Virtual Learning In the Age of Pandemic
Responses from Provost and vice president academic affairs, Dr. Pamela J. Gent, and interim associate provost, Dr. David H. Hartley, of Clarion University of Pennsylvania.
Because most schools have moved to virtual learning environments in response to COVID-19, what are the likely long-term outcomes of this?
Dr. Gent: All universities and colleges are going to be impacted financially because they have had to refund tuition, room, and board, and theyhave had to invest in online infrastructure. Universities and colleges cannotdo their traditional recruiting events and campus visit events, so this also can impact enrollment. Retention is an issue and some students, especially our lower income and first generation students, may not be able to return to school. They simply won’t be able to afford it. Or they may opt to live at home and continue to learn online. Some students, who had never done online learning, may find that they like online learning and will transfer to a school with online learning. I also think that some universities that were never in the online space in the past will move more aggressively into the space and we will see a plethora of online programs.
Dr. Hartley: Long term, the schools that have made the smoothest and most student centered moves to online will develop a strong positive reputation for this type of content delivery. Those who stumble, will have a PR battle to overcome. There is an “opportunity” here. Some large corporations have an internal culture that sees online learning, especially for-profit online institutions as sub-par. Because those executives are now being forced into telecommuting, are hearing from the students in their house how online instruction is working, we may see a greater acceptance of high-caliber graduates from online institutions, providing the rigor is maintained.
Q: Will more schools embrace distance learning once we’re beyond the pandemic? If so, what will it look like?
Dr. Gent: It depends. Distance learning is simply not part of the mission or the ethos of some universities. And, after this semester, some faculty and students have vowed that they will never teach or learn virtually again. Still others wille mbrace this opportunity to expand into new markets. This pandemic has spurred increased use of pay-for-services in online tutoring, online counseling, and other online support services. This will continue togrow.
Dr. Hartley: I believe that the “ice is broken.” Some schools will walkout of this and say, “Never again.” That’s a perfect response for that school’s climate and culture. Other schools will walk out of it and say, “Hey, we can do this!” In the end, opportunities for on campus, online, part-time, working adults, and life-long learners will expand.
Q: Will some educational entities move beyond physical classrooms altogether?
Dr. Gent: It depends. Some universities are taking such a big financial hit that they will need to close their physical classrooms and operate solely online. But eliminating all face-to-face classes will not guarantee financial success. For campuses in rural areas, there is little market for the land and buildings so universities cannot shed these. They will have to continue to do some basic maintenance of the physical plant. And, as many have discovered in the past month, maintaining an online infrastructure is costly in terms of equipment, server capacity, learning management systems, instructional designers, online student support systems, etc.
Dr. Hartley: Commercially backed programs with deep pockets may see an opening in the market to go national. I believe that opportunity is fairly limited. Regional institutions may seize this as an opportunity to expand and reach out to new populations of students. For a “bricks and mortar” institution to move to 100% online would be a stretch; however, online students are attracted to online programs that have grounding in a physical location withreal classrooms and resident faculty. There should be opportunities for schools to expand while maintaining their campus.
Q: Could in-classroom learning go the way of the dinosaur or is that panic-stricken hype?
Dr. Gent: It’s panic stricken hype. There will always be a market for students who want to have a four-year residential campus experience. We know, however, that this market is shrinking because 1) there are fewer traditional age students in most parts of the country, and 2) costs have increased to the point where more students are opting out of higher education altogether or opting out of the traditional live on campus model of higher education. That being said, this pandemic will fundamentally change in-classroom learning. Technology will be more prominent. Learning management systems will used to supplement in-class learning. Students will demand more options.
Dr. Hartley: Humans are social beings. While I have friends I’ve made through Facebook connections, I also maintain friendships built through the“crucible” of academia and my time in the military. The gathering of folks andthe common effort/common experience creates bonds that aren’t easily replicatedthrough online learning. There are other models, for example bringing cohorts onto campus for short periods of time then releasing them to go back to their jobs and homes to continue learning. These cohorts help create the bonds offriendship and professional networks that can extend beyond the classroom. We automate and we innovate. There is a physical skill honed by doing titrations in a chemistry lab but … if industry has automated this task, then the value is in understanding the process, but not in a certain “skill set” one brings to an automated, industrial lab. There is also tactile learning in anatomy and physiology labs, biology labs, etc. Some of the laboratory sciences will be difficult to replicate for those majors. Flip side is, your average business major probably doesn’t need a biology class with a lab. Finally, students! High school graduates have a wide range of maturity and self-efficacy. Many struggle with the transition from high school to college. If we add the need to be a self-directed learner, becuase of the nature of online learning, we will “spin off” those students who need that first or second year of classes to learn how to be a self-directed learner. All that to say, no. We will not see in-class learning disappear any time soon.
Q: In essence, what is the future of classroom-based learning and the technology that plays a role in providing instruction?
Dr. Hartley: Disruptions like this current pandemic, will foster some real innovations. What are they? If I knew I’d invest in them and make up some of the losses in my retirement fund! Blended classes (some students participating or watching online, some students in the classroom) are already happening at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Yet, there needs to be betterways to deliver this kind of instruction. The idea of watching a 50 minute lecture online … please, no. So how do we innovate this? Who does the innovation? Professors are rarely thespians, producer, director, humorist, screen play author, AND well-respected subject matter expert with a wealth of peer reviewed journal articles in their field. There is certainly potential growth in the area of “content delivery.” How do we create an environment where professors can teach and expand the research in their field, yet students can have the content delivered in a way that best suits the student’s learning style? Clarion University of Pennsylvania is a teaching institution. The interaction between student and professor is key to why we attract certain students and certain professors to our university. So we have to figure out how to do all of this technology while maintaining the culture of the institutionand the personal touch our professors and students enjoy.