Four lessons from online education that should survive the end of the pandemic


One of the many changes Covid-19 has brought to those in education has been an almost immediate shift to online learning.

Overnight, institutions scrambled to keep education moving, while reducing the physical distance between teacher and learner. Traditionally trained teachers have made valiant efforts to adapt to digital by recording lectures, posting videos and creating breakout rooms, using the technology available to them.

These efforts have resulted in digitally mediated physical classrooms using the internet – not online education.

Although these two options are similar, they are not. Bridging the physical distance through technology alone does not solve the additional adjustments needed to meet the needs of learners. Posting documents online, recording lectures and discussions by themselves do not create a coached, collaborative and supported learning environment.

So what have we really learned about online education? And what do we do now?

Online learning is not new, and lessons can be learned from existing research and experience. Athabasca University – where we are all professors – launched the world’s first online MBA, M Nursing and MEd programs more than 28 years ago. And today is one of top universities online.

The the experience of online pioneers highlights four distinct aspects of online learning that should remain post-pandemic: learning to learn online, designing online instruction with purpose, blending space and time online, and continued disruption with the artificial intelligence.

1. Learning to learn

The pandemic has highlighted that unique teaching approaches do not meet student needs. Young learners can seek out physical spaces to promote socialization, with teacher-led supervision and content delivery. Others, like Athabasca’s mostly adult learners, appreciate the convenience of connecting with classmates and instructors online at times of their choosing.

Common inequalities such as poor internet access, lack of financial resources and necessary digital skills hinder online learning. However, online education provides student access face geospatial barriers to traditional classrooms, and other issues of inequality are addressed through multimodal distance learning, financial support structures, and referrals to learn to learn online.

Emergency online education used blunt instruments, ignoring differences between students and programs. The pandemic response has underscored the importance of preparing all students to learn, whether online or in a physical classroom.

2. Designing quality education

The design of quality teaching and learning must incorporate active and engaging roles for individual students, whether designed to traditional or distance education.

Meaningful teaching varies by context and requires different approaches. The design of online courses and teaching is learner-centric rather than content-centric, incorporating high engagement in collaborative learning groups that promotes active learning.

Produce effective online course materials requires an approach involving both qualified instructors and course designers and takes months rather than weeks. Course materials are painstakingly detailed and include writing everything the instructor expects to say in a physical classroom setting, clearly outlining all course requirements, and connecting students to readings, videos, and resources on line.

Due to the pandemic, instructors had to translate classroom delivery to technology-assisted delivery – this worked for some, but was not easily adapted to unique learning needs.

Technological tools, combined with opportunities for independent and co-working, should be brought back into the physical or hybrid classroom in conjunction with online pedagogical approaches that increase active and collaborative learning and learner-generated choices.

3. Mix space and time

Pandemic education has popularized the vocabulary of “synchronous” and “asynchronous” learning. Synchronous replicated physical classrooms through real-time digital instruction, while asynchronous meant working independently, usually with hardware designed for a physical classroom. Going forward, we need to think about the impact of timing and presence on learning.

At Athabasca, students come together in time and space through blended, collaborative, synchronous and asynchronous online learning. Instructors coach students one-on-one at a student-led pace.

This is different from traditional undergraduate classrooms, where students absorb material on a set schedule. Our graduate programs use paced programming, requiring students to work independently while meeting regularly in active online discussions.

More flexible teaching allows students to receive support from an instructor when they need it. The integration of synchronous collaborative learning enables reflection rather than real-time responses.

4. AI is the future

The pandemic has revealed how educational approaches can change after instructors have had to seek innovative ways to improve student learning outcomes outside of the physical classroom.

In Athabasca, a virtual co-op program allowed us to introduce a cooperative program in the midst of a pandemic.

Students had access to a simulated work experience in a rhythmic structure, regardless of location. They were able to practice teamwork, problem solving, conflict resolution, ethical reasoning, and leadership while working on an assigned project. Students received immediate and in-depth feedback from an AI coach, allowing for extensive experimentation and review to master concepts honed in thoughtful discussion with the instructor.

Research suggests that the adoption of online tools and artificial intelligence must be deliberate, coupled with a supportive digital infrastructure and highly responsive student support. Carefully planned and taken together, these steps improve traditional approaches by making education truly open, accessible and inclusive.

Now the question for all educators should be: how to capitalize on the change initiated by Covid-19 to build better education systems for the future?

F Haider Alvi is Assistant Professor of Innovation Finance and Deborah Hurst is an associate professor of labor and organizational studies at Athabasca University. Janice Thomas is a professor of organizational analysis and project management and Martha Cleveland-Innes is a professor of open, digital and distance education at Athabasca University.

This article first appeared on The conversation.

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