Last week, Collegis Education attended the virtual Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Innovate 2021 conference. Considering the challenges COVID-19 presented for higher ed over the last year, we were extremely curious to hear how this community of innovative educators overcame the disruptions. What new ways of learning and teaching did a year of forced remote learning open up? What’s next for online, blended and digital learning in higher ed?
4 prominent trends in online learning
Fortunately, we were not disappointed. This group of forward-thinking leaders spent the last year reflecting on how disruption – as painful as it has been – can also be a catalyst for reimagining the learning experience and value of higher education as a whole. We’re summarizing four key themes we heard attendees discussing in great depth because we feel they provide a good indication of where the future of higher ed is headed.
1. Planning for a hybrid/blended learning future
When COVID-19 forced higher ed to move from residential instruction to remote learning nearly overnight, colleges and universities were prompted to revisit their traditional methods of teaching and engaging students. Educators had to broadly adopt and embrace technology to ensure educational continuity. And with so much uncertainty around whether or not institutions would resume residential classes, many schools began experimenting more with blended or hybrid delivery models.
Interestingly, this shift emphasized the different learning needs of students, showcasing that they do not all learn in the same way – or at the same pace. As discussed in several sessions at OLC Innovate, online and hybrid (or blended) learning is proving it can offer critical flexibility and access for learners. Usage of these delivery models is increasing in higher ed because of advances in learning technology, as well as due to its key benefits to students. These benefits include increased access and flexibility for learners, more effective pedagogy, enhanced cost-effectiveness, improved student success and satisfaction and increased faculty satisfaction.
The reality is that the pandemic exposed students who were previously only familiar with synchronous face-to-face learning to a much higher level of flexibility. They’ve now seen that it’s possible to accomplish learning from multiple locations and time zones. So, while we don’t expect in-person learning to go away or lose its value, we do expect that residential instruction in the future will be a mix of face-to-face and online instruction. As highlighted by OLC attendees, the institutions that adapt to demands for flexibility will be able to better serve their students.
2. Prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in the online classroom
In 2020, we saw the beginning of a renewed movement for racial reckoning in the U.S. We also saw the ways in which systemic barriers disproportionately affect certain individuals and groups. The organizers and attendees of OLC took this issue to heart, examining key diversity, equity and inclusion considerations for the online learning environment.
One discussion point that garnered a lot of attention was the need to build a foundation for inclusive teaching and learning design. This means that, for online classrooms to be inclusive, educators must work to understand and address the myriad challenges faced by online learners. For example, there was recognition that technology enables so many new opportunities. However, it also creates barriers for many, including limited access to equipment and internet connection, lack of technical skills and more.
The call to action for all those involved in designing and delivering online learning experiences was loud and clear: We need to remove institutional barriers to online learning to be fully inclusive. Institutions that focus on designing online classrooms and technology experiences that are usable by all students, to the greatest extent possible and without the need for adaption or specialized design, will be best prepared to deliver upon the core mission of higher education.
3. Evolving the quality of online learning
Over the last year, institutions were resourceful in assembling quick solutions to continue their students’ learning remotely. However, many of these changes were just that: temporary solutions. Now that we’re almost a year into remote education being the dominant form of learning delivery, there was much discussion at OLC around how to fine-tune online instruction. After all, future generations of students will require more online instruction, not less, so now is the perfect time to start refining.
When discussing how to design, deliver and facilitate effective online courses, attendees spent a lot of time examining improvements and initiatives to the following topical areas:
- The creation of student-centered online learning experiences (no more institution-centered pedagogy)
- The use of social media, such as TikTok, to make academia more relatable, engaging and communal
- The need to reinvent the online discussion board to increase student engagement and interest
- The introduction of active learning so students can go beyond their computers and engage with their communities and the world
- The importance of increasing instructor presence and feedback
Overall, most students have now experienced some form of online learning over the past year. This makes them much more discerning consumers. Institutions that understand this and embrace the priorities of a more demanding student population can enable higher levels of student success and satisfaction in the online classroom.
4. Offering Experiential Learning in the Online Context
While faculty and instructors of a variety of academic disciplines transitioned their courses to the remote environment last year, many educators already engaged in experiential learning (primarily in the STEM fields) were unsure whether – or how – they could proceed in the online context.
According to a group of STEM educators who presented at OLC, many of these programs, particularly ones that require labs, don’t have the infrastructure and technology tools necessary to visualize how to continue in an online or blended space. As new technology solutions emerge, we expect to see STEM programs to begin incorporating online or blended learning elements more often to enhance the laboratory experience and student learning outcomes.
Higher ed is embracing the transformative power of technology
At Collegis, we’ve long understood the vital role distance learning would play in higher ed’s future. But due to recent events, the future is here and the scope of what’s considered possible is expanding.
There’s been a real shift in how educators are thinking about the student experience and the value of higher ed, and there’s a palpable excitement around the opportunities digital technology now affords educators. It’s time for all college and university leaders to step up and make the investments needed for higher ed to create a better, more inclusive and intelligent world.
If your institution is looking to build upon the digital transformation that has occurred over the last year in order to offer more student-centric learning experiences and improved tech ecosystems, we can help.