Two years ago, as COVID-19 caused campuses to close, some institutions were able to shift their students to already robust online learning programs. But many other colleges and universities scrambled to build online education curricula from scratch. Students and faculty often found themselves logging onto Zoom or other platforms for the first time, with little knowledge of how to navigate a new world of virtual learning.
“When the pandemic hit, it was a provocation, as well as a demand for innovation,” said Caroline Levander, the vice president for global and digital strategy at Rice University in Houston, during a recent webinar on the future of online learning hosted by U.S. News & World Report.
While the changes were challenging for many, faculty members at Rice and elsewhere embraced the new opportunities that online learning offered. Levander shared an example of a Rice physics professor, Jason Hafner, who capitalized on the virtual environment to find compelling new ways to teach concepts to students.
“He had been innovating with online delivery in our non-credit offerings before the pandemic,” said Levander. But once COVID-19 spread, Hafner moved beyond the walls of his classroom and took advantage of Rice’s physical campus to enhance his teaching with video-recorded experiments conducted outside of normal class times. For example, in one lesson, he climbed atop a rock edifice in Rice’s engineering quad to drop two equally sized spheres – one made of aluminum and the other of steel – to demonstrate that they would fall with the same acceleration despite their different densities.
Now, many educators are reassessing how virtual learning can further enhance the student experience by offering greater flexibility than in-class options, particularly for hybrid and all-virtual instruction models. During the early days of the pandemic, “people stood up Zoom classrooms” and “they put a lot of video lectures up online,” said Jeff Borden, the chief academic officer for D2L, a company that creates online learning software. “That’s fine. That was important to get people through.” Now, however, Borden stressed, colleges and universities have the opportunity to move beyond these makeshift models. They can work to build more durable online learning platforms that meet the needs of a range of learners who must access coursework at different times and in different formats to suit their particular goals and lifestyles.
While a four-year college education can be thought of as a default for many, there are a lot of people for whom “that’s not the right path,” said Borden. In fact, some students may be looking simply to gain credentials or to upskill, rather than get traditional degrees. “There are tens of millions of other people in our society who have needs that are other than that, who have desires that are different than that,” Borden noted. Online learning now enables older students, working adults, people from nontraditional backgrounds and those who might be neurodiverse to access content more easily than ever before, Borden added.
The multitude of options also extends to graduate and professional schools, many of which have rolled out fully or partially online programs in recent years. In fact, applicants to Rice’s fully online master’s degree program are “much more diverse in every way than students who apply to the residential counterpart,” Levander said, because access is made easier and more compatible to students who may be juggling work and family obligations.
“The nice thing about online education is that it can actually escape geographical boundaries,” said Don Kilburn, the CEO of UMass Online, which has offerings across the five University of Massachusetts schools. Kilburn agreed with his fellow panelists that online learning models play a critical role in broadening access. He also emphasized the potential added benefit of lessening the financial burden on students, since online programs can often cost a fraction of in-person ones. “Part of accessibility is affordability,” he said. “I do think there are ways to actually deliver fully online programs that have a lower cost structure and may actually reduce the cost of education significantly.”
Part of serving the needs of those who choose to attend classes online means understanding why they do so and how their needs differ from those who choose traditional, in-person options, said Nancy Gonzales, the executive vice president and university provost at Arizona State University, whose online programs will reach approximately 84,000 students this year.
Many online students choose to take fewer courses at a time and may take semesters off to accommodate other aspects of their lives like taking care of children or work responsibilities – part of why the flexibility of online learning is so appealing, Gonzales said. “We’ve been trying to really try to understand what is the cadence of attendance and how do we meet the needs of students, because they are a very different population,” said Gonzales.
At the same time, for Gonzales, part of what makes an online education model successful is providing students with comparable support and services to what they might receive through in-person instruction. Such services might range from financial aid counseling to ensuring that students can interact with their peers on discussion boards, in order to ensure that interactions with classmates are not lost when attending class online.
But the promise of online education, the panelists agreed, is great. “I think we are just at the beginning of the digital transformation,” said Kilburn. “I can’t tell you when, but at some point you will see a revolution in education like you will in everything else.”