Navigating Online Education After the Pandemic: Tips for Colleges


The digital learning landscape has changed dramatically since Robert Ubell’s publication Go online in 2016: an explosion in outsourcing to online program managers, increased competition between potential cheaters and technologies designed to thwart them – oh, and a global pandemic that has transformed almost every student into learning online and each professor of technologist.

In a new book, Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education (Routledge), Ubell, Associate Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, collects his writings in Inside higher education and other publications on a wide range of topics.

He answered questions via email about his new book and the changing landscape of online learning. A modified version of the exchange follows.

Q: As someone who has led the institutional strategy around online education and observed the landscape closely since the late 1990s, do you think that the forced experimentation of students, faculty and institutions? with distance education has dramatically (and definitely) reshaped the position and status of technology-enabled learning? And if so, in a way that will increase support for it?

A: Emergency online learning, despite its largely amateur delivery last year, was a very big deal – shock therapy for higher education. Distance education during the pandemic has accelerated the acceptance and expansion of e-learning, revealing how quickly institutions have responded to the expansion of e-learning, according to a number of recent reports. and how students and faculty responded unexpectedly and positively. A survey this spring found that a majority of students are surprisingly eager to continue studying online, while professors say they now feel much more confident than ever in distance education.

Even Harvard, a longtime refractor, launched its first online degree this spring, followed by other institutions, eager to join us, many of which have either signed up with OPMs – commercial vendors who create and market virtual programs – or are planning to launch new online degrees by themselves.

But the nation’s plunge into digital education last year wasn’t quite a radical departure. Over the past decades, online education has moved like a plane across a runway, taking off slowly and then steadily, to occupy an ever-increasing share of higher education. If you look this eloquent graphic, cleverly crafted by electronics tech guru Phil Hill from federal data, you’ll see how the online wind has blown, with residential listings dropping as online connection steadily increases. These trends, evident for decades, but engraved with more marked relief in the pandemic, are now more perilous than ever.

Two realities explain these changed directions: The campus slowdown is largely a direct result of the dwindling number of high school graduates, while the rise in online comes from the country’s rapidly changing economy, inflated by large numbers of high school graduates. students who must work to go to university, filling virtual classrooms with non-traditional students.

To earn digital degrees, mid-career adult learners also enroll in distance learning courses to get a head start on getting a more rewarding participation in our post-industrial economy. With new batches of 19, university leaders must now pursue non-traditional and mid-career students. Today, digital education has a double duty, not only crucial to ensure the pursuit of higher education, but as an ethical practice.

Q: If online / digital / virtual learning is going to become an important part of more (if not most) colleges and universities in the future, what are the biggest issues they will face? Are the issues more technological, educational or organizational?

A: All three, in fact, given that colleges that have yet to join the online rush will have to line up their ducks, make sure they have everything they need in place, with some latest digital magic. minute, sophisticated pedagogy to keep students glued to their screens and dynamic leaders, keeping the ship in line floating and flexible.

But there is still a fourth requirement: commercial sense. Colleges and universities admit they’re not very good at it, but they’ll need to upgrade to tap into digital recruiting, which for-profit companies and PMSs are way ahead of; otherwise, even if they have mastered the right virtual skills, they can be foiled. Effective digital recruitment requires another art that higher education has been reluctant to practice – spend a lot of money on marketing. To be successful, colleges and universities will need to break some stifling old habits.

Q: You end your new book with a beautifully honest chapter on past claims that, on reflection, tell you you’ve missed the mark (at least partially). How did you change your mind about massive open online courses and streaming video education?

A: Changing your mind is an essential characteristic of the human condition. If we get stuck in childhood, rather than being open to the experience, how would we learn to love olives or other foods that most children find unappetizing? I was determined to oppose MOOCs and streaming video, as they both lacked what I considered the gold standard for quality virtual education: leaning forward in the active engagement of students, rather than sitting passively watching lessons.

But after years of following how students actually participated online, I’ve learned that digital education isn’t one-size-fits-all, it’s a coat of many colors. It turned out that although learning science tells us that active participation is the most effective way to learn, MOOCs and streaming videos can be a useful alternative to conventional education. Certainty is the stubborn enemy of mind-changing behaviors.

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