As the pandemic subsides, many institutions are discovering that well-designed online platforms will help them better serve all students, especially nontraditional students.
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How Online Learning Is Reshaping Higher Education
Some universities were able to relocate their students to already robust online learning programs when COVID-19 forced campuses to close two years ago.
Many other colleges and universities, on the other hand, were scrambling to create online education courses from the ground up.
Students and instructors frequently found themselves logging onto Zoom or other platforms for the first time, unsure of how to navigate a new virtual learning world.
“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 many faculty members at Rice and elsewhere found the adjustments difficult, they embraced the new opportunities that online learning provided.
Jason Hafner, a Rice physics professor, used the virtual world to develop intriguing new ways to teach topics to students, according to Levander.
“Prior to the pandemic, he was experimenting with internet distribution in our non-credit offerings,” Levander added.
However, as COVID-19 spread, Hafner expanded his teaching outside the confines of his classroom, utilizing Rice’s physical campus to supplement his lectures with video-recorded experiments conducted outside of usual class hours.
For example, in one class, he climbed to the top of a rock tower on Rice’s engineering quad and dropped two identically sized spheres – one made of aluminum and the other of steel – to illustrate that despite their varied densities, they would fall with the same acceleration.
Many educators are now rethinking how virtual learning might improve the student experience by providing more flexibility than in-class options, especially for hybrid and all-virtual learning models. “People set up Zoom classes” and “placed a lot of video courses up online” in the early days of the epidemic, according to Jeff Borden, the chief academic officer at D2L, an online learning software company.
“It’s all right. That was critical in getting folks through.” Colleges and universities now, according to Borden, have the potential to move beyond these improvised structures.
They can try to create more long-lasting online learning platforms that cater to the demands of a diverse group of students who require coursework at various times and in various formats to fit their own goals and lifestyles.
While a four-year college education may be considered the norm for many, “that’s not the correct path” for others, according to Borden. In fact, some students may be more interested in gaining certificates or upskilling than in pursuing traditional degrees.
“There are tens of millions of other people in our society who have needs and desires that are distinct from those,” Borden pointed out. Borden said that online learning today makes it easier than ever for older students, working adults, persons from atypical backgrounds, and those who may be neurodiverse to access the content.
Graduate and professional institutions, too, have a plethora of possibilities, with several of them offering totally or partially online programs in recent years.
Because access is made easier and more appropriate for students who may be juggling work and family obligations, candidates to Rice’s entirely online master’s degree program are “far more varied in every aspect than students who apply to the residential counterpart,” Levander said.
“One of the beautiful things about online education is that it can genuinely transcend physical barriers,” said Don Kilburn, CEO of UMass Online, which offers courses from all five University of Massachusetts campuses.
Kilburn agreed with his other panelists that online learning models are important for expanding access. He also mentioned the potential benefit of easing students’ financial burdens, as online programs are generally less expensive than in-person programs.
“Affordability is a part of accessibility,” he explained. “I believe there are methods to deliver entirely online programs with a lower cost structure that might dramatically cut the cost of education.”
Understanding why students choose to take classes online and how their needs differ from those who choose traditional, in-person options is a part of serving their needs, according to Nancy Gonzales, 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 meet other elements of their lives, such as child care or employment obligations, which is one of the reasons why online learning is so appealing, according to Gonzales.
“We’ve been trying to figure out what the rhythm of attendance is and how we can address the needs of children because they’re such a diverse group,” Gonzales said.
Providing students with equivalent support and services to what they may receive through in-person instruction, according to Gonzales, is part of what makes an online education model successful.
Financial aid advice to ensuring that students can connect with their peers on discussion boards to guarantee that interactions with classmates are not lost when taking classes online are examples of such services.
However, the panelists agreed that online education holds a lot of promise. “I believe we are just at the start of the digital transition,” Kilburn remarked. “I can’t tell you when, but education, like everything else, will undergo a revolution at some point.”
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