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A Year of Online Learning: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

April 6, 2021 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — Online education had been on the rise for several years prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic fast-tracked a sudden pivot to emergency remote instruction. Over the past year, more students and faculty experienced and gained confidence in online modes of instruction, but at the same time, academic enrollment declined, mental health suffered, stark technology lapses were identified, and equity gaps were exacerbated.

Third Way, a DC-based public policy think tank, convened stakeholders in higher education to discuss lessons learned from a year of nearly ubiquitous online learning, and how institutions can adapt to provide quality equitable education for all. 

“[All] online learning should not be confused with the temporary [pandemic remote instruction] that we’ve had to resort to,” said Taela Dudley, senior policy associate at The Century Foundation. Online learning became the default in 2020, but most colleges simply employed a remote learning model using video technologies like Zoom. But according to U.S. Department of Education data, close to one-third of all U.S. college students had some type of online course experience before last year. 

Even with reopenings, the market for online education isn’t likely to disappear. And schools are taking advantage as they seek to recover from the loss of revenue over the past year. Online programs are seen as cash cows to rapidly generate revenue from online expansion. Enrollment has gone up at predominantly online institutions, and students and educators see newly realized potential in online learning. But institutions need to best understand how to add e-opportunities into their learning mix.

“It’s important to have high-quality learning in any class,” said Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant vice provost of Research and Program Assessment in the Office of Student Academic Success at The Ohio State University. “And this includes using real-world applications and opportunities for students to connect and learn from each other.” 

Jaggers said that remote learning activities over the last year have been largely “at a loss on how to implement these interactive components online,” with face-to-face time often replaced with busy work, and other online work needs undermined. 

“All of these things require a lot of work,” she said of incorporating empathetic messaging, connecting to relevant educational supports, giving detailed feedback, and offering live online sessions for questions and discussion. 

“The best online instructors understand how to engage students in online work,” agreed Jillian Klein, senior vice president of Government and Regulatory Affairs at Strategic Education. This means not only making sure that faculty is well-versed on the modality they are using with students, but also making sure that the curriculum is built for online learning.

“It’s helpful to note that in the past most colleges have segregated their face-to-face and online programs,” added Jaggers, “and provided separate supports for online programs.” She offered that the colleges which did the best job pivoting during COVID-19 “were those that had already invested… and had more integration” between online staff and other faculty. 

“It’s just as important — or even more important — that faculty can build relationships with students,” said Klein. She believes that online learning pre-pandemic offered more authentic assessments and a tech infrastructure and wrap-around supports that could be used to extend beyond faculty. So while the emergency transition can’t be generalized to all online learning, some of the training and knowledge from online learning pre-pandemic should be used to assist as e-education moves from the margins to the mainstream.

“Colleges that had robust training for online faculty could use this pre-packaged training and adjust it to help with onboarding,” Jaggers suggested. “Institutions might consider moving away from a siloed model and moving toward an integrated model.” 

But technology remains a concern.

“We found in our own research that 17-19% [of students] had inadequate access to tech… including a slow internet connection or using a cell phone for coursework,” said Jaggers. “And those are more likely to struggle academically.”

While many universities and vendor partner programs provided loaner laptops and hotspots for many students, there was only a small number available and it was often difficult to identify the students needing them most. 

“At Ohio State, all incoming freshmen received a free iPad,” Jaggers said, “but the iPads were wireless only. When [many] went home to rural areas… they became big expensive paperweights.”

And then there’s engagement.

“Online learning in the past has been almost entirely asynchronistic,” said Jaggers, “so it will be really interesting to see the new modality of online coursework.” Some institutions have made moves to incorporate video and gamification techniques as a way to keep students engaged in their programs. 

And finally, there’s the actual question of who is in control since more institutions have turned to online program management providers to develop curricula, oversee academics, recruit, and even manage institutional finances as online learning moves into greater use. 

“I think it’s going to be a while before we know the [full] impact the pandemic will have on online learning and distance education,” said Klein. But everyone agrees, this past year has given students and educators much to learn from and much to look forward to. 

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