At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, students, faculty and administrators faced challenges amid the urgent pivot to emergency remote instruction. The pandemic and resulting quarantines are large-scale crises unlike anything we have ever faced. During the spring of 2020, more than 4,000 U.S. higher education institutions were forced to mobilize emergency remote instruction for more than 20 million students. Moving courses en masse into a crisis-responsive form of distance learning protected the health of our communities and preserved academic continuity for students. Faculty members and support staff displayed heroic levels of creativity, commitment and courage to make it all happen.
Entering 2022, the Omicron variant created unprecedented surges in the numbers of infected individuals. Once again, many colleges and universities have chosen to start the term using remote instruction to address this emergency. With the return of what was seen as a temporary measure to preserve the health of students, faculty and staff, our organizations feel the time is right to have a conversation on the national level about some widespread misconceptions that have arisen.
Chief among those is the inaccurate use of terminology that has led to confusion for students, their families, faculty, administrators, policy makers, members of the press and the public at large. Notably, people conflate “remote” learning with “online” learning. Quite simply, the difference between the two lies in planning and preparation:
- Remote learning is an emergency measure used to assure continuity of learning. It involves taking a course that was designed for the face-to-face classroom and moving it quickly into a distance learning modality (usually synchronous and held via web-conferencing tools, such as Zoom). Typically, the aim is an attempt to replicate the in-person classroom experience. Most faculty have too little training, support or time to effectively pivot their face-to-face course to one we would characterize as high-quality online learning.
- Online learning is a planned experience over weeks or months where the course has purposefully been designed for the online environment. The accompanying technology and tools have been carefully selected for the educational objectives. Faculty receive professional development and support to succeed in this modality.
In distinguishing between the two, we sometimes use the lifeboat analogy—the lifeboat is great if the ship is sinking, but the onboard experience cannot be compared to that of a luxury cruise liner.
Through emergency remote instruction, what many students experience is not the high-quality online learning that has been developed and delivered by countless institutions for the past several decades. Nor has that emergency instruction been guided by the pedagogies and best practices supported by online learning research. For example, purposefully designed, quality online learning considers online presence and multiple forms of interaction, includes digitally accessible materials, and is well organized in an online course site to guide students along their learning pathway. But as Charles Hodges and his co-authors noted in their important article in the Educause Review, "The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning," which explored this topic in depth, for people unfamiliar with online learning the distinction between quality online courses and emergency remote instruction was, and still is, unclear.
Emergency remote instruction is not on par with the online learning that those of us who have long worked in the field strive to provide. We at the National Council for Online Education believe students deserve the best possible experience for their education—and institutional leaders must be committed to delivering top-quality, rigorous and engaging learning experiences, regardless of modality. In fact, some accrediting agencies are explicit in expecting that quality be the same for all modalities or even have additional—more stringent—requirements for online instruction.
High-quality online learning is the result of faculty trained and supported in online pedagogy, intentional instructional design and a host of other important ingredients that we have been fine-tuning for more than 25 years. This work has been guided over the years by research-supported practices, online course and program design guidelines (such as the Quality Matters Rubric, the OLC Quality Scorecards and the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership), and tools crafted to support faculty in designing quality courses.
As described in Every Learner Everywhere’s book Optimizing High-Quality Digital Learning Experiences: A Playbook for Faculty, high-quality digital learning experiences “are well-organized and thoughtfully designed. These experiences rely on instructional design principles and strategies to align learning outcomes with learning assignments, activities and assessment practice … not only through strategic design, but also through integrating intentional opportunities for community-building and interaction in the digital environment.”
Research shows that, when done correctly, quality online courses are as effective as face-to-face classes and, in fact, often lead to greater student success. But while faculty teaching remote classes are trying their best, they simply have not had the necessary development time. And the process to build those courses, and to prepare instructors to teach them effectively, does take time—a resource not afforded by the rush to respond to COVID-19. At the onset of the pandemic, 97 percent of U.S. institutions reported having assigned faculty members with no prior online teaching experience to remote courses. In addition, many students faced difficulties accessing the technology and internet connectivity needed to succeed, especially when separated from on-campus computer labs and other vital resources. The pervasive stress of a global pandemic only intensified those difficulties.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, before the pandemic, one out of six postsecondary students were fully online students who had already realized the flexibility that learning modality gave them to navigate full-time jobs, family obligations or other needs. Then, during the pandemic, the flexibility provided by using online learning tools in transitioning to remote instruction enabled a significant portion of postsecondary learners a chance to learn without risking themselves, their loved ones or their communities.
We all learned many lessons during the pandemic, including that students want—and need—the flexibility afforded by online learning. Even as students returned to campus, many asked for continued online options—and not just for health-related reasons. They have asked for flexibility in the modality, duration and scheduling of learning that best serves their educational needs. Many students have full-time jobs, are caregivers and were affected by the pandemic in ways that will continue to influence and challenge them. We also learned the importance of preparedness and saw that institutions that had invested in building a foundation of online quality prior to the pandemic—such as basic faculty training for online teaching, student orientation for online learning and necessary technology and institutional infrastructure—reaped dividends for that work. Institutions lacking online experience struggled with their pandemic response, as they did not have a core of faculty, instructional designers and leadership to support the transition to remote emergency mode.
Re-Envisioning, Adapting and Evolving
For this and other reasons, the National Council for Online Education and institutions of higher education owe it to our learning communities to continue to advance high-quality, intentionally designed online learning through which institutions can contribute to student outcomes in new and profound ways. By empowering our faculty members to teach even more skillfully online, we will make courses more engaging and learning more effective. By re-envisioning ad hoc and remote teaching materials, we can offer students new online courses that both adhere to well-established frameworks of quality and expand the opportunities that have made online learning a meaningful experience for millions of learners.
We certainly do not expect all courses to be online in the future, but institutions would do well to support all faculty in leveraging digital learning tools and best practices. We are hearing of more interest in incorporating digital technologies as supplements to face-to-face courses, in blended courses or in new fully online courses. To best employ such tools in serving students, institutions will need to rely on thoughtful technology selection, faculty development, instructional design and application of proven frameworks to best ensure quality online learning.
As colleges and universities offer more online options in response to student demands, they are also challenged to adequately describe the student experience, and ensure quality learning, for each course. Students need to know what learning environment to expect for each, such as how much time is spent face-to-face or online. They also need to know what technologies will be used, including how their instructor and institutional support services will assist them. Those communications with students are made more difficult when people conflate the terms “remote” and “online” learning. Therefore, we call on institutions, researchers and the press to be more reflective and accurate with terminology when discussing or examining a given educational experience
Finally, the pandemic reinforced why online learning is so vital to the future of higher education: through digital tools, students were able to continue learning. Digital tools enabled a new wave of students and educators in realizing the advantages and opportunities of online learning. As online education leaders, we pledge to use these lessons to continually adapt and evolve so that we can meet the needs of future students, even as we help shepherd our communities through unpredictable future emergencies.