Higher education is not a field that is always easily associated with digital innovation. Institutions often find themselves beholden to legacy systems and fighting to earn buy-in across a diverse group of stakeholders all with unique objectives. These factors have limited the extent to which innovation was achievable in the past.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the globe shuttering traditional institutions indefinitely, it has forced a technological reckoning in higher education. No longer able to hold classes in person, institutions have been scrambling to come up with viable online alternatives.

It may very well turn out that one of the long-term effects of the pandemic is the acceleration of online learning options in higher education. In this article we’ll explore some of the changes we’re seeing, and strategies for institutions to adopt as they plan for the future.

The rise of online learning

Distance learning has been on the rise for the past several years, even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Most recently, roughly 13% of undergraduates in the U.S. were enrolled in online-only education. Millions more were enrolled in one or more online classes while still completing traditional face-to-face coursework as well.

As the cost of traditional education has continued to balloon, putting it out of reach for many average American households, online options have expanded as a means of filling the gap. Though costs vary from institution to institution, distance learning can offer a more affordable education, and certainly eliminates the expenses students incur when relocating to live on campus.

Even the traditional classroom increasingly relies on digital solutions to augment the learning experience. At many institutions assignments, grades, and other course materials can now all be accessed through online platforms like Blackboard.

What the future holds for online learning

Virtual degree programs may become the new normal, or at least a component of the new normal in the aftermath of the pandemic. Virtual degree programs are becoming more commonplace, particularly at the graduate level where many students may already have careers and families and are thus far less likely to be able to uproot themselves to attend an on-campus program.

In order for these programs to be successful, however, they need to be designed from the ground up as online initiatives. Retrofitting existing coursework for the online environment is not the most effective long-term solution. In fact, many institutions that are focusing on expanding into distance learning are now employing instructional designers whose job it is to help educators custom-built online courses from the outset.

In the short-term, once institutions are able to welcome students back to campus, we may see more introductory courses to go online as a means of freeing up teaching time to focus on more intensive, individualized coursework like what takes place in a lab or workshop environment.

Online learning barriers that persist

Though the coronavirus outbreak may be a major factor in disrupting higher education as we know it, there are some barriers to online learning that the crisis has already illuminated.

The first, and perhaps most important, of these barriers is inequality both among students and among institutions. Online learning presents challenges to students in rural communities and those with poor internet access. Wealthy students often have access to cutting edge devices that low income students simply can’t afford. Data suggests that low income students are less likely to succeed in an online-only environment.

Training and buy-in are also major challenges for institutions. To date training has often been piecemeal and not always required. Professors who prefer not to teach online have not been forced to, while others have been running online courses long enough to have learned how to conduct them effectively. The pandemic has compelled everyone to take up distance education, even those who find themselves unprepared for this new reality.

Higher education is very likely to emerge from this pandemic a changed industry. The crisis shines a light on both the necessity of distance learning, as well as on the challenges that still must be overcome in order to accelerate adoption. Higher education institutions would do well to pay attention to the lessons this crisis presents, and plan for a future that puts digital innovation at the forefront.


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