Two years ago, when due to COVID-19 campuses closed, some institutions were able to transfer their students to already reliable online learning programs. But many other colleges and universities have set out to create online curricula from scratch. Students and faculty often found themselves in a system in Zoom or other platforms for the first time without knowing how to navigate the new world of virtual learning.
“When the pandemic hit, it was a provocation as well as a demand for innovation,” said Caroline Levander, vice president of global and digital strategy at Rice University in Houston, during a recent webinar on the future of online learning hosted by US News & World. Report.
Although the changes have been challenging for many, faculty in Rice and elsewhere have embraced the new opportunities offered by online learning. Levander shared the example of Rice’s physics professor, Jason Hafner, who used the virtual environment to find new compelling ways to teach concepts to students.
“Prior to the pandemic, it was innovating online delivery in our non-credit offerings,” Levander said. But as soon as COVID-19 spread, Hafner went beyond the walls of his classroom and took advantage of Rice’s physical campus to improve his teaching through video-recorded experiments conducted outside of regular classes. For example, in one lesson, he climbed to the top of a rock building in Rice’s ATV to drop two spheres of the same size, one made of aluminum and the other made of steel, to show that they would fall with the same acceleration despite different density.
Many educators are now reconsidering how virtual learning can further improve students ’experiences by offering more flexibility than classroom options, especially for hybrid and fully virtual learning models. In the early days of the pandemic, “people got into Zoom classes” and “they posted a lot of video lectures online,” said Jeff Borden, chief researcher at D2L, a company that creates software for online learning. “It’s good. It was important for people to pass. ” Now, however, Borden stressed, colleges and universities have the opportunity to go beyond these makeshift models. They can work to create more robust online learning platforms that meet the needs of a range of students who need to access coursework at different times and in different formats to fit their specific goals and lifestyles.
While four years of college can be considered standard for many, there are many people for whom “this is not the right path,” Borden said. In fact, some students may seek to simply gain credentials or enhance skills rather than gain traditional degrees. “There are tens of millions of other people in our society who have other needs, who have other desires,” Borden noted. Online learning now allows senior students, working adults, people of non-traditional backgrounds and those who may be neurodiverse to access content more easily than ever before, Borden added.
Many options also apply to graduate and vocational schools, many of which have fully or partially deployed online programs in recent years. In fact, entrants to Rice’s master’s program online are “much more diverse in all respects than students who turn to a residential counterpart,” Levander said, because access is easier and more compatible for students who can juggle work and family responsibilities. .
“The nice thing about online education is that it can really avoid geographical boundaries,” said Don Kilburn, CEO of UMass Online, which offers offerings at five University of Massachusetts schools. Kilburn agreed with his colleagues that online learning models play a crucial role in expanding access. He also highlighted the potential added benefits of reducing the financial burden on students, as online programs can often cost a share of personal. “Part of accessibility is accessibility,” he said. “I think there are ways to actually put fully online programs that have a lower cost structure and can significantly reduce the cost of education.”
Part of serving the needs of those who choose to attend classes online means understanding why they do it and how their needs differ from those who choose traditional, personal options, said Nancy Gonzalez, executive vice president and vice rector of the University of Arizona . , whose online programs will reach approximately 84,000 students this year.
Many online students choose fewer courses at a time and can take time off per semester to meet other aspects of their lives, such as caring for children or fulfilling work responsibilities – part of why online learning flexibility is so appealing, Gonzalez said. “We were trying to really try to understand what the cadence of attendance is and how we meet the needs of the students because it’s a very different population,” Gonzalez said.
At the same time, for Gonzalez, part of what makes the online education model successful is that it provides students with support and services comparable to what they could receive through personal learning. Such services can range from financial aid counseling to ensuring that students can interact with their peers on discussion boards to ensure that interactions with classmates are not lost while attending classes online.
But the prospects for online education, the panellists agreed, are great. “I think we’re just at the beginning of the digital transformation,” Kilburn said. “I can’t tell you when, but at some point you’ll see a revolution in education, as in everything else.”