Emerging Online Education Challenges
After the end of spring break season, most colleges and universities are now fully engaged in the effort to complete this term’s coursework online. Some challenges quickly have begun to emerge:
- Faculty have widely varying experience with online technology, and not all students have easy access to technology from home. While consistent use of the institution’s technology stack to ensure future ease in adopting or replicating course materials being produced today would be ideal, it is far from guaranteed.
- General guidance articles and tutorials for changing curriculum modality are readily available across many outlets, but faculty and administrators must weigh the pros and cons of adapting this guidance to the specific needs of individual courses (such as lab-based courses).
- Accreditation issues around online education in general have been somewhat eased, although the directives should be studied for specifics. For example, guidance includes that “this flexibility only applies to a program during a payment period that overlaps the date of this electronic announcement [March 5] or the following payment period.”1 The timing may be complicated by potential changes by at least one accreditation body to take “steps to operate nationally.”2 All to note, even if there is not yet complete clarity, accrediting organizations are recognizing the extreme disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and are providing some guidance.
Taking the Long View on Online Education
Despite these challenges and many others, administrators and faculty leaders need to continually communicate, in a variety of venues, the advantages of finishing this term’s courses online. We have no choice, and the unknown course of the pandemic means that online education may have to continue into summer or fall terms, or beyond. While it is important to acknowledge current challenges and realize that results are far from certain, leaders also have an opportunity to encourage the potential for expanding online education intelligently over the long term.
Recommendations for faculty
Faculty might think—and be correct in thinking—that putting their courses online will require extra preparation time. But extra time spent now will save time later if the online modules they are creating could be reused, repurposed as homework, or used in a flipped classroom situation at a later date.
Faculty should also be encouraged to view the current situation as an opportunity to experiment with a new way of teaching. Online success still depends on the front lines of teaching:
- Try out modality-appropriate ways of engaging with students. For example, in synchronous online courses with live interaction, start class by asking students to comment on how they’re doing, where they are, and how their location holds meaning for them—this is an icebreaker that couldn’t be done in an in-person setting.
- Introduce some levity. Everyone is adapting to an online setting, and mistakes or miscommunications are bound to happen.
- Keep a closer tab on attendance, as it may be easier for students to feel unnoticed—whether present or not—in online classes unless the pedagogy is very interactive. Increase interactivity where possible.
- Seek student feedback often. What is working for them, and what is not? Combine this feedback with self-evaluation and make adjustments as needed.
Finally, faculty should feel encouraged to check in with their institution’s accreditation office about relevant accreditation issues described above.
Recommendations for administrators
Start planning for the potential need to keep courses online beyond the current term and for strategically expanding online education at your institution for the future. Begin to take a financial level-set and reach out to experienced strategic advisors to help develop financial models that enable you to see clearly where you are now and where you need to be going. Create forecasts and financial modeling for online learning needs, then integrate these models and roll them up to your institution’s overall models and budgeting. Although viewing changes in educational processes from an academic perspective is important and necessary, acting from the strategic and financial planning perspective will also be essential for long-term institutional success.
From a strategic planning perspective, funding online education requires the investment of resources, often in short supply. However, making choices as to which resources to prioritize will always be a part of running an organization. Creating online programming takes time and money: Faculty must create the curriculum, videos must be recorded, students must be recruited, payments must be collected, etc. In nearly every case, before a single student is taught online in a new program or class, resources will have been expended.
Taking the long view, a constructive moment may be coming in the next few months when investing in online learning may require fewer resources than in the past few years because of the many curricular advances made by university faculty and online production staff during the spring and summer of 2020.
Forward-thinking institutions should analyze how to multiply the resulting potential benefit and invest strategically in the future of online at the institution, thus shortening the length of time to programmatic viability while optimizing the possibility of overall success of the students and faculty
Recommendations for leadership
During the next few months, there will be little choice but to act decisively and communicate clearly. The changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic have come at an unprecedented speed. This quickly changing landscape requires many more decisions than usual, often with fewer data on which they would typically be based. Nevertheless, the decisions must be made: Make them, consistently communicate what you’ve decided and why, and then adjust trajectories later if needed. Students, parents, faculty, and staff are hungry for information and will be frustrated with slow decisions. They will appreciate your bravery in moving at the required speed for the communications you provide. When the sense of urgency lightens, keep pressing forward. There will be many decisions still to be made when the worst of the crisis has passed.
Please reach out at any time to ask questions, talk through the issues you’re encountering with online education, or share strategies that have been successful at your institution. You can reach me by email or phone at (618) 520-2340.
1 “Federal Guidance to Accreditors Will Impact Institutions.” CHEA, 20 March 2020, https://www.chea.org/federal-guidance-accreditors-will-impact-institutions
2 Eaton, J.: “Will Regional Accreditation Go National?” Inside Higher Ed, March 17, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/03/17/pros-and-cons-having-regional-accreditors-go-national-opinion