A Look Back to Better Understand the Future
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning registrations were growing while on-campus registrations were flattening and innovation was progressing slowly.
To appreciate the scale, depth and reach of the changes we are likely to see in post-secondary education, it is important to have a clear snapshot of where things were — and where they were headed — before the pandemic hit.
Exploring these ten key themes makes it possible to capture the state of play as of January 2020, as well as the likely direction of travel.
- Online learning was growing steadily.
Canadian data collected annually by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association shows registrations in online learning courses across post-secondary systems in Canada was growing at about 10% a year, while overall student registrations were growing at just 2%. Online learning was growing faster in Ontario (14%) than in Atlantic Canada (2%) or Western Canada (8%).
The situation in the United States was very similar. About 3.1 million students registered in a fully online learning course in 2017 at a university or college, which is 15% of total students registered. Most enrolled in four-year undergraduate programs (47%), with graduate students following closely behind (28%). A small number of institutions — University of Maryland University College, Arizona State University, University of Texas at Arlington, Western Governors, Southern New Hampshire University and University of Phoenix — led the way in terms of scale of enrollment. Annual growth in undergraduate and college level programs was trending at 3.6%, and at 6.1% for graduate programs.
Acceptance of online learning by students and faculty also continued to grow, with fewer of either group indicating dissatisfaction about online learning and a growing number of students including it as a mode of choice. This is especially the case in certain fields: more than half of all nursing and criminal justice master’s degrees being pursued in North America are taken online.
Online learning also grew significantly in K-12 education, with the Ontario Government deciding before the pandemic that all high school students should experience learning online as a requirement for graduation. During the 2018-2019 school year (i.e. preliminary as of March 1, 2020), more than 61,000 Ontario students completed about 72,000 e-learning courses at English-language public district school boards. In the French-language school boards, between 2,500 and 3,000 students took online courses through the CAVLFO - Consortium d'apprentissage virtuel de langue française de l'Ontario - annually. Across Canada, the total number of K-12 students taking an online or distance learning course in 2018-2019 was about 1.1 million — a figure rising each year.
In the US, 63% of K-12 students use online learning tools, such as Zoom, Diigo, or Flipgrid, every day. About 30% are enrolled in an online learning course at some point in their junior high or high school years.
- Blended learning continued to get stronger and more popular.
Since 2000, blended learning, which uses some online and some face-to-face to achieve learning outcomes, was becoming the normative form of teaching and learning in colleges and universities around the world. Research shows that with blended learning, student performance improves over both face-to-face and fully online learning because students spend more time on task (i.e. work harder) and faculty can quickly adapt to observed challenges and issues.
Although specific data is hard to come by, many observers and researchers in higher education suggest blended learning was becoming a dominant mode of delivery with growth set to steadily continue, aided by supportive institutional policies and professional development investments.
- Open Educational Resources (OER) gradually found their way into more courses.
In 2012, UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning launched the OER Declaration in Paris to improve access to education by increasing the use of freely available materials in various formats (textbooks, videos, audio recordings, games and simulations, animations, etc.).
Around the world, government initiatives aimed to accelerate the development and use of OER in schools, colleges and universities. But in higher education, adoption rates in the developed world were low as faculty’s use of proprietary learning materials seemed ingrained. Old habits die hard.
By 2019, improvements in adoption rates were reported in Canada. Some saw 2020 and the emergence of COVID-19 as a stimulus for the more widespread adoption and use of OER. A meta-analysis of 25 projects suggests some continued hesitancy, but it also suggests that making existing OER much more accessible in searchable global resource sites would support accelerated adoption — something that is now improving.
- Synchronous distance learning was a key part of the teaching and learning landscape.
A common image of online learning in the past was of the lonely learner sitting alone at a computer, working through learning modules with only the occasional opportunity to contact a tutor or instructor. Indeed, one of the earliest critical papers about the UK Open University, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Learner, was written in 1978 — long before the existence of the Internet.
Video and web conferencing systems were in significant use before COVID-19. Students could link through dedicated video connection spaces in study centres to a tutor and share a real-time learning experience. Some of these systems were very effective, while others were unreliable or frequently problematic. Such systems were also expensive and required some faculty training for effective use.
Growth in the use of videoconferencing systems for teaching and learning will be one certain post-pandemic development. Whatever the system in use — Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, Blue Jeans, WebEx, Dialpad UberConference, GoToMeetings, Whereby, Blackboard Collaborate — faculty and students have now found a way to use these systems for both lectures and creative work. Some music programs have shown just how rehearsals and performances can be done using these systems. Some STEM courses have also found ways to do lab work using these systems. After COVID-19, Zoom and this family of products will be embedded in systems for teaching, learning and collaboration.
- Assessment of student learning was stuck in a time warp.
The assessment of student learning has for a long time been problematic. Courses have many objectives and intended learning outcomes that are never assessed. Instructors insist on using exams as a way to assess learning, despite compelling evidence of their inappropriateness and lack of efficacy. This is before we look at mental health challenges and designing exams to accommodate exceptionalities.
