The big test for online learning starts now. Given the remote experience almost everyone had during COVID-19 lockdowns, will online learning become more widespread? Or will instructors and students return to the classroom this fall and put that whole “online thing” behind them? We will soon find out.
Not everyone liked the experience of learning online as a whole, although some did like specific features such as lecture capture and the use of peer-to-peer assessment. Many found online learning efficient, effective and focused, without the need to travel to and from a college or university campus. It was also less expensive.
However, some students simply were not able to study online, as they did not have access to affordable and reliable broadband, especially in remote and rural Canada, and without adequate technology for the work they were asked to do. About 11% of households do not have access to the Internet. Some find Internet access prohibitively expensive — Canada’s Internet costs are high relative to other jurisdictions — and school boards, colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes found themselves loaning laptops or other devices to students whose Internet and technology were simply not up to the task.
Five Promising Developments
These five positive signs may lead to the development of even more online programs and courses.
- In the past two years, instructors engaged in more conversations about pedagogy than they had in their entire career. There were significant explorations of how to teach online and how to create authentic, meaningful assessment. Centres for teaching and learning at colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes created helpful resources that are widely available, and these helped many instructors do a better job of leveraging instructional design, group and project-based assessment and new approaches to experiential learning. Many new virtual science resources were created, and these stimulated the creative use of home-based and field experiments.
- Thousands of new micro-credentials were created. Ontario alone has more than 3,400 courses identified as micro-credentials. Across Canada, there are nearly 8,000 of these short courses that focus on competency and capability, some of which can ladder to longer programs like diplomas and degrees. Many are being taught online, with a growing number available on demand. While these were initially intended to help jobseekers reskill and upskill during the pandemic, they are likely to be a key part of higher education post-pandemic. They are important since they permit experimentation and innovation — a kind of permanent design lab for instructional innovation. For example, we see several institutions (especially polytechnics) developing credentials based on assessment, not coursework, and this has forced them to reimagine the way skills, competencies and capabilities are assessed.
- New collaborations for teaching and learning were established. New collaborative programs between post-secondary institutions or between industry partners and specific institutions emerged in response to the pandemic. This led to new programs on climate adaptability, public health or skills development for eldercare, with several institutions partnering to make relevant, focused and authentic learning available faster and for more people. Creative program design as well as course design is at the heart of these developments.
- The use of open education resources (OERs) is growing. During the pandemic, the use of open education resources (OERs) grew, as did the willingness to make available more open learning resources, including simulations, games, labs and other immersive and rich resources. UNESCO created a dynamic coalition to promote OER, and available resources expanded. Both the Commonwealth of Learning and the International Council for Open Distance Education promoted these developments. In Ontario alone, about 110,000 students have used OER, saving $12 million by doing so.
- IT infrastructure is better. Many colleges and universities upgraded their IT infrastructure to offer better and more reliable services to staff and students. Many shifted from local servers to the cloud, enabling expansion and growth of online and hybrid learning at a lower overall cost. These institutions are well positioned to grow online.
A Testing Time: Some Challenges
Despite the progress made, there is no doubt the coming semester will demonstrate whether online is growing or stuck. Here are five challenges that must be overcome.
- Student and instructor satisfaction: Evidence of student and instructor satisfaction with online learning is varied. Some studies found both students and staff very satisfied, while others show mixed results. The key variables appear to be:
- Whether the technology worked — and if it didn’t, how good instructors were at improvising.
- Whether the instructor designed the learning in real time (Zoom, Adobe Connect, Teams, etc.) or anytime (through Moodle, Blackboard, Brightspace or other LMS) for high levels of student engagement; the more engagement, the higher the satisfaction.
- Whether changes were made to assessment regimes, making assessments based on authentic challenges rather than multiple choice, proctored exams.
- Cheating: Cheating on exams and assessments is one challenge that may impact students’ willingness to learn online. No assessment method is completely cheat-proof, and there are best practices and techniques for conducting assessments securely in an online environment. The big challenge is to design assessments that are more engaging, critical-reflective and demanding while being less “cheatable”. Case studies, project-based work, presentations, design challenges and simulations are all more engaging and provide rich assessment. Although these pose challenges for some large classes, this is where peer-to-peer learning and assessment using structured rubrics can be helpful. Of course, this takes time.
- Support for better course design and assessment design: Instructors and instructional designers are engaged in focused conversations about learning, course and assessment design and best practice in online teaching — many for the first time. Will instructors continue to devote the time to instructional design? Will their institutions invest in their development to enable them to do so? Support for effective design is key to building on the momentum so that online learning keeps growing and improving. Centres for teaching and learning in colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes created excellent supportive resources that can help with this work, and investment is needed to sustain the momentum.
- Equity of access: This issue has not gone away, but progress is being made. Innovative technology and non-technology solutions are being looked at for individuals and entire communities without access to broadband Internet. Colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes found ways to retain and work with students who don’t have appropriate bandwidth. Governments are also stepping up their efforts, at least in Canada and the US, to ensure that all citizens are connected, although it will take time.
- Blended learning: Some have suggested the big winner in the pivot to online education will be blended learning: more use of technology to support learning in and out of class. Research shows that with blended learning, student performance improves over both face-to-face and fully online learning. The reason is students spend more time on task (i.e., work harder) in blended learning courses. Others, like the venture capital market that invested $16 billion in EdTech in 2020 and is on track to do the same in 2021, see online as the new normal. What we do know is not all students will be “live” in-class and many will have to self-isolate for a period or study from home, especially if they are unable to travel or have pre-existing conditions that make in-class learning a high-risk activity. New, innovative approaches to blended learning will emerge. For example, an investment in an AI-enabled video camera (or AI-equipped mount) that tracks automatically to the person speaking might pay dividends.
We Will See – Be Optimistic
Students are going back to classroom-based studies at an uncertain time, with new and changing variants a cause for concern. Every instructor and student will face challenges. The good news is that both faculty and students learned so much about effective teaching, learning and assessment during the lockdowns — learning that can be built on to improve. The other good news is that both blended and online learning will continue to grow, creating new and flexible pathways to program completion. Higher education is not going back to pre-COVID-19 times, but rather entering a new era that will be shaped by what happens this coming semester.