -- especially if these necessary yet on-the-fly efforts run into challenges from students and their families. What type of digital learning platform will emerge from this crisis that might assuage faculty members’ lingering doubts about the medium and students’ motivational challenges with online learning?

To answer that question, I return to an article I co-authored several decades ago with Bryan Polivka, “Distance Learning: Education’s New Oedipus.” We argued that the most effective learning at a distance will be that which, through ever more sophisticated technology, approximates most completely the live classroom environment, including both direct instruction and instructional support.

The year before, Tom Haskins had written in an online article, which said, “A virtual university must abandon most aspects of classroom delivery systems. Formulating any strategy requires intense scrutiny of assumptions and creation of new rules to play by.” We disagreed. Learning at a distance cannot emerge as a reliable and desired learning option as long as its proponents reject the conventional classroom and what makes learning possible -- and enjoyable -- in that setting. Only when distance learning advocates finally embrace the full range of instructional connection points available in the traditional classroom will they begin to offer the public a viable educational model.

The most important connection point we identified is impact. And the most essential component of impact is the affirmation of a learner’s identity by the instructor, with other students and with the material to be engaged. We asserted further that identity affirmation in learning consists of several factors, including recognition of the student’s name, appearance, thoughts/ideas, abilities, sense of purpose and individual preferences and values, as well as the culture that each individual brings to learning.

Additionally, and perhaps most important, since human beings are “affinity” beings, students ultimately want to learn among other people -- “to see them, to hear them and to exchange ideas.” Assuming that content is substantial and meets expectations, people are prepared to learn and stay motivated over a sustained period of time regardless of delivery system, if as many as possible of these factors are present.

Perhaps I am distinctively situated at this point in my career to comment about distance learning in higher education. I am permitted singular insight into two scenarios that are often thought at odds, but which I trust I have been able to reconcile as I more fully appreciated what united them beyond differing tax status. As a former president of Dickinson College, I have firsthand knowledge of and respect for colleagues in a sector of higher education that historically is highly suspicious of the equivalency of distance learning to the in-person classroom.

I have also worked in the for-profit higher education sector -- specifically Sylvan Learning Systems and its associated satellite-based learning platform, the Caliber Leaning Network, which have embraced learning at a distance. Caliber broadcast live courses from elite universities to both qualified high school students and physicians interested in the business of medicine. It was while shaping the educational ambitions of Caliber that Bryan Polivka and I, colleagues there, drafted our 1999 article and its affirmation of human identity as an objective in distance learning.

In the 1999 article, we wrote, “The challenge then to establish distance learning as a viable supplement to, or even a replacement of, the conventional classroom is not to disparage or eliminate the long-standing virtues of impact and identity embedded in the conventional classroom delivery model, but rather to create imaginatively a single, integrated, technology-enhanced learning platform that approximates the maximum number of these identity-producing capabilities provided fully in the conventional classroom.”

At the time, we declared, “No one technology can achieve this today.” Twenty-one years later, this assertion no longer holds. Innovations in technology, including artificial intelligence, should motivate providers to offer transnational learning platforms that proximate the maximum number of identity-confirming factors present in conventional classroom education.

For example, Walden University, founded 50 years ago to provide distance education to working adults, in its effort to define the next generation of online education has introduced proactive, digital intervention tools aimed at delivering through big data and artificial intelligence the precision guidance students need to support learning as it occurs. A real-time “digital coach” analyzes classroom engagement patterns and connects a student one on one to an adviser if their pattern deviates from historical norms. A student’s preferences, needs and patterns are recognized and acted upon immediately.

Various education commentators speculate whether the pervasive use of online learning during the COVID-19 might be its black swan moment: a reversal of its fortunes for more widespread adoption in higher education. But will COVID-19, in fact, create the moment that turns the tide for online learning in higher education, leading to its unquestioned and comprehensive embrace? Or will online education suffer from a backlash over its lower quality and effectiveness compared to traditional classroom instruction? That depends on the success of the various emergency applications now being tried and what higher education learns from the student and faculty response for improvements going forward.

Unquestionably, faculty and staff members in large numbers must find a digital delivery platform worthy of teaching and learning, measured against the personalized level of exchange to which students and faculty are accustomed in their conventional classroom. Most important, the particular online delivery platform that a university, department or single faculty member chooses in haste must, at a minimum, provide identity affirmation of both students and faculty, if the online offering is to be successful.

This means, for example, preferably a full or partly synchronous experience that ensures any student can speak up at any time and be seen and heard by the instructor and other students and that the real-time personalities of students and the instructor can emerge and interact. It also means that students have access to virtual hand raises that the instructor and other students can see immediately and to which the instructor can respond; that the instructor has an icon to speak with any student face-to-face as all other students watch and listen; that students have access to whiteboards, slides and their own materials as they choose, not as somebody else chooses; and that there are options for in-class small group discussions that can be reported back to the instructor.

It is too early in the massive turn to online education to draw conclusions about whether these requirements are being fulfilled by all, or even a majority of, the online efforts by colleges and universities around the country. The degree to which they ultimately are will be the degree to which the tide, in fact, turns.

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