Online Learning for a New Higher Education
By mid-March, 79 percent of AACSB-surveyed business schools had converted face-to-face classes to online after the COVID-19 health crisis caused colleges and universities around the world to close their doors. The massive shift to online learning that followed, where teaching occurred remotely and on digital platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, has dramatically changed education, leaving many people wondering whether the benefits brought by online learning will outweigh its shortcomings.
Whether the adoption of online learning will continue to persist post-pandemic remains to be seen, but what is certain is that the health crisis has disrupted an education system that was already losing its relevance. The COVID-19 pandemic put a magnifying glass on this outdated system, highlighting its many flaws and areas for improvement.
There is no denial that the rapid transition to online learning has also shined a spotlight on the administrators, professors, parents, and students who, despite the worst odds, have done their best to make distance learning work. However, the result, quite understandably, given the unique circumstances, has been far from ideal. Students have questioned the quality-to-cost ratio of their education, a ratio already weakened by the continuous increase of tuition fees, and professors have struggled to prepare, manage, and assess classes.
Consequently, higher education can no longer rest on its laurels if it wants to remain relevant in the future. So what can we learn from this experience, and how can online education grow as an opportunity in the coming years?
A Challenging Landscape
Limited accessibility. Paradoxically, the key strength of online education, its accessibility, has also been its main challenge, as not all faculty are comfortable with virtual teaching and not all students have a digital infrastructure that allows them to continue their education online. Moreover, due to the limitations in bandwidth capacity in many countries, both the quality of the learning experience and the value of education have been degraded. Beyond the issue of digital access, in war-torn societies or places where children’s and women’s rights are fragile or nonexistent, the disappearance of the physical space often equates to that of the entire learning opportunity for vulnerable people.
A defective online experience. The second biggest challenge has been the experience itself. From an organizational perspective, the preparation for synchronous, or live, online sessions takes more time than for in-person ones, and the management of large classes (more than 12 students) with current videoconferencing platforms cannot accommodate for personalization and real-life experimentation. Assessment and accountability have suffered as students have found creative ways to skip classes or “cheat” in exams. And because asynchronous teaching cannot offer the accountable consistency of live classes (be it online or offline) or the opportunity for dialogue, learners generally prefer face-to-face interactions over recorded lessons.
Reduced value and effectiveness. As learning went digital and lost its immersive experience, cutting off direct contact with peers and experts, tuition fees remained unchanged and education became overpriced. Learners, and even their parents, began considering the value of a gap year to counter the prospect of long days of study spent behind a computer screen. That perception reveals the inefficiencies of the typical online experience, as it lacks animation, reduces motivation, and decreases engagement rates.
When we look at the statistics behind the massive open online learning experience, such as Coursera’s, about two-thirds of people never get to the end of an online course. When 55 percent of students don’t complete their college education in the United States, it is only legitimate to question and worry about the effect of online learning on the drop-out rate throughout the 2020–21 academic year. Meanwhile, as rising ed tech seeks to solve problems, we can only wonder whether innovation will cure the symptoms or deal with the root problems.
However, the mass online learning experiment, in spite of its many hurdles, has given us a glimpse of what the future of education could look like.
A Future of Opportunities
Open access to education. More people than ever will have access to a solid education, as universities extend their reach beyond campus and beyond borders. With content digitization and the emergence of micro-learning and specialized certifications, universities will benefit from a growth in enrollment rates and students will be able to access high-quality courses. This potentiality will enable students to take ownership of the quality of their education, irrespective of background or predetermined circumstances.
For instance, highly regarded MBA programs have already embraced online learning to increase accessibility. Furthermore, the current transition to digital learning is likely to foster the development and growth of open education resources. What Khan Academy has been offering the world since 2008 is only a sample of what can be achieved by making education more accessible.
A reinvented learning experience. When it comes to curriculum design, we could see a shift toward the division of programs into credentialed micro-learning segments. As a result, learners would be able to “patch together” their education from a “menu of options,” and employers could allow their workers to access these credentialed micro-learning segments, enabling a continuous retraining and upskilling of the workforce.
This greater flexibility, coupled with an adaptability to changing needs, is attractive to both professionals and lifelong learners. A more specialized curriculum design can help bridge the gap between academia and the professional world. It also confirms that lifelong learning is the new norm.
The recent experiment in widespread online learning has shown us that live, face-to-face interactions still matter. Videoconferencing has helped restore some of the social and human connections and recreate a sense of balance and structure in students’ lives. This realization confirms that learning is not a one-way conversation but a dialogue, and that collective intelligence, drawn from peer-to-peer communication, is essential to the process.
Colleges and universities will need to foster more virtual collaborative environments in the future, as digital settings have revealed the inadequacies of the traditional classroom lecture. If lectures in the physical context already were unengaging for students, the virtual setting has rendered the experience unbearable. This issue leaves room for new methods of engagement, such as a facilitative approach or visual collaboration workspaces, to emerge and become the norm in online teaching.
Multi-stakeholder partnerships and innovation. Online learning is a fertile ground for multi-stakeholder partnerships, such as those between tech companies and universities. For example, what if MIT were to partner with Google, or Harvard with Facebook, to expand enrollment by offering hybrid online-offline degrees at an accessible price? The tech company would be responsible for scale and the online component, while the university would be responsible for the accreditation. This way a certification from an elite university would still be worth its high tuition fees, given the enhanced branding power and learning experience that such a degree could bring, and the collaboration could have further potential to innovate the education sector and beyond. That being said, we cannot help but wonder whether the digital expansion of elite universities could cause a “brain drain” from non-elite universities.
Universities, and perhaps other emerging educational partners, will be able to join forces at both the local and international levels to create a shared learning ecosystem, thus enriching the curriculum, diversifying perspectives, and allowing for more cultural openness through trans-border collaboration.
Now is the time to reimagine the learning ecosystem and experiment with new ideas. There is no going “back to normal.” If we do, then we would lose a golden opportunity to revolutionize education in order to overcome the challenges of the 21st century. How far are we willing to go when exploring the different possibilities that online learning can bring?
Many lessons will be drawn from this disruptive time for higher education. The switch to online learning that took place in the middle of the teaching semester will enable students to compare the digital with the analog versions of their classes. There has never been a better time for students, professors, and innovators to lay the foundations of a new type of education.
However, reimagining education is not an easy task. Consequently, in the post-pandemic world, a hybrid model of education is better positioned to respond to the existing challenges, take advantage of opportunities, and expand access to quality education for millions of people around the world.
This calls for a revision of the education system in the 21st century: What will the online experience cover, and what will the new purpose of the physical classroom and campus be? Online education is not yet the future, but with a few “patches” and “add-ons,” it might very well be.
David Timis is an AACSB 2019 Influential Leader.