While there will be an announcement at some point about a gradual return to “normal”, it will in fact be some time before any semblance of normal is the reality. As a result, faculty, instructors, colleges, universities, and other education and training providers must prepare for a prolonged period of teaching online.
Three predictions with the potential to change the shape of our colleges and universities and to set the stage for What Is Next for Online Learning:
- The Economy
All major financial analysts suggest the world is headed for a recession, with only China and India showing economic growth for the balance of the year.
Some sectors – retail, restaurants, tourism and hospitality, airlines – will be especially hard hit. While recessions are usually good for enrolment demand for higher education, they are not for students when so many are impacted by an economic downturn and so many companies will not be in a near-term position to hire.
Not all parts of the world will experience the recession in the same way, at the same time, but “returning to normal” economic activity is unlikely for some time. More specifically, governments are making extensive use of borrowing to support their citizens and businesses and will need to review all aspects of their expenditures once the pandemic is behind us. Some government will stimulate their economy post-pandemic through targeted infrastructure spending and wage subsidies and others will not.
- The Market for Programs, Courses and Credentials
The market for programs, courses and credentials will change from a supplier driven market (“offer a program or course and students will come”) to a demand driven market (students demanding special programs, courses and credentials to meet their needs).
More specifically, demand from international students will fall sharply during the pandemic, with the ability of students to pay for their education a key factor. At a time when unemployment could be as high as 20-25%, GDP growth almost non-existent in many countries and many defaults on student loans, students may re-assess their ability to pay and the return on investment and delay their studies.
In-demand programming will include skills upgrading and reskilling courses, micro-credentials and programs and courses for high demand work (healthcare, for example). Other program areas will suffer. Further, employers will increasingly look for demonstrable competencies – evidence of an ability to perform – not just a qualification or transcript.
There are predictions of a significant fall in international student enrolment all over the world. Given how significant such enrolments are for the financing of colleges and universities (especially in Australia, United Kingdom, Canada and the United Sates, which are the primary destinations for such students), this will lead to a shake out with many smaller institutions struggling to survive.
- The Stance of Government– All governments will have significant financial challenges, as a result of borrowing significantly to support healthcare (facilities and equipment) and direct financial support to citizens and businesses during the lockdown period. They will need to add capacity to health systems, especially if a second wave of COVID-19 appears, support struggling sectors of the economy and find ways of supporting families and communities who will struggle with the economic impact of a long period without work.
A return to normal campus operations will take time. In the United Kingdom, authorities are saying this may not occur until January 2021 or later, since a second wave of COVID-19 is anticipated. It may happen faster in some areas of the world than in others. If September 2020 is a re-opening date, institutions must prepare for the potential for a second lockdown if the virus returns and no vaccine is approved or widely available. Institutions can use the “in between time” to better prepare for/deal with the growth of online learning.
What is next for Online Learning During / After COVID-19?
- A dramatic growth of quality, blended learning.
While not all experiences of online learning will be positive, many faculty, instructors and students will better understand and appreciate the value of asynchronous learning management systems (D2L, Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle) and synchronous tools for collaborative group work (Zoom, Adobe Connect, FaceTime, Google Hangouts).
We will see more “flipped classrooms” in the future than we did in the past and there will be a new and expanded focus on engaging students in their learning.
- Strategic priority on online learning at every college and university.
Almost all colleges and universities included online learning in their strategic plans by 2019, but not all acted with vigour and determination to implement these plans. Now they will.
They will also realize how essential an investment in faculty and instructor’s development and training is for the successful implementation of quality online learning as well as the need for a robust technology infrastructure.
- A growth in demand for skills-based learning.
High levels of unemployment across a range of sectors will lead many residents to seek new skills and capabilities to help insulate them from the economic and personal “aftershocks” of the lockdown.
Demand for skills-based learning will grow, but this may look very different from past demand. A focus on short courses, micro-credentials, experiential learning and work-based learning accreditation, based on demonstrable competencies, will replace the demand for long, campus-based programs.
Employers will also demand evidence of skill and competence – more than a transcript or a grade.
- A refocusing of programs.
Some programs may now be deemed more important than others – healthcare, artificial intelligence, food and supply chain management, for example, may be more important than programs in international finance or marketing.
But more significantly, all programs will need to give more emphasis to the “soft” skills of collaboration, teamwork, critical thinking, adaptability, resilience. New approaches to virtual work, discovered by many workers during the lockdown, may also demand new skills.
New models of accountability, leadership and human resource management also appear as organizations adjust to virtual work. This re-balancing of content with personal qualities requires a re-evaluation of how faculty and instructors teach based on the need to strengthen the skills and capabilities realized as critical at the time of the crisis.
- A commitment to ending the digital divide.
The shift to online learning, amongst other realizations, brought home the fact not all can access high quality broadband from home.
It is also clear a larger number of students than anticipated did not have access to or familiarity with reliable and useful devices (laptops, tablets, desktops, video systems, audio systems) needed to be effective online learners.
In 2018, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) reported 63% of rural households in Canada did not have access to 50 MBPS download/ 10 MBPS upload Internet, the government's minimum speed target for service that delivers the features of the modern digital economy. The situation is similar or worse in many other parts of the world, especially for marginalized communities.
Many students from low-income households lack Internet at home and more students than original envisioned may be relying on computers in local libraries and community centres to connect. Many of those students in the lowest income quintile of households do not have a computer. If we are to leapfrog to a truly focused, digital economy, this has to change.
We are learning a lot during the period of physical distancing and lockdown and the period of learning is, in many ways, just beginning. What happens next is still an evolving story – but all in higher education need to prepare for a different future.