After a challenging and unique year of emergency remote learning, I recently spoke with a group of faculty members new to online teaching to learn more about their experiences. While no two educators ever face identical challenges, I heard the same refrains over and over.
The first won’t come as a surprise to anyone: The shift to online courses last spring was nothing short of a perfect storm. But what’s more concerning is what these educators said next: Over the past year, remote higher ed didn’t get much better.
That should give us all pause. Is the prevailing takeaway from this brutal, oppressive year a shared aversion toward online learning?
If so, we’ve failed our students—not to mention the future of higher education.
That might be a contentious point, so it’s important to note at the outset just how hard conditions have been this year. Particularly at the many institutions that had not previously offered online courses, instructors lacked the preparation time, resources or instructional design expertise required to develop and build an online curriculum—not to mention the infrastructure required to support their efforts at scale.
For faculty members who had not received professional development in online teaching, it felt just as stressful as if they had been suddenly forced to teach in a foreign language. The need to manage a single digitized space for teaching and learning often evolved into a shell game as they tried to bet on which moving part would contribute to an optimal learning experience, with limited support. The tangled web of grading, posting assignments, and communicating with students—plus maintaining an engaging and supportive instructor presence, much less high academic standards—often turned confusion into chaos.
As a result, educators faced massive changes in an extremely compressed time frame, leaving little or no opportunity to process or develop coping strategies for themselves and their students. Although institutions have been quick to respond and provide a variety of support systems to cope with stress, there is no one method serving as an effective “one size fits all.” That’s led to faculty burnout, and has left many desperate to go back to normal.
But the higher education community also knows that old “normal” may not exist anymore. Remote learning is here to stay. And if the main takeaway from the past year is memories of how poorly it went, we have no hope of setting ourselves up for success in the future.
In the months to come, institutional leaders need to look hard at the parts of online learning that have actually worked, as well as the best practices cultivated since the inception of online learning by seasoned instructional designers and online educators. We need to proactively identify the ways in which remote learning can serve students just as well, if not better, than in-person experiences.
Think of how many students, in a recent survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, expressed their hope that their institution could keep recording lectures, or provide the option to choose between in-person and online attendance. Think of the ways in which teletherapy is expanding access to mental health support, and reducing the stigma that can so often accompany the experience of seeking counseling on campus.
Think of how emerging approaches to online discussion—which were brand-new to many students a year ago—are doing far more than just acting as a replacement for face-to-face discussions, enabling students to reflect and engage with their peers in meaningful new ways.
For example, Delta College in Michigan originally adopted an inquiry-based online discussion platform to address the shift to online learning, but as the president reported at the recent League for Innovation in the Community College conference, faculty ended up seeing improvements to engagement overall, such as increased peer-to-peer interaction and improved critical thinking among student users.
It goes to show that, with the right strategies, we can take the best of our experiences during the emergency shift to online learning into the future, in both face-to-face and virtual courses.
These are the lessons that can be the backbone of a new approach in higher education—one that acknowledges the unprecedented challenge we’ve all faced, but also charts a path forward. As one California student put it in that survey, “Please don’t expect us to magically go back to normal pre-pandemic students right away.” We shouldn’t expect that of our students. And we shouldn’t do it ourselves, either.
My point isn’t that amidst the turmoil of the past 12 months, institutions and educators new to online should have somehow found the reserves of strength they needed to build a rich and compelling online learning experience. That would’ve been nearly impossible. It’s more about how we pick up the pieces: how we ensure that at the end of this long, brutal year, we can take and share what we’ve learned, examine our mistakes and triumphs, and use them to make something better moving forward that not only advances the field but also improves outcomes for students.