As an example, the Canada Red Seal plumbing apprenticeship has a total of 2,987 competencies specified, but few of these are systematically or consistently assessed for every Red Seal candidate in Canada. Simple logbooks are used to record satisfactory completion, with some of the logbooks just two to three pages. The quality of assessment is inconsistent between assessors, and it is not possible to secure a third party validation of the assessment. When attempts were made to require assessment of every competence specified as required, resistance to doing so has been significant. By failing to integrate assessment into initial design thinking, what tends to happen is an over-specification of learning outcomes, which are not fully assessed, leading to poor and inconsistent assessment.
In the US (and for Canadian institutions which are also US accredited institutions – e.g. business schools with AACSB accreditation or medical school accreditations), learning outcomes must be assessed not just at the course or module level, but at the program and institutional level. Faculty resistance to such assessment is significant for several reasons:
- External groups are taking control of the curriculum (e.g. accreditation agencies)
- The requirement for integrated program-level assessment challenges academic freedom and the autonomy of the instructor
- Faculty do not have the knowledge, skills, competencies and capabilities to conduct integrated, program-wide assessments
- Assessment is a low priority when set against teaching and research
Nonetheless, some progress was being made, as a valuable 2015 paper from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario made clear.
- Diversity, equity and inclusion have always been issues.
Before COVID-19, there was little open and extensive conversation about equity, diversity and inclusion, and what these things would mean for admissions, curriculum, teaching and learning practices, assessment and support services. Now they are a major and appropriate focus, prompted by social movements around the world that are devoted to racial justice, mental health, gender equality and an end to discrimination in all forms. There are new and difficult conversations about these matters taking place in colleges and universities around the world. Many started long before COVID-19.
In the Global South, these issues have another layer: decolonizing the college and university experience, now also under consideration in the Global North, especially in relation to Indigenous peoples.
- Micro-credentials were … kind of around.
Colleges, polytechnics, professional bodies and continuing education divisions at universities offered short courses linked to certificates for many years. They developed non-credit short courses, on-demand learning, certificate and diploma programs that were not credit-bearing but valuable in their own right as learning experiences.
Before COVID-19, these alternative credentials were simply part of the landscape of lifelong learning around the world — a way for institutions to connect to the learning needs of their community and employers, and secure revenues directly from “customers.”
Pre-pandemic, new ideas were emerging about what these credentials could become, driven in part by the success of MOOC providers in offering micro-credentials (in 2019, the four largest MOOC providers offered more than 820 micro-credentials) and the rapid growth of digital badges for learning. Directors of continuing education sought partnerships with industry sectors and professional bodies to offer more on-demand learning modules that focused more on competencies and skills than on content.
- MOOCs had hit a growth wall.
Before lockdowns began, MOOC providers hit a growth wall, even though they got better at monetizing their educational services. In 2019, the big three providers (Coursera, edX and FutureLearn) registered some 14.3 million new users. In 2020, those numbers grew to 31 million, with 650,000 new MOOC registrations in Canada. Not only did the numbers grow, but what people chose to learn shifted: topics in technology, business and career development dominated pre-COVID-19.
The other shift was to micro-credential and degrees by MOOC providers. In 2020, the big three offered 1,180 micro-credentials and 67 MOOC-based degrees (both undergraduate and graduate) from a growing number of universities and colleges around the world. Slow growth before the pandemic switched to explosive growth in 2020-2021: a third of the learners who registered for a MOOC did so in 2020.
- Student mental health was not a new issue.
Before COVID-19, student well-being and mental health was a concern, as outlined in a 2019 annotated bibliography of the concerns and practices developed by the University of Calgary. New approaches to mental health services, the integration of empathic teaching and learning practices, the promotion of mindfulness and other activities were taking place across college and universities around the world, with some pioneering work on slow teaching and compassionate teaching supporting innovative work in this domain. More and more faculty recognized the importance of mental health and well-being for their students and adjusted their practice accordingly.
The National College Health Assessment survey of the Canadian student population (2019) suggested that:
- 52% of students reported feeling depressed, compared to 46% in 2016.
- 69% experienced anxiety.
- 12% had considered suicide, compared to 14% in 2016.
- 2.8% reported having attempted suicide.
Today, college and university leadership teams are focused on this issue and looking for models of effective support for students and staff. One example getting a lot of attention is the Wellbeing at Oxford program at Oxford University in England. Online mental health services, as provided in Canadian universities, are also considered a model for what is possible.
- The talk of technology-led transformation was gathering pace.
Talk of technology transforming higher education has been with us since the early 1920s. Over the past five years, about $13 billion in venture capital was invested in educational technologies and start-ups as part of the attempt to transform schools, colleges and universities. And large corporations such as Pearson and McGraw Hill have spent billions to reshape their business models in an effort to lead or at least steer such a transformation. Entrepreneurs look at the $6.5 trillion spent globally on public education (which will rise to $10 trillion by 2030) as a significant opportunity.
This is not a new conversation. It is also not likely to either lead to transformation or stop as a conversation. Colleges and universities evolve, adapt and demonstrate agility, as they have done in response to the pandemic. The issues they face are more likely to relate to changes in funding, governance arrangements and the emergence of new demands for skills and training as the economies of the world recover from a major global shock. But the future has never been a straight line from the past, and college and university leadership teams are now engaged in futures thinking in a way that, for some at least, is new to them.
As we reflect on the impacts of COVID-19 and consider preparedness for the next pandemic, it is helpful to explore the future from the perspective of the pre-pandemic world and see what has changed. The answer is a lot, but many of the developments we now see are accelerations of pre-existing trends.