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What's next for online education?
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist", the last one before the summer break! This week I want to share with you some reflections on the future of online education beyond the pandemic. It is a broad topic and I am by no means claiming to come up with a thorough comprehensive analysis (you can find some of that- of high quality- in the long reads that I suggest as resources). I am looking at it from the perspective of a person who has been working in online education for 15 years now, has seen pre-pandemic and pandemic times and is now pondering on how far we’ve come (have we?) and how to move forward (or at least how not to fall backwards!). I must add that my underlying perspective right now is an institutional one, closely linked to my current research. I hope you enjoy reading and I am, as usual, looking forward to your comments. Have a relaxing, well-deserved summer break!
Beyond the pandemic fog
After more than two odd, pandemic academic years, and with a still uncertain outlook on the next one, it is perhaps a good moment to try to emerge from the “pandemic fog” and think- realistically, with all the cards on the table- about our options for providing quality Higher Education in the future.
I must confess that when the pandemic started I had hopes that it might help raise the profile and improve the reputation of online education. I was aware, of course, that it could go both ways: either the Higher Education community gains a deeper understanding of the value of online education and continues to engage with it in the long run, or the pandemic experience serves as “hard” evidence that this is a sub-optimal mode of education, to be cast aside, back to the periphery, as soon as the danger is over.
Now, more than two years later, I am still not really sure which way it’s going. I see some timid signs of option one, with some universities at least starting to discuss online education more seriously. But I also see a lot of pushing back to the pre-covid era, where on campus education was the gold standard.
Of course the picture is more nuanced than that: faculty and students will surely keep on using some of the technology tools they found most effective in their respective contexts. But I chose to focus these reflections on the future of online education, not technology-enhanced classroom education. Here I refer to courses and programmes taught fully online, or with a large online component in case of a blended approach.
My research showed that before the pandemic, online courses and programmes were often not institutionalised- they lacked significant connections to and support from the respective institutions. They could often be found at the periphery of the educational offer, for instance as part of executive or continuing education. During the pandemic, often despite public health warnings, many universities went to great lengths to avoid online education and go back to campus to offer a sub-optimal socially distanced version of in person education, as I was pointing out here, two years ago.
But it was not all doom and gloom. Even if technology was seen mostly as an emergency tool, the fact that many people who had not been exposed to it before got to try it and get familiar with it means that we are now talking about a different starting point, in what both faculty and students are concerned.
Time to (re)think online education?
I think one of the most important lessons we can learn from the pandemic is that we need to critically evaluate each modality and learning environment and articulate our choices explicitly. This can help us come up with an intentional approach to learning design, and, at institutional level, could help make important strategic decisions.
So… why online education? An important keyword here is flexibility, in terms of format, time and space. This implies transgressing the often rigid boundaries of what is considered “the right” time, place and mode for learning. Another key element is the target audience: who do we want to reach? Think: who is in your classroom? Who is not there? And why? And last but not least, the technology, the glue that helps us connect the first two: using the right technology to enable new target audiences to learn in a flexible way.
There is no bulletproof recipe for online education. It is all contextual. So we need to start by looking at our target audiences (yes, plural), current and desired, understand who we are excluding and why. Then we need to look at our university brand. Yes, brand, as in marketing. What do we claim we offer? Do we actually offer that? Would there be a better way to reach those goals? And are those goals up-to-date anyway? Many universities claim their added value is in the campus experience. Nothing wrong with that. But with our pandemic experience in mind it would do no harm to unpack the learning experience and re-evaluate which parts of it are best served by the campus environment and, in connection to that, what could be done more effectively online.
What do we talk about when we say “online education”? While I will not get into the definitions and terminology (you can read more in the resources below), I do want to emphasise that we are talking about a very diverse range of experiences, from course to programme level, degree and non-degree, massive open and tailor-made, instructor-led. And everything in-between. So if you're going to vilify online education, stop for a moment to think what exactly you dislike about it. Similarly, being a “fan” doesn’t mean much until you understand how it can serve you best in your context.
