As Colleges Rush to Triage Education Amidst the Pandemic – What is going well.. and not so well..

As colleges and universities across the nation rushed to triage education and push classes – and students – online quickly, we are beginning to see the outcome of the mass exodus of on-ground education into the online modality. This affords us an opportunity to assess what is going well, what could be improved, what lessons we have learned and what may be forever changed in the world of higher education.

What’s going well

Some colleges and universities have struggled more than others to pull together the technical and faculty resources needed in the push for online to allow for teaching continuity. Prior to higher education moving to the online modality, learners would simply be pushed out of the classroom – until further notice. Instead (certainly not all, but many), learners and faculty have found themselves learning and teaching in the online world. Many schools have been able to pull together resources quickly, put together training programs for students and faculty to navigate the unfamiliar online systems and the technical resources working remotely to handle student and faculty questions. Our partners that already have robust systems in place and needed to have faculty and instructional designers move the course content into an existing template certainly had an easier time with this immediate need for online education than those with antiquated systems and lacking in overall consistency in class design.

Many for-profit schools or schools with solid online education programs already had the resources, including a well-designed learning management system (LMS), network infrastructure and bandwidth to make the move relatively quickly. Schools that have been investing in new technology and training their traditional faculty in the online modality are certainly struggling less and able to provide a solid learning platform and teaching continuity for their students. In these cases, learners and faculty have had a less steep hill to climb to move online.

What’s not going well

Some colleges and universities with small online programs – perhaps a course or program here or there offered in an online or hybrid format, were not built to handle the load on the system both in terms of technical resources and bandwidth. Schools self-hosting their LMS are struggling with this more than those on cloud-based systems. Faculty and students have been finding the off-peak hours to grade or submit work.

Without the instructional design piece in place, some colleges struggle to lay lectures and class material out in a consistent way – for example, a biology course may look completely different and have a different user experience and interface than their math course which creates confusion for students. Some proctoring sites, meant to reduce cheating and allow students to take examinations, have closed leading to an issue with scheduling and taking exams and colleges finding a backup plan. In some cases, learners who generally prefer (or thanks to YouTube, are used to) video content are finding the “flat” nature of online reading and text-driven courses less engaging and that is coming with a learning curve and frustration.

Some faculty are simply not used to – and have no desire to – teach online or from home. Much of higher education learning in this world still takes place in the traditional classroom. Ivy League students are growing frustrated that ‘this isn’t what they paid for’ and there is a concern about when things will return to normal. Faculty face distractions working from home, and generally rely on their online higher education counterparts to run this part of the education world. Many are having success but others are struggling, particularly when their students come to them with technical issues that are usually handled by a now over-loaded tech support group.

What will be forever changed and what have we learned:

I believe when this pandemic is over and life as we know it has returned to whatever “new normal” we face, administrators that were reluctant to move online will have seen some value in the delivery of education in the online modality. We may begin to see investment in infrastructure, and old LMS’s replaced with more modern, cloud-based systems that can scale up and down quickly. If students who otherwise would never have been exposed to online learning are tending to find the online world more amenable to their preferences and lifestyle, we may even see a higher demand for online education in the future, leading to additional courses and programs moving online. I believe we will also see a higher education workforce more intensely trained in the online modality, less afraid of it, but for many, likely thankful to be back in their traditional classrooms.

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