As we look at 2021 and beyond, what is next for teaching online in colleges and universities in Ontario? Will online learning become a more permanent, dominant form of teaching? Will faculty need to develop new skills and capabilities to teach online?
Around the world, millions of students have now experienced remote teaching and learning thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not all of those experiences were good ones, but some were remarkable.
Many teachers and their support teams found ways to engage and involve learners in active, meaningful and authentic learning. Some created student-based project teams and had them present. Others designed home-based experiments students could do on their own with materials they would likely have in the home or could easily acquire. Music teachers held choir and orchestral rehearsals and performances using Zoom. Many short video lessons were recorded and shared in the cloud.
Others simply used Zoom and other platforms to lecture and asked their students to send questions, which they responded to, treating their class time as a webinar.
Lessons from the Present Moment
Seven key lessons from this online learning experience so far:
- Technology cannot replace the work of a faculty member
Technology, whether synchronous technologies for audio, or videoconferencing, or asynchronous technologies for anywhere, anytime learning, can support the work of teachers in enabling learning. Those who claim technology can replace teachers, especially those who see artificial intelligence as being able to do so, misunderstand both the purpose and practice of teaching and learning in higher education.
- Developing presence
During the lockdown, the focus across the entire post-secondary education system in Ontario was on the effort to discover new ways professors can provide more connection, more support, and more presence for their students, not less.
- Engagement is as important as content
Posting content, readings, videos to watch, audios to listen to, games to play, may be needed, but it is not the essence of what teaching and learning is about. Content is everywhere and curated content is increasingly useful. However, it is what we do with that content that matters. Engaging students is absolutely critical to the success of online learning.
- Challenging students work
When students are assigned readings, what is it we really need them to be doing with that material and how can we explore what that reading means to them in meaningful and authentic ways? That is what became clear during the pandemic experience. Just reading a textbook or a collection of papers and watching a few videos may help understanding at one level, but what teachers help learners do is explore the “so what?” question. Teachers engage, challenge, question, and explore the content with students through interaction and by encouraging and challenging them.
- Design matters
Sharing a course outline on a learning management system (LMS), together with a curated collection of content, does not make for engaged and effective learning. It may be all that was possible in the short time between the lockdown and delivery, but teachers know it was not enough.
Instructional designers have known this for many years, which is why they design effective learning experiences based on learning models and theories. What became clear over the last several months is that some instructors are unfamiliar with these design principles and practices, though some intuitively “got it” based on rethinking and reimagining what they do in a normal classroom. Others “picked-up” ideas from the excellent materials developed by centres for teaching and learning and through professional development in colleges and universities. Many faculty rose to the challenge and produced courses and experiences that engaged students. Others struggled with learning design and the platforms they had to work with.
- What the learner does between classes is as important as what they do in class
Scheduled class times and face-to-face (or Zoom, MS Teams, Google Hangouts, etc.) sessions help learning, but significant learning takes place outside the classroom and always has. Student-to-student interaction, self-study and the challenge-based work that students do on their own is often more important than the synchronous learning involving an instructor. Whether we are talking about a skill (musicians tell you practice between lessons is what builds capability), understanding or knowledge acquisition, the role of the instructor is to enable and shape learning. The learner does most of the work. We can help shape the design of this between-class learning and dramatically improve learning outcomes.
- We have to rethink assessment
Assessing students who are remote and online is difficult. As some have observed, we cannot assume all have equal access to online resources or to computers, tablets or other devices to access the content. One student completed a 20-page final year project on a smartphone, as it was the only device available to them. Online-proctored examinations did take place, but many instructors saw the flaws in the assessment of knowledge, skills and capabilities during their remote teaching. In particular, assessment of technical competencies in apprenticeship suddenly became impossible using our standard approaches.
There are other lessons too. For example, remote teaching tested the technology infrastructure of all colleges and universities and their staff. Not all systems worked well. Zoom experienced significant security challenges and LMS providers like D2L, Canvas, and Blackboard, all saw dramatic increase in utilization, with Canvas reporting a tenfold increase in video uploading in the first 10 days of the lockdown.
We also discovered our limitations in using technology. Some systems, like Zoom, are intuitive but others are “clunky” and cumbersome. Not all faculty are good at creating or editing video material for students. Most faculty do not know enough about the functionality of their institution’s LMS system and only use a few features.
Not all students coped well, as a review of some student comments in a recent edition of University Affairs makes clear. Some students are unable to work from home with ease and others do not have any access to the required technology at the right time. One student had to work in the garden shed in the cold, since other spaces were taken by parents and other siblings working from home.
The five lessons listed above are key lessons in relation to pedagogy.
It Is Not Over Yet
Although there may be an announcement at some point about a return to “normal” or more likely a “new normal”, it will be some time before any semblance of normalcy is seen. It is also likely that the return will be gradual rather than sudden and complete. We need to prepare for a prolonged period of remote teaching.
In the meantime, we must also understand what happened during the pandemic will set a precedent. There will be increased demand from students for all sorts of programs that can be accessed from distance. College and universities won’t be able to say “we’re going back to normal.” Now that the box was opened, it will be impossible to close it. The transition to complete online learning will also be a multi-year process. It can’t be done in six months; there’s a lot to learn still and a lot to work to be done to get a good balance.
