As the pandemic winds down, many institutions are realising that well-designed online platforms will help them better serve all students, especially nontraditional students.
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How Online Learning Is Reshaping Higher Education?
When COVID-19 forced campuses to close two years ago, some universities were able to move their students to online programs that were already very good.
On the other hand, many other colleges and universities were rushing to start from scratch when it came to making online courses.
Students and teachers often used Zoom or other platforms for the first time, not knowing how to get around in this new virtual learning world.
“When the pandemic hit, it was both a challenge and a call for innovation,” said Caroline Levander, vice president for global and digital strategy at Rice University in Houston, during a recent webinar on the future of online learning hosted by U.S. News & World Report.
Even though the changes were hard for many faculty members at Rice and elsewhere, they welcomed the new opportunities that online learning gave them.
Levander says that Jason Hafner, a physics professor at Rice, used the virtual world to come up with interesting new ways to teach his students.
“He was trying out internet distribution in our non-credit services before the pandemic,” Levander said.
As COVID-19 spread, though, Hafner started teaching outside of his classroom. He used Rice’s campus to add video-recorded experiments that were done outside of regular class hours to his lectures.
In one class, he climbed to the top of a rock tower on Rice’s engineering quad and dropped two identically sized spheres, one made of aluminum and the other of steel, to show that their speeds would be the same even though they were made of different materials.
Many teachers are now rethinking how virtual learning could help students by giving them more freedom than in-class options. This is especially true for hybrid and all-virtual learning models. Jeff Borden, the chief academic officer at D2L, a company that makes software for online learning, says that in the early days of the epidemic, people set up Zoom classes and put a lot of video courses online.
“Everything is fine. That was very important to people getting through.” Borden says that colleges and universities now have the chance to move beyond these makeshift structures.
They can try to make online learning platforms that last longer and meet the needs of a wide range of students who need coursework at different times and in different ways to fit their own goals and ways of life.
Many people think that going to college for four years is the norm, but Borden says that “that’s not the right path” for some people. In fact, some students may want to get certificates or learn new skills more than they want to get a traditional degree.
Borden said, “There are tens of millions of other people in our society who have different needs and wants than those.” Borden said that online learning makes it easier than ever for older students, working adults, people from unusual backgrounds, and people who may be neurodiverse to access the content.
There are also a lot of options for graduate and professional schools, and in recent years, many of them have started to offer some or all of their programs online.
Levander said that students who apply to Rice’s fully online master’s degree program are “far more diverse in every way” than those who apply to the residential program. This is because access is made easier and more appropriate for students who may be juggling work and family responsibilities.
Don Kilburn, CEO of UMass Online, which offers courses from all five University of Massachusetts campuses, said, “One of the great things about online education is that it can really get around physical barriers.”
Kilburn agreed with the other people on his panel that online learning models are important for making more people able to learn. He also said that online programs are usually less expensive than in-person programs, which could help students with their finances.
“Accessibility includes being able to pay for it,” he said. “I think there are ways to offer completely online programs for less money, which could cut the cost of education by a lot.”
Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president, and university provost at Arizona State University says that understanding why students choose to take classes online and how their needs are different from those who choose traditional, in-person options is part of meeting their needs. This year, about 84,000 students will take classes through Arizona State University‘s online programs.
Gonzales says that one of the reasons online learning is so popular is that many students choose to take fewer courses at once and may take semesters off to deal with other things in their lives, like taking care of children or working.
Gonzales said, “We’ve been trying to figure out what the attendance pattern is and how to meet the needs of such a diverse group of kids.”
Gonzales says that part of what makes an online education model work is that it gives students the same kind of support and services that they might get in a classroom.
Some of these services are giving advice about financial aid and making sure that students can talk to their classmates on discussion boards so that they don’t lose touch with them when they take classes online.
But everyone on the panel agreed that online learning has a lot of potentials. Kilburn said, “I think we are just at the start of the digital transition.” “I can’t tell you when, but everything, including education, will change at some point.”