The world of higher education is still in the initial stages of its sudden shift to fully remote teaching, yet already educational leaders are considering the longer-term impacts – and opportunities.
The door to digital learning has been opened for all institutions, faculty and staff; the question is, how should institutions use lessons learned from this crisis to pave the best path forward?
Many in the higher education community are pointing out the dangers of conflating the current approach – often referred to as emergency remote teaching – with teaching and learning purpose-built to provide integrated digital experiences that can amplify the learning experience and produce sustainable success outcomes. Indeed, outcomes and academic integrity may have become the unfortunate casualties in this crisis fueled shift.
While it is understandable that in such emergency situations, providing continuity to students’ learning is more important – and therefore tradeoffs and compromises in outcomes unavoidable – it cannot continue to be accepted as the norm or even the starting point from on which to build. At the same time, as we navigate through the initial challenges, simply shifting back to business-as-it-was likely won’t be an option for institutions awakened to the reality of needing better designs for teaching and learning, crisis or not.
How then do we bridge the gap between the current state of remote teaching and what effective digitally enhanced learning should look like? The answer starts with thinking beyond crisis readiness to a broader acknowledgement of the role digital teaching and learning can play in terms of flexibility, access and better overall learning experiences and outcomes. The three thoughts below can hopefully provide a good starting point to help institutions shape their digital education evolution.
Thought 1: Digital learning will be the new normal – but it’s not an all-or-nothing game.
Many educators are understandably wary of what feels like a major paradigm shift. And many are hoping that this is a temporary phase and life will soon revert to what it was before the pandemic. The more probable reality is that digital learning is here to stay, but is not an either/or proposition – 100% digital will definitely not be the endgame, as some fear, and neither will going back to 100% face-to-face, campus-based instruction, as some hope. The answer lies somewhere in between, and exactly where and how much should be decided by the institution and the faculty members, taking their unique contexts and learning from the crisis into consideration.
The good news is that there are many exemplars to learn from – institutions and faculty that have developed a digital-thinking mindset and successfully figured out how to embed the right type and amount of digital learning into physical, classroom-based learning. And these folks are ones who have weathered the pandemic crisis the best. It is time for institutions and faculty to put aside their objections and dismissal of any learning other than classroom-based, face-to-face learning and work towards implementing this new normal in such a way that they can not only manage risks such as those exposed by the pandemic crisis effectively and efficiently, but also reap the benefits of digitally enhanced teaching at the same time.
Thought 2: Rather than simply replicating the classroom online, reimagine it with technology.
Expanding learning beyond the four walls of the classroom – whether you call it remote teaching, online, blended, digital or otherwise – starts with rethinking teaching methods to fit how people learn virtually. The context isn’t the same and the behaviors of the users aren’t the same in a virtual learning environment. So why assume that a simple replication of the classroom in Zoom will be sufficient? We can go back to the early stages of ecommerce for inspiration: the most successful online retailers knew that they couldn’t simply replicate the experience of brick-and-mortar shopping into an online store format. Instead, they built their online shops, experiences and operations around the specific needs and interactions of virtual shoppers. Today we all take the omnichannel retailing experience for granted.
Taking a similar approach can be helpful for educators in designing teaching and learning that can unify the offline and online experiences. What equipment will students have at hand? How and when will they engage with their learning? What is needed to support effective communication? What should be the balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning? How should testing and assessment evolve? What role does visibility to data and insight play in this context? How can instructors maintain a sense of presence and connection with their students? These are some of the many critical questions that need to be answered to properly build a technology-enabled learning approach that does not compromise an institution’s obligation and promise to its students: a quality learning experience combined with a high value derived from the learning.
Thought 3: Focus on building digital capabilities, not just adding technology.
Institutions have done a lot of work in recent weeks to help faculty get more out of their LMS and leverage web conferencing capabilities to handle the shift to remote teaching. Systems are an essential ingredient, but just as critical, and perhaps more, will be making an investment in the resources and capabilities to support faculty and staff. This will be crucial to managing a sustainable and scalable transformation to digitally assisted, enhanced and integrated teaching and learning.
Solving for faculty and staff development and support needs around digital teaching should be a big component of the digital infrastructure investment. The good news here is that there is a world of instructional designers, digital learning experts and others well-versed in digital learning design and best practices that can be valuable resources in this transformation; institutions can stand to benefit immensely from investing in these resources. Some of these resources may already be present in institution but may need to be repurposed from supporting one-off, opt-in, faculty-to-faculty support models to a more strategic and structured context. Fortunately, there are exemplar institutions that have successfully put the necessary structures in place and can become a source for others to learn and emulate.
At the end of the day, digitization should do more than be a replacement for classroom; it should re-shape and greatly enhance the teaching and the learning model and experience. Until now, digital learning adoption and integration has occurred organically at most institutions, driven by individual faculty or small pockets of interest within departments. Perhaps the biggest lesson to take away from the current crisis is that the time for this individually driven, opt-in approach has passed.
What the current crisis has really exposed is an issue of scale – and a greater sense of urgency – that can’t be addressed faculty by faculty. It’s time for institutional leaders to embrace this opportunity to take ownership, leading the way with a systematically structured and driven approach to creating the digital infrastructure that will position them for not just preparedness for the lingering after-effects of the crisis or perhaps the next crisis, but for a future-proof, sustainable approach to higher education for the years ahead.
In a coming series of posts, we’ll share more about the path to scaling digital innovation. If you have stories or advice to share based on your own experiences, we’d love to hear those as well – reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.