When the pandemic began in March 2020, millions of learners worldwide and their instructors had to pivot to what they initially called “remote learning.” With repeated COVID-19 waves, remote learning soon became a dominant learning mode and was relabeled “online learning.”
As most of the pandemic restrictions have been removed and we learn to live with COVID-19 as an endemic virus, what happens to higher education?
When we look at the higher education landscape in mid-2022, five possibilities emerge for the future:
- Back to Before – Universities and colleges return to the situation as of January 2020 with students mainly in the classroom, with some online learning. Before the pandemic, registrations in online programs and courses were growing faster than registrations in face-to-face programs, reflecting shifts in the demographics of higher education and the learning market. Now that more students have experienced online learning, this trend will continue.
- Blend to Learn – The big “winner” from the pandemic experience will be blended learning. Even though classroom teaching will return, many faculty and instructors will use technology-enabled knowledge to support their courses and facilitate better learning outcomes.
- Hybrid Times – Some students, especially those who are immunocompromised, will seek to keep studying from home while their classmates will prefer to be in class. Some classes will therefore be hybrid, and instructors will develop the skills needed to ensure that those who are “in class but at home” are as engaged and involved as those who are actually in class. Technology, especially AI-enabled cameras that follow the instructor or locate the person talking or presenting, and “groupware” will make more of these hybrid classes possible.
- Online is the New Normal – Faculty, instructors and students in some programs will prefer online learning since it supports flexibility in balancing work, study and home life for many, especially graduate students. With investments in professional development, strong support for instructional design and continually improving technologies, this is a viable scenario for some programs and courses.
- Mix and Match – In higher education, no one size fits all. Some courses need to be in a physical space (drama, art, science and music, for example) while others can be either online, hybrid or blended. Each faculty or instructional team, listening to the voice of their students, will have to decide which courses are offered in which mode, and students will become used to managing their learning portfolio as a mixture of the various modes of delivery.
Some experts predict that both a growth in fully online programs and blended learning will be the legacy of the pandemic, but the real outcome will more likely be “mix and match.” Others are suggesting new institutions may emerge, which focus their energies on delivering online learning at scale, or that existing online learning universities and colleges will grow. Coursera, for example, is significantly expanding its degree offerings.
Higher education systems are remarkably complex places to navigate. In the US, for example, the number of different credentials available from universities, colleges, MOOC providers, professional bodies, industry associations and employers is now approaching 1 million, according to Credential Engine. When we layer the mode of delivery on top of the credential choice, the system becomes remarkably difficult to navigate.
What makes this more complex is that not all students respond in the same way to the different forms of learning just described.
Initial reaction to “remote learning” was largely negative from both students and instructors. Over time, the situation improved. A report produced by Bay View Analytics found the following by December 2021:
- Growing confidence by students, faculty and instructors in their ability to use technology-enabled learning effectively
- Growing satisfaction by students, faculty and instructors with their experience of online learning (although 15% remain unhappy with this mode of teaching and learning)
- Just 8% of faculty intend to drop all online components of their teaching when the situation returns to “normal;” while most intend to shift to blended learning (80%)
- Faculty and instructors are generally more optimistic now about online learning, digital learning resources, open educational resources and the value of instructional design than they were at the beginning of the pandemic
But not all students have access to appropriate technology, and both digital equity and other forms of equity and inclusion issues are impacted by the mode of delivery. It is clear that access to and success in higher education is an equity issue and that more active strategies are needed to ensure access and success for all. The more widespread use of learning analytics, especially when used to increase student agency and their ability to seek support, could be part of the response to this challenge.
In Canada, 12% of communities (especially rural and Indigenous communities) do not have access to 50/10Mbps unlimited broadband — the minimum required for effective online learning. Further, many students cannot afford or do not have access to appropriate technologies — a computer or appropriate digital device and affordable broadband — for effective online learning. A US study suggests 20% of students fall into this category.
Students need help navigating the complexity of what to study, what credentials are appropriate and what mode of delivery best suits their circumstances. The advice needs to be intensely personal — matching options, modes and choices — with need and capability. If we are serious about education as a mechanism for equity, action must be taken to provide supports to students who need additional help and assistance. Equity is about more than access. It is about outcomes.
Making a Difference
Key to the possibilities for the future are three things:
- Investment in Professional Development for Faculty and Instructors – It is clear from all the analyses and reports on the response of higher education institutions to the pandemic that the investment in professional development and instructional design support was an essential ingredient in the effective use of technology-enabled learning. When the pandemic ends, these investments must continue. They make a difference to both the quality of the learning experience and to learning outcomes.
- Ramping up Advice for Students and Potential Students – As choices become more complex and the cost of higher education continues to rise, learning pathway advice needs to improve. Students need more help and support in navigating the growing complexity of our higher education systems.
- Removing the Digital Divide – If equity matters, more investments must be made in broadband infrastructure and more must be done to ensure no student is denied access to a program of study because of challenges in accessing affordable and appropriate technology.
Governments and the private sector are working on this last issue. In both Canada and the US in 2022, all levels of government are working to increase broadband connectivity as a matter of urgency. But more is needed, especially in areas where education and skills development are key to economic recovery.
As Yogi Berra once said, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” Higher education institutions are leveraging their pandemic experience to develop and emerge stronger from the experience, and small but significant changes are occurring in teaching and learning within colleges and universities in order to increase accessibility, completion and inclusion. Sharing emerging practices and looking at exemplars of excellence will be key to sustaining these change initiatives, with the intent of improving student learning and offering greater student choice. Ultimately, the opportunity will engage students in their learning in more productive and effective ways. The next two to three years will show us how much change and innovation the pandemic enabled.