Succeeding With Digital Learning In Higher Education
William Potter

Succeeding With Digital Learning In Higher Education

Online higher education was gaining strides long before the pandemic ushered in a new era of remote work and learning. In many aspects, academia was far ahead of other industries in terms of online learning, but that doesn’t mean last year’s massive transition was all smooth sailing. The dramatic shift to online learning has created new challenges across the spectrum, for students, professors, and administrators alike. Not only must curriculum be delivered over virtual lines, but new ways have needed to be found for other activities key to academic growth including study groups and office hours. The ways learning is evaluated and engagement measured have also had to dramatically change.

Rise Of Remote Learning

Many universities and colleges were already offering online courses in some capacity, and online-only institutions like the University of Phoenix have continued to gain traction. There are now dozens of massive open online course (MOOC)-based degrees worldwide, including master’s degrees. Georgia Tech’s pioneering online master’s in computer science, for example, recently announced they’ve exceeded 10,000 enrollments. In fact, 2,500 colleges nationally offer online programs and the 100 largest players have nearly 50% of student enrollment, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Even with all of this development in terms of online courses, the massive shift to remote learning last year took a huge toll on universities in the macro sense. The shift came quickly, without much time to prepare, and that meant higher education institutions had to adjust fast in terms of how learning would be delivered. Therein lies the problem.

Can You Teach Old Tools New Tricks?

While education has been one of the pioneering industries when it comes to the adoption of virtual learning tools, in some ways, that’s also what’s holding it back now. In other words, higher ed institutions were some of the first to adopt virtual tools, but many haven’t upgraded to the latest and greatest options; they’re still using the same tools from five to seven years ago, if not longer.

And for many, this means that not only are they using outdated tools but that they also may not be cloud-based. That limits their availability and capability. These older solutions may not be keeping pace with the needs that today’s higher education students have. Many, if not most, are digital natives who have grown up with more advanced technology; they easily spot old-style interfaces and clunky systems and are less likely to engage with them.

Other institutions may have tried a lift-and-shift approach, similar to what has been done largely in the K-12 sector throughout the past year. Schools and teachers have attempted to take their same in-classroom approach to teaching and simply transition it to virtual collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom, which doesn’t work. You can’t just swap out a virtual classroom for a physical one without making a number of adjustments. Traditional teaching tools like handouts or physical models must be replaced with virtual-friendly tools, and physical body language can’t always be properly conveyed through a screen, to name just a couple of differences.

Not All Online Learning Is Created Equal

There are a lot of tools out there for hosting virtual classrooms or otherwise conducting virtual teaching, so how do you decide what’s best? It’s not just about a collaboration platform; you need a tool that incorporates the ability to track things like user engagement and learning engagement.

User engagement is a significant challenge for any kind of education but especially online learning where, as an instructor, you don’t have the advantage of being physically in the same room as your students. The days of catching students passing notes in class or, to use a modern example, texting under their desks, are gone for now. And teachers have a harder time seeing if students are interested in the material because they’re looking at dozens of tiny faces on a screen rather than life-sized faces in a room.

One way that remote education is changing is the division of students into smaller virtual groups. The teacher still guides the class, but then students form smaller collaboration groups in virtual breakout rooms. Teachers need an online system that can facilitate this.

It’s also important to remember that higher ed is not the same as corporate learning—the higher education sector has different needs. The delivery of a course in higher ed needs to be able to manage multiple different types of learning activities over time. If you’re teaching college-length classes, you’re going to have multiple assignments, multiple assessments, and multiple topics you need to teach about and track.

The measurement of learning is also very different. In a corporate environment, you're going to measure the outcome of learning based on skills or competencies that learners have attained. It’s less about translating into job skills and more about translating learning into grades. You need a platform where you can have assignments that can be graded and a workflow between you and the student.

That’s not typically necessary in the corporate environment, so it has to be taken into consideration when looking at virtual tools to help this sector succeed.  These realities make it more important than ever to invest in a learning management system in addition to collaboration and communication platforms.

Equipped To Educate

The education sector was an early adopter of online learning, and now it’s time to build on that legacy by adopting today’s tools to meet today’s remote education needs. Educators need flexible, agile solutions for all phases of the teaching process, including ways to keep their students engaged from a distance. It requires really examining the unique teaching needs of instructors to ensure the right solution is selected. Not all solutions are the right fit for every need and it’s important to really and truly evaluate all of the above facets in order to ensure success during this challenging time—and into the future.

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