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How Being Forced out of Classrooms Has Improved Online Learning

Had we been asked about the future of online education a few months ago, our response would probably be very different than it is now.

For many years, those of us who teach online and institutions that offer online courses have fought against the perception that online education is inferior to traditional face-to-face learning. We base many of these notions on tradition, unwillingness to change and evolve, and fear associated with change. 

Even as the number of online courses and the students enrolled in them continued to rise in all areas of higher education, the common belief was still that that many subjects couldn’t be taught online (even though research shows attending in-person lectures is a fairly ineffective way of learning). 

Online education was even less common in K-12 education, although there are some online primary and secondary schools that offer limited online content and courses to students who are unable to attend face-to-face courses. 

Monumental shift

Enter COVID-19. Because of sudden restrictions on large-group gatherings and new social distancing rules, where did every school serving every level of student turn? To online education. 

COVID-19 caused the largest migration of education at all levels, from face-to-face to online, and it did so at a record-shattering pace. With just a few days’ notice, instructors were asked to become online teachers and students at all levels were forced to become online learners. The implications of this will forever change online learning. We believe it will change in the following ways: 

  1. There will be a better understanding of the differences between online and face-to face education. Different skills are required for both instructors and learners as they relate to structure, methodology, and relationships between the instructor and learner. Everyone involved in education will now have a better understanding of what those differences are.
  2. The forced and rapid change to online learning has pointed out the chasm that is the digital divide. Online education increases access to coursework in many situations but only for those who have the technology. The sudden move to online learning highlighted major issues regarding the tools needed to effectively learn online. As a country, this divide is something we must work to address in order to ensure students at all levels have equal opportunities.
  3. There will be an emphasis on quality. Just as there are good and bad classroom teachers and courses, there are good and bad online teachers and courses. There will be more of an emphasis on quality of online instruction and course design. Traditionally, in order to teach in higher education, instructors need advanced degrees and expertise in their subject-matter areas. That will still be necessary, but online instructors also need an understanding of what constitutes effective online teaching in addition to their subject-matter expertise. We will need more resources focused on effective online education in the future. Ultimately, this focus will strengthen both online and face-to-face teaching.
  4. Online education will become an accepted norm rather than an exception. As a result of COVID-19, K-12 students are gaining valuable experience as online learners at very young ages. This gives them an advantage over higher ed students, who may not have had any experience as online learners in primary or secondary grades. This experience will result in generations of learners growing up and moving into higher education with greater ease than those in past generations. Online education is now a norm for these learners, and that experience will help them to become effective online learners going forward. 

Better learners, better teachers

Instructors at all levels who have been online learners are better equipped to be more effective online instructors. The current generation of instructors is in a unique position in that it’s the only generation of instructors that has had to transition from face-to-face to online teaching without having had the experience of being online learners. 

Research has shown that online instructors are more effective if they have had experience as online students. Going forward, that will be more of the norm than it is today, and that will also strengthen the quality of online education. 

When the dust settles, COVID-19 will have broken down many of the traditional barriers and perceptions regarding online learning as a “less than” method. Online education will be further legitimized than it was in the past. More instructors will find they can teach online and more students will find they can learn online. It is our hope this will lead to the understanding that online learning is not “less than” face-to-face learning — it’s just different.

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