As the pandemic fades away, many institutions are realizing that well-designed online platforms can help them better serve all students, especially those who aren’t like most people.
The Impact of Online Learning on Higher Education
In two years, COVID-19 made some universities close their campuses. Some universities were able to move students to already strong online learning programs when COVID-19 made them.
Then, on the other hand, a lot of other colleges and universities were scrambling to start from scratch and make online education courses.
Students and teachers were often afraid to use Zoom or other platforms for the first time because they didn’t know how to use a new virtual learning world.
Caroline Levander, vice president for global and digital strategy at Rice University in Houston, said that when the pandemic hit, it was both a wake-up call and a call for new ideas during a recent webinar on the future of online learning hosted by U.S. News & World Report.
Many teachers at Rice and elsewhere found it hard to make the changes, but they took advantage of the new opportunities that online learning gave them.
Jason Hafner, a physics professor at Rice, used the virtual world to come up with new ways to teach students, says Levander.
When he was working on non-credit offerings before the pandemic, he tried out internet distribution.
However, as COVID-19 spread, Hafner took his teaching outside of the classroom. He used Rice’s campus to show video-recorded experiments that were done outside of normal class hours.
To show that even though aluminum and steel have different densities, they both fall at the same speed, he went to the top of one of Rice’s rock towers. He dropped two spheres, both the same size and made of the same material.
Virtual learning might be better for students because it gives them more options than in-class options, especially for hybrid and all-virtual learning models.
It was very common for people to start Zoom classes and put a lot of video courses online in the beginning of the virus. Jeff Borden, the chief academic officer at D2L, an online learning software company, said this:
“It’s fine. That was very important in getting people through.” Colleges and universities, according to Borden, now have the chance to move away from these improvised structures.
They can try to make more long-lasting online learning platforms that can meet the needs of a wide range of students who need their coursework at different times and in different formats to meet their own goals and lifestyles.
Many people think that going to college for four years is the norm, but Borden says that for some people, that’s not the best way to go. In fact, some students may be more interested in getting certificates or learning new skills than in getting a traditional degree.
Many other people in our society have needs and desires that are different from those, Borden said. Today, Borden said that online learning makes it easier than ever for people who are older or work, have different backgrounds, or are neurodiverse to get the information.
Graduate and professional schools, too, have a wide range of options, with many of them offering completely or partly online programs in recent years.
People who apply to Rice’s entirely online master’s degree program are “far more diverse in every way” than those who apply to the university’s on-campus program, Levander said.
When it comes to online education, one of the best things about it is that it can truly break down physical barriers. Don Kilburn, CEO of UMass Online, says that. He says that the company has courses from all five of the University of Massachusetts campuses.
Kilburn agreed with the other panelists that online learning models are important for making more people able to go to school. He also talked about how online programs are usually cheaper than in-person programs, which could help students with their money.
“Affordability is a part of being accessible,” he said. “I think there are ways to deliver entirely online programs at a lower cost than could cut the cost of education.”
Nancy Gonzales, the executive vice president, and university provost at Arizona State University says that understanding why students choose to take classes online and how their needs are different from those of those who choose traditional, in-person options is part of meeting their needs. Arizona State’s online programs will reach about 84,000 students this year.
A lot of online students choose to take a few courses at a time, and they may take a few semesters off to care for their kids or work full time. This is one of the reasons why online learning is so popular, says Gonzales.
Our goal is to figure out what the rhythm of attendance is and how to meet the needs of children because they are so different.
Gonzales says that part of what makes an online education model work is giving students the same support and services that they might get in person.
Students can get help with everything from getting financial aid to making sure students can connect with their peers on discussion boards when they take online classes.
Even so, the panelists agreed that online education has a lot of good things in store for it. There is still a long way to go before all of our things go digital, Kilburn said. “I can’t say when, but education, like everything else, is going to change at some point,” he says.