Can online education be a force for equity and institutional sustainability?


Many critics, in my opinion, misread Robert Ubell’s new book, Stay on the line. It has been widely treated as a compendium of practical advice on how colleges and universities can successfully embrace online learning.

Ubell, a pioneer in online program development at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and Stevens Institute of Technology, certainly offers many sound recommendations on:

  • Formulate and implement an online strategy, including calculating the right price for an online degree and making solid enrollment and income projections.
  • Design, develop, deliver and develop online programs and provide online student services.
  • Integrate active learning into digital education.
  • Mitigate cheating in online courses.
  • Management of the ownership of online courses.
  • Use data analytics to improve online education.
  • Decide whether or not to partner with an online program manager.

But at its core, the book offers a compelling argument that online learning can be a force for equity, despite the widespread claim that low-income, first-generation students do relatively poorly in the workplace. online courses.

Done right, Ubell argues, online learning can improve outcomes for marginalized students, increase retention rates, improve student learning, and stabilize institutional costs.

Stay on the line is, in short, a clear call to institutions to integrate virtual learning.

Furthermore, he is convinced that digital education can be the savior of many traditional institutions, not only during the pandemic, but beyond as they seek to maintain and increase enrollment.

Online education offers a practical and pragmatic way to fight against the market forces which disrupt the finances of institutions: the decrease in the university-age population, the worsening of economic inequalities, the increase in the number of learners adults and increased competition between institutions for undergraduate and master’s students.

If it had not been for cheaper online education, he argues convincingly, the national decline in post-secondary enrollment would have been much worse than it has been.

As economic inequalities deepen, Ubell argues, it’s more important than ever that colleges and universities take action to close the economic divide. This will require these institutions to provide more affordable, flexible and practical education than they always have been.

Large-scale online education, in his opinion, must be a big part of the solution.

The destruction of myths is a big part of Ubell’s book.

  • Does developing effective online courses cost tens of thousands of dollars? Absolutely not, he insists. High-end production values ​​are much less important than effective online education.
  • Should digital education cost more than face-to-face education? Certainly not. It is undeniable that some institutions treat online learning as a generator of income. But any accurate cost accounting shows that online courses can be cheaper to deliver, especially if campuses are willing to adopt other staffing models that allow courses to be tailored.
  • Should low-income and other non-traditional students do less well in online courses? No. Ubell cites many examples of online students outperforming their in-person counterparts.

But for institutions to be successful online, campus leadership and faculty need to recognize that delivery methods are not the only difference between face-to-face teaching and virtual teaching. Pedagogy, assessments, programs, and support structures all need to change for online students to be successful.

According to Ubell, the keys to effective online learning involve:

  • Reject the idea that effective online education should replicate the classic in-person experience.
  • Recognizing that online students differ significantly from their campus counterparts; they are much more likely to work part or full time, to be older and to have to juggle demanding work and family responsibilities.
  • Reorganization of courses around a more student-centered approach to engage, motivate, instruct and assess students that emphasizes active learning, peer interaction, inquiry, digital exercises, virtual labs and guided projects.
  • Treat student support not as an afterthought, but as a central part of academic success in an online environment.

Among the many important arguments that Stay on the line the advances are as follows:

  • Online training doesn’t have to be less than in-person experience. Online learning generally allows students to process information at their own pace, participate in online discussions and ask questions without losing face, and engage more actively with their peers and in interactive activities. .
  • Large-scale online training can also be more personalized training. Analyzing the data can allow instructors to identify students who are disengaged, confused, or at risk of failure so that they can address these challenges in near real time. This data can also identify material or skills that are particularly difficult to understand or master and inspire instructors to develop courseware and activities to help students develop skills.
  • Cheating is more a consequence of faulty approaches to assessment than of students who are unethical or unprincipled. Here, Ubell is one of many innovators who demand more frequent low-stakes assessments spread throughout a course.
  • Online learning doesn’t have to be alienating or isolating. The design challenge is to make online courses more participatory, collaborative and interactive than their conventional in-person counterparts.
  • Institutions without an online strategy will deprive themselves of the main sources of future registrations. One of the biggest benefits of digital education this century is its ability to provide better access to colleges and universities for students who need to work while continuing their education. It enables campuses to serve not only non-traditional students, but also growing international markets.
  • A successful online strategy at the post-baccalaureate level requires institutions to convert one-to-one courses into deeply discounted, connected course sets that carry credit in high-demand, targeted areas. It also stresses the importance of an effective branding of these programs. He cites here the example of Specializations, MicroMasters, Nanodiplomas and Professional Certificates.

For many academics, the pandemic has been a wake-up call. It’s one of those unique events in a generation that requires reconsidering many assumptions taken for granted.

Many of us now recognize that the type of education we have offered in the past, for all its virtues, has not served many of our existing students well, while ignoring the needs of non-students who might benefit. a college education. The cost and a rigid academic calendar are part of the problem, but also the pedagogy and the modalities of delivery.

If we are serious about addressing post-secondary equity, online education – or hybrid or low-residency education – has to be part of the mix. Short-term certificates and certifications and other credentials must also be part of the future.

But as Stay on the line clearly shows that it is not enough to offer conventional online courses. We need to radically rethink the academic experience and our pedagogies, programs and assessment strategies. Ubell’s most important takeaway: the contribution of learning sciences, instructional designers and educational technologists will not just help online students; it will also benefit more traditional students on campus.

This is a lesson we must take to heart.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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