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Online Education vs. Remote Learning: 5 Features of a Quality Distance Learning Program

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2020-09-28T20:54:34+00:00May 27, 2020|

Online instruction is now the talk of the town in the world of higher education. If colleges weren’t already offering distance learning options, they were forced to begin doing so once COVID-19 caused nationwide campus closures. The global pandemic prevents students from gathering for residential classes, which sent many schools scrambling to rapidly transition to online instruction.

Considering these shifts happened nearly overnight, institutions were resourceful in assembling quick solutions to get students through the end of the term. But most of those changes were just that — temporary solutions.

“No one knows what the situation will be once fall term starts, so schools must be ready for anything,” says Dave Lungren, vice president of content solutions at Collegis Education. “Given this, institutions must plan for some, or all, of residential instruction to continue occurring online.”

Now that students and faculty are accepting the new reality of higher education, it’s time to revisit those short-term solutions. Many schools need to start considering more permanent changes to become an effective distance education provider.

Moving beyond survival and into sustainable

Many of the online instruction techniques that were put in place in early 2020 were just a bandage fix to help residential students finish out the courses they were already completing. Faced with urgent demands to reinvent course delivery in a matter of days, higher ed leaders and instructors stepped up to the challenge and devised creative ways to utilize remote learning methods.

These temporary strategies include:

  • Attempting to “duplicate” the classroom experience using video conferencing platforms
  • Lowering standards for student performance
  • Omitting planned classroom activities/assessments because they were difficult to administer online
  • Relying on weekly reading and assignments, with little or no engagement
  • Implementing a pass/fail method of course assessment

Some of these tactics are better than others. “Residential education has relied on a variety of strategies to ‘survive’ the end of spring quarter,” Lungren shares. “Many of these strategies have diminished the quality of teaching and learning and are not sustainable in the long term.”

Now that the end of that academic term has come and gone, it’s time to focus on implementing more effective and engaging solutions. Utilizing video conferencing and reading assignments are useful remote learning methods, but they alone don’t equate to a quality online learning experience.

And it appears that students agree. According to an April 2020 national student survey conducted by SimpsonScarborough, 63 percent of students say their online instruction doesn’t measure up to the residential instruction they were receiving at their school.

“The rush to move to remote instruction has resulted in a failure to meet student expectations,” Lungren explains. “They are dissatisfied with the learning experience and some feel they are getting ‘ripped off’ and not getting their money’s worth.”

In Lungren’s opinion, students will respond to their dissatisfaction in one of three ways:

  • They will stop attending school for the time being.
  • They will attend a low-cost community college for their online learning until the high-priced residential campuses reopen.
  • They will transfer to a school that offers a high-quality online learning experience.

To retain your students — and potentially attract new ones — it would be wise to invest in improving your distance education programs. There are a number of key elements that every good distance education offering includes.

5 Important elements of a sustainable distance education program

“Since it is nearly inevitable that at least some residential instruction will occur online, institutions must focus on raising the quality of online teaching and learning,” Lungren urges.

If you’re making plans to make your online learning options more permanent, you’ll want to consider the following aspects that make up a quality distance education program.

1. Courses are designed to be conducted online

One of the most important characteristics of a quality online education program is the fact that the courses were designed specifically for online delivery. Learning modules are built to be effective and engaging online experiences.

When designing an online program, Lungren says consistency is key. He believes it’s critical to have a single, fundamental design implemented across all courses in the program.

“Nothing is more difficult for students than needing to figure out what to do or where to go in a particular course,” Lungren explains. He adds that effective online courses are often structured in a weekly cadence, with regular activities and due dates that allow students to establish a weekly rhythm of effort, assignment completion and interaction.

2. Opportunities for student engagement are embedded

An obvious drawback of distance learning is the lack of direct interaction between students and their instructors as well as their peers. While it’s difficult to replicate the face-to-face collaboration that exists in a residential learning environment, a quality online program will have practical alternatives intentionally designed into the courses.

Lungren describes the three levels of interaction that are important in distance learning programs:

  • Student-to-faculty interaction: Opportunities for students to have contact with the course instructor. This can be done through discussion boards, email, virtual office hours, phone calls and thoughtful assignment feedback.
  • Student-to-student interaction: Providing ways for students to connect and collaborate with their peers. This can take place via group assignments, synchronous learning sessions, discussions boards and email. It can also help build a sense of comradery within the cohort.
  • Student-to-content interaction: Leveraging dynamic learning materials that require active involvement from the student. This could come in the form of animated or clickable images or more complex interactive simulations.

3. Instructors are trained to teach in an online environment

It’s not surprising that many students polled in the SimpsonScarborough survey felt their newly-remote courses weren’t measuring up to their residential counterparts. One likely culprit is the fact that most of those instructors never intended to deliver that course content virtually.

In fact, according to data from Bay View Analytics, 97 percent of the institutions surveyed tasked instructors who had no prior online teaching experience with transitioning to distance education courses. And 56 percent of faculty reported using teaching methods they had never used before.

Instructors play a critical role in the success of a distance education program. That’s why the best programs revolve around instructors who receive the training, coaching and ongoing support it takes to be effective educators in an online modality.

4. Assessments are structured to be delivered virtually

One of the most challenging parts in the shift to remote learning has been figuring out how to deliver effective, valid, and secure assessments. This critical component is typically an area of intense focus when designing a quality distance education program.

Lungren describes three important elements that should be incorporated in every online course:

  • Formative assessment: Building in opportunities for monitoring student learning throughout the term, providing ongoing feedback so they can measure their personal learning progress.
  • Summative assessment: Evaluating student achievement of course-level learning objectives. Authentic, project-based assessment methods tend to be most effective for online delivery.
  • Exam security for objective tests: Ensuring exams are protected in an online environment using lockdown browsers, online proctoring and randomized test question pools in the learning management system (LMS).

5. Support is easily accessible

Just because students aren’t on campus doesn’t mean they should be on their own. A successful distance education program is backed by 24×7 support for students and faculty alike. This helps ensure technology or accessibility issues won’t disrupt the learning process.

In the asynchronous world of online education, problems can pop up day or night on any given day. Having around-the-clock technology support provides peace of mind for students, allowing them to focus on their learning.

The best distance education programs also offer other types of support catered to online students. This can include access to academic advising, online tutoring options, networking opportunities, career services and more.

Elevate your online education offerings

This is the beginning of a new age for higher education, and it’s becoming clear that permanent changes are inevitable. This offers an opportunity to reexamine teaching practices, assessment strategies, the application of technology and the power of online and hybrid teaching models.

“Out of this terrible time can be a great leap forward that moves higher education much closer to the expectations and experiences of the digital native student,” Lungren offers.

As you evaluate the future of distance education programs at your institution, keep these factors in mind. If you need assistance in navigating the road ahead, we’re happy to help!

Let us help you implement the enriching online learning experience your students are seeking.

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About the Author
Callie Malvik
Callie Malvik is a Senior Content Manager with Collegis Education. She holds a Bachelor's in Mass Communication and Advertising from Winona State University, Minn.