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The Rush to Online Learning


The Rush to Online Learning

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It’s not just three weeks (or three months) to real impacts…

By Chris Edwards
SVP, University Partnerships, MindEdge Learning

The rush to online learning has been the single, overriding focus in the last two weeks in HigherEd, as campuses rapidly activate “remote learning resources” as part of their business continuity.

There’s been unprecedented disruption to the local campus communities as well, especially as many campuses have ordered students to move out from dormitories—in theory, to keep campus dorms from becoming “cruise ship” virus hotbeds that would overwhelm public health resources in their communities.

For most campuses, the act of translating courses online in a hurry isn’t a sustainable one. It’s more like preparing for a short-term substitute teacher in your high school Spanish class, when the sub doesn’t know much more than Como Estás. The situation is very rarely muy bien.

In trying to address the broader, longer-term impact of this shift to online classes, we need to put the next three months in the proper context. What we’re looking at now is a well-worn scenario in K-12 education. We’re approaching online learning as the “long-term sub,” the stopgap measure you’re forced to use when instrumental parts of the domain knowledge (the teacher) might be away—and you’re left with a textbook and the understanding that you need to pass this class, just to keep moving along on your educational pathway.

It’s vital that we do our best to understand the next three months—and then quickly take a longer-term view of what should be in place three years from now.

Will we be able to set up an environment to prove outcomes for this modality in a three-week blitz to the finish? No. Are we reliably able to do that, across-the-board, with a college education in general? Again, no. (That’s why, before the current panic, a lot of folks had been agonizing about the value of college. This isn’t a new thing, and it won’t go away after this delay.)

We’ve Got the Tools

The reality is, most campuses have long had the tools to provide for continuity—if not to deliver increasingly evolved and improved experiences within this modality.

The LMS market in the US is nearly 95 percent saturated, which means that most campuses have had the tools to deliver online learning for at least 20 years. Most have policies that require a course shell to be provisioned and the syllabus to be uploaded; that means these digital platforms are mostly everywhere, and always ready to go.

What hasn’t happened, on most campuses, is an agreement around widespread adoption of even the basic online learning features. For any given term, in every single class, the functionality of the LMS platform depends on the time and the experience of the instructors and administrators who are trying to use it.

Indeed, one of the key barriers to improved (or realistic) sentiment around online learning has been the uneven use of the platforms themselves. This is particularly acute for on-ground faculty at primarily residential colleges with first-time college undergraduates at the “traditional ages” (i.e., 18 to 22).

Will the faculty use the platform to post (or not)? Do my grades show up in here, or not? Are the digital resources edited and curated, or is everything just thrown in a folder? And why do I have to go to this other outside tool to do homework and answer questions? Without agreement on the basics, these questions have different answers in almost every different class.

The gaps widen when students have had enough exposure to know the difference between the online course that’s really a digital junk drawer, and the highly curated and designed programs nurtured by instructional designers and technologists plugged into the OLC community.

Woe to those faculty who have shunned tech, for whatever reason, and who have to pick it up now in times of extreme distress. And woe to those students who grew up in places where snow, tornados, or hurricanes regularly threatened the continuity of their high schools: those students have experience and expectations (because their schools prepared for stuff like this), and they are going to expect college to be better.

Many of those studying in person will find out that it’s not—especially those who attend institutions on the laggard end of the adoption curve. And the difficulties are only magnified by the fragility of the U.S. tech infrastructure. Think about it: right now, just about everything on the planet is canceling, we’re all trying to work from home, and 80 percent of the world’s Internet traffic is either Netflix or Disney+. Where’s the bandwidth going to come from? It’s going to be like a global Spotifight.

This Is the New Beginning of Online—Or Not

Let’s jump back to the substitute-teacher analogy for a minute.

Every new K-12 teacher can tell about you the pain and suffering that is their first year on the job. In addition to dealing with (probably) more students than you should, meeting new colleagues, learning how to be a professional, and handling thousands of personal interactions each day—you continuously have to plan for the next day, and the day after that. I’m sure it feels never-ending. And for 180 days plus all the weekends you can spare, it probably is.

The good news is that if those new teachers take the long-term approach to organizing and developing materials, and makes it through year one, they’ll have the outline, materials, and approach necessary to make it through the next year unscathed, and a little more prepared.

And then, if they finally make it to the third go-around—which for many K-12 teachers can be a big IF—there’s two years of outcomes, learning data, and feedback that can influence the incremental improvement of assessments, interactions, demonstrations of learning, feedback, etc.

Well, for those just jumping into this “online thing” for HigherEd, it’s no different.

Yes, there’s 20 years of history, pedagogy, results, papers, arguments about best practices, etc. etc. etc. to deal with—just as there would be for any K-12 educator.

But for the large majority of those just working to find a way to keep going in the current COVID-19 crisis, they need to focus more on making the transition to an organized, digital approach, rather than attempting a total immersion into the world of online learning.

No Turning Back

That said, we still need to organize around these ubiquitous LMS platforms, to leverage tools that help learners day-to-day—and thus, have a foundational presence for the next time a panic happens. We need to make the connection to digital learning assets as an integral part of HigherEd’s future.

Turning back to the way HigherEd used to be just doesn’t make sense—not any more than it would make sense to give up online banking and turn back to passbook savings accounts. Or to give up online access to your retirement account (or at least what’s left of it, after weeks of Wall Street chaos), in favor of having a broker keep a paper ledger of all your transactions.

The world has changed. In the last two weeks, we’ve all re-started down this road to digital learning—some of us for the very first time.

If COVID-19 means years of uncertainty and disruption and a new concern about public health, it also means we’ll have that one- to three-year window that we need to accommodate a gradual, measured, and thoughtful approach to maximizing the scope, scale, and best-practices of a true shift to online learning.

And that’s the long-term perspective we need to take.

Chris Edwards, MindEdge’s senior vice president for University Partnerships, writes an occasional column for the MindEdge Learning blog.

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