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Thought Leadership

To Stay Relevant, Colleges Need to Adapt Online Learning

Gregory F. Marino

Focusing on what really helps students

Even as universities continue to navigate the issues brought on by the pandemic’s overhang on the college experience, one thing has become clear: some version of online education is here to stay. The real challenge for colleges is how to build on the most effective edtech practices to maximize opportunity and learning for students.

The emergency version of online learning adopted during the early days of the pandemic was often vastly different from the successful models that have been under development for decades. Much of the ad hoc pivot to online instruction initially consisted of Zoom lectures and course materials like Powerpoint slides posted on the university website. There was typically little faculty-student interaction, or even student-to-student discussion, built in. Little wonder this impersonal format left many students cold. In one survey, by Digital Promise, the portion of students who were “very satisfied” with their pre-COVID classes dropped from 51 percent to 19 percent.

A closer look at students’ COVID experience shows that their satisfaction was much greater when professors teaching online used proven practices like breaking up class activities into shorter presentations and active learning activities, offering live sessions and other discussion opportunities, and giving frequent assessments.

Crisis-driven coping mechanisms may have a silver lining in the form of positive longer-term changes

Add to that the sheer convenience of being able to replay lectures anytime or complete self-paced interactive assignments on a flexible schedule. This holds particular appeal for working adult students who are balancing their studies with intense family and career responsibilities. It’s worth noting that 79 percent of students want to keep recorded lectures available online after COVID and nearly half want the option of switching between in-person and online class attendance.

In other words, like so many other aspects of life under the pandemic, crisis-driven coping mechanisms may have a silver lining in the form of positive longer-term changes. When put into practice correctly, online learning can be highly effective. Here’s how:

  • Flexibility. After COVID hit, Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur deployed an interactive program called Perusall to permit students to pose questions in the textbook - and respond to one another - as they read each chapter. By the time they started class, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, there were more than 1,000 comments, questions, or responses marked in each chapter and “students had been marinating in their work for several days, both alone and together.” With other asynchronous techniques added to the mix, Mazur said he had never before seen students work so hard in his course.

  • Regular data-driven assessment. Measuring and tracking student performance is vital to identify gaps in their understanding and inform the best way to tailor instruction - long before midterm and final grades are due. Education technology is ideally suited to provide frequent, low-stakes reality checks on what students know. Kaplan’s own use of techniques like short-answer polls in online classes helps instructors tailor content and discussions to areas where students need the most support.

  • Democratizing classroom engagement for all students.  Not every student is an extrovert who feels comfortable engaging with the professor from the front row of the lecture hall. Early data show benefits to underserved minorities and more introverted students in an online classroom. “When you teach online, every single student is sitting in the front row,” Mazur told the Chronicle. At the University of Central Florida, which embraced structured online learning in the 1990s,digital courses lead to success rates for women and minorities that are just as good as those in face-to-face classes.

Looking ahead, it’s inevitable and understandable that many students are seeking a return to all kinds of in-person campus experiences. But both students and faculty who were once loyal only to physical classrooms and labs have now seen the convenience and impact of some online learning tools. Those are sure to have staying power long after the unplanned college pandemic experiment -- particularly when learning institutions apply an iterative approach to continuous improvement.

Think about the hybrid campus of the future, where the optimal mix of face-to-face activities and digital tools can be tailored to meet the needs of more students. Professors will use increasingly sophisticated data tools to measure and improve educational progress. Students will transcend limitations of time and place by choosing virtual office hours or watch-anytime lectures. Interaction will take new and sometimes richer forms - and it will require expertise in proven best practices, like built-in outreach and support systems to keep students engaged. Despite today’s growing pains and glitches, there may be a danger that those who fail to embrace the new opportunities of online education will get left behind.

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