Three things will change the shape of our colleges and universities:
- The economy
We can expect a significant recession in Canada, and around the world. The National Bank of Canada cut growth expectations for Canada to 1.5% or less. The Royal Bank of Canada, along with other analysts, is suggesting Canada will be lucky to grow 0.2% in 2020 and Alberta will experience a negative 5.6% downturn, with unemployment at 20% or higher, which has significant implications for the whole national economy. A recession, probably to mid-2021 or beyond, is more than likely. Some sectors, such as retail, restaurants, tourism and hospitality, airlines, will be especially hard hit. Although recessions usually boost demand for higher education, they cannot do so when so many are impacted by an economic downturn and so many companies are not in a near-term position to hire.
- The market for programs, courses and credentials
The market will have changed from a supplier delivery market (“offer a program or course and students will come”) to a demand-driven market for programs, courses and credentials.
More specifically, demand from international students (there were close to 500,000 in Canada in 2017) will have fallen sharply. Also, students’ ability to pay is critical. At a time when unemployment could be as high as 20-25% and GDP growth almost non-existent with many defaults on student loans, students may re-assess their ability to pay and the likely return on investment. This means they could delay their studies.
What will be in demand are skills upgrading and reskilling courses, micro-credentials and programs and courses for high demand work (health care, 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.
- The stance of the provincial government
All provincial governments will have significant financial challenges, having used debt to support health care and operations during the lockdown. Ontario’s net debt prior to COVID-19 was already $367 billion (40% of GDP). It will likely rethink every aspect of its operations, including funding for colleges and universities. This is critical in light of the changed financial situation, especially since revenues from taxation will have fallen dramatically and will be below expectations due to the expected high level of unemployment.
A return to normal campus operations will take time. In the United Kingdom, the authorities are saying this may not occur until January 2021 or later, since a second wave of COVID-19 is anticipated. Closer to home in the United States, where there are tens of thousands of new infections each day and hundreds of deaths each day, nothing is certain. Recovery may happen faster in some areas of Canada than in others. If September 2020 is a re-opening date, institutions must be prepared 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 the growth of online learning.
Predictions about the likely impact of the pandemic on the future of higher education in Canada are already beginning to appear.
What is key to some of these predictions is that there will be a system shift from a “supply side” view of the work of colleges and universities (“offer it and they will come”) to a demand-led market driven by local, provincial and national needs. Programs will be specifically commissioned and developed differently in response to identified needs, something colleges and polytechnics are historically accustomed to doing. Provincial budget allocations are the commissioning vehicle.
This shift from a supply-side to demand-led system reinforces the growing view of many governments that there must be a realignment of what the higher education system does, so it is more closely aligned with the skills demanded by key and emerging industries and social need. Narrowing the skills gap has been a mantra of OECD member governments for some time.
More specific predictions beginning to appear:
- A dramatic growth of quality, blended learning
While not all experiences of remote teaching were positive, many faculty and students now better understand and appreciate the value of asynchronous (D2L, Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle) learning management systems and synchronous tools for collaborative group work (Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts).
- More flipped classrooms.
In the future, we will see more “flipped classrooms” where teachers are not “on stage’ but rather use lecture time to discuss material and make sure students understand it. There will be a new focus on engaging students in their learning.
- Strategic priority on online learning
Coupled with the growth of blended learning will be the strategic priority afforded to online learning at every college and university. Almost all placed 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 have realized it is essential to invest in faculty development and training for the successful implementation of quality online learning. They will also understand the need for a robust technology infrastructure.
- A growth in demand for short courses
High levels of unemployment across a range of sectors will lead many Ontarians to seek new skills and capabilities to help insulate them from the economic and personal “after-shocks” 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 so than a transcript or a grade.
- A rebalancing of full-time tenure track positions and sessional positions.
Universities and colleges are largely staffed by individuals on fixed term contracts and temporary sessional teaching staff. In universities in Canada, for example, academic rank salaries as a percentage of total expenditures steadily declined from 34% in 1973 to 23% in 2017, while spending on administration and general funds increased by 228% during the same period. In 2017, academic, research and teaching related costs were approximately 26% of costs and management costs were 22% (excluding benefits). In other parts of the world (Australia, United Kingdom), COVID-19 has already led to the loss of part-time, sessional academics. We can expect the same in Canada.
- 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. More significantly, all programs will need to give more emphasis to the “soft” skills of collaboration, teamwork, critical thinking, adaptability, and resilience. Balancing content with personal qualities requires a re-evaluation of how we teach based on the need to strengthen the skills and capabilities understood to be essential in a time of crisis.
- A commitment to ending the digital divide
The shift to remote learning, made clear the fact not all Canadians can access high quality broadband from home. It is also clear a larger number of students than anticipated did not have access to reliable and useful devices (laptops, tablets, desktops, video systems, audio systems) needed to be effective online learners.
In 2018, the CRTC reported 63% of rural households did not have access to 50 MPBs download/10 MBPs upload Internet, the government's minimum speed target for service that delivers the features of the modern digital economy. The First Nations Technology Council estimates 75% of communities lack access to those speeds. At least 4.4% of youth in Canada from low-income households lack home Internet, and up to 6% of all students may be relying on computers in local libraries and community centres to connect. In the lowest income quintile of Canadian households, more than one in three homes do not have a computer at all. If we are to leapfrog to a truly focused, digital economy, these numbers have to change.
Some small liberal arts colleges and religious institutions are already closing permanently. Other colleges and universities will seek to merge to create a viable operation after the lockdown Mergers or joint venture agreements are not uncommon in the United States or the United Kingdom.
Although Canadian universities, in particular, tend to be autonomous and prefer funding for their own infrastructure, it is possible we will see more collaborative and joint venture agreements across Canada’s predominantly public higher education system.