Currently a large number of the online programmes are at graduate level, and often in the realm of executive education. This seems to make sense, as online education requires a certain degree of self-regulation. But how about going beyond these obvious areas? Can online education play a role in the more traditional, undergraduate experience? Something to think about.
An ecosystem not a dichotomy
As you’re hopefully already getting from my thoughts so far, I personally see our options for quality education in the future more like an ecosystem and not a series of mutually exclusive paths. It’s time to discard- or at least question-the “online vs. in person” dichotomy, almost always unfavourable to online education. It’s time to think in a more nuanced way about this. And, yes, you’ve guessed, more nuanced is always more difficult. Seeing the shades of grey requires a critical lens that we don’t need to see black and white.
The extent to which online education will be used in the future does not depend only on people (micro level), it depends on institutions (meso level) and policies (macro level).
The learning ecosystem, in my view:
includes various modalities used in a complementary way and as a continuum;
serves a multitude of audiences, at different stages of learning, with different aims and degrees of engagement;
requires comprehensive and interconnected support structures at institutional level, for students and faculty.
No one said it was going to be easy…
Perhaps it’s easy to discard this vision as purely idealistic. One thing I can say for sure: it is by no means easy to achieve. And this is especially because it requires a great deal of work at institutional level and in some cases also at policy level, as online education is still not considered everywhere on a par with campus education at policy level. In other words, things that are mostly out of our hands, as educators and/or learners.
Some of the aspects I think are most important to consider:
First and foremost, universities need to acknowledge the value of online education and to include it in the core educational offer, on equal footing with on campus education. This is a strategic move, it takes courage, leadership and vision, coupled with a deep understanding of the identity, role (self-perceived and perceived) and needs of the institution in the broader HE landscape;
Institutional structures to implement and support this vision. In many places these structures are still very disjointed, with various aspects being tackled by different departments that don’t always talk to each other (educational/ academic technology, CTL, online learning, continuous education…);
Learning design and quality assurance. Quality education, regardless of modality, needs to be purposefully designed to meet the needs of our learners, whoever and wherever they are. Not only does the learning design support need to be targeted to make the most of each environment, but quality assurance mechanisms also need to be adjusted or redesigned to mirror the specific affordances of online education;
Institutional support. It’s crucial to build on the developments from the pandemic and imagine new approaches to support students and faculty, using technology to support learning communities and communities of practice and facilitating the sharing of ideas and resources;
Collaboration. The good news is we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s look around more, talk to peers from near and far and try to work together more, pooling our resources. I wrote about it some time ago here, but I’m sure there are many more examples around ready for us to discover.
No time like the present
I would have probably written a very similar piece, say, three years ago. So why now? Why do I feel it’s the right moment to act on this? The pandemic forced everyone in HE to get familiar with technology tools and with teaching and learning online, albeit in an emergency mode. Faculty developed and tested new methods, sometimes even taking the opportunity to significantly overhaul their teaching philosophy. Students trained their self-regulation skills and discovered new learning strategies that work for them. All of us learned how to seek help (and acknowledge we need it). These are very important steps, that woke us up from the pre-pandemic inertia. Moreover, it’s hard not to notice that the world of learning and work is changing fast. Let’s help our students to be prepared (better yet, to be a step ahead) for what’s to come!
What are the Main Trends in Online Learning? A Helicopter Analysis of Possible Futures- a great long read by Mark Brown, providing a useful overview of online education trends & challenges;
The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning, by Charles Hodges, Stephanie Moore, Barb Lockee, Torrey Trust, and Aaron Bond- seminal article from early pandemic days, a must read!
One Year Later . . . and Counting: Reflections on Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning- where the authors of the article above reflect on the developments during the pandemic and beyond.
Meanwhile @ “The Educationalist”
These past months, as I have been de facto oscillating between 2 work environments - Maastricht University and Yale University- I got a lot of inspiration on faculty development approaches. I am delighted to share with you two conversations- one with my Maastricht colleague Simon Beausaert and one with my Yale colleague Jenny Frederick. Hope you enjoy listening to the podcasts!