The COVID-19 pandemic has altered higher education indefinitely, and university leaders have had to adapt to a changing landscape with no guidebook. While it has been challenging, it has also allowed universities to re-think how they support learners. In this article, David Migliorese, Vice President of Academic Services at Wiley University Services, discusses ways schools can use different learning methods to support students and faculty.
Re-imagine the Mainstream Learning Model
When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted U.S. colleges and universities to close campuses in March 2020, higher learning institutions sought short-term distance learning solutions to brace for the immediate impact. Most schools were already able to deliver some level of online learning but only in a small scale — perhaps a few fully online programs or online course options. But they were not prepared to immediately scale these online offerings to support their entire course catalog. In addition to that, their faculty and students had little to no experience with online courses and hadn’t made the choice to teach or learn virtually. It’s clear from the many surveys done in the wake of this period that, while there were successes, emergency distance learning also resulted in a lot of disappointment.
Now, it’s clear that university leaders need a virtual structure that can be delivered effectively and consistently as they adapt to new needs and concerns, including the understanding that lives can change in an instant. When changes do occur, higher educational pursuits shouldn’t have to end or suffer. It’s my hope that, as we look ahead to the post-pandemic period, leaders and faculty will take advantage of the opportunity to re-think the learning experience they deliver long-term. Traditional courses shouldn’t go back to business as usual when we’re on the other side of this period. We now have the opportunity to thoughtfully combine the advantages of face-to-face and online learning into new delivery models.
Use Effective Practices to Deliver Quality, Equitable Education
While online education is new to many right now, we’ve gone through decades of development and experimentation in online learning, and we know quite a bit about what works. When it comes to the course experience, many factors are important to support success, including technology affordances, student readiness, and teaching techniques specific to online learning.
Though a focus on technology is undoubtedly important when planning online education, it strikes me that most meaningful questions aren’t about the modality at all. Instead, they’re about whether curriculum is developed and delivered in a student-centered way. Is curriculum aligned with the skills students need to be successful? Are students supported with authentic application and feedback opportunities? Are they able to connect productively with peers and faculty? These concerns transcend modality and provide good guidance to improve overall quality and support better outcomes for faculty and students. We can then address them by embracing proven approaches yet to be widely adopted, including:
Curriculum and Employment Alignment
All students need skills relevant to the world of work they are preparing to enter, and it’s well known that employers feel these are lacking in graduates. In 2019, 64% of surveyed human resources leaders said they believe their organization has a skills gap, and 44% said it is harder to fill open positions to close those skills gaps. That’s up from 35% in 2018. Consider how much larger this problem will become as the labor market rapidly transitions away from today’s jobs to ones that don’t yet exist. Universities should improve collaboration with employers now and align curriculum and course designs to in-demand job skills of today and the future. Through closer collaboration, they can also facilitate quality educational opportunities in the field, including internships and short project opportunities. These high-impact experiences can be easier to achieve in a more virtual world and while students find it highly desirable, it is often hard to find.
This is not a new opinion, but it’s worth saying that while content delivery in a live setting can be compelling, lecture is not usually the best use of synchronous time, whether the class is in-person, online, or blended. Most presentations should be converted to online delivery via interactives, text or video, and self-assessments, even leveraging adaptive components if available. This frees up in-person or videoconferencing time for case-method learning, application of concepts to personal experiences, group work, or discussion and synthesis activities. Many faculty who we’ve supported in this transition have found it to breathe new life into their courses.
Application activities in online and blended courses can leverage new possibilities with students in the field generating artifacts — including video, audio, images, and more — to support their learning and enrich class discussion. The integration of field experience with the concepts and discourse of the class has massive resonance and can be done at a much broader scale. Online instructors generally rave about the impact of this in comparison to traditional place-based courses.
Mentorship should be incorporated more formally into classes and programs. With more intentionality concerning how an instructor engages with groups and individuals, we can ensure the right amount of true relationship-building happens. The mentorship aspect of the university experience has too often been left up to students to navigate, especially at the undergrad level, and many never find or harness this opportunity. This can be especially effective with non-traditional and at-risk populations and as a way to proactively address obstacles any student can face that may or may not be academic.
These deeply engaging features can be implemented in blended and online courses to drive meaning and impact for students in exciting ways.
Look Ahead to What Students Will Need in the Future
Now is a moment when we can work together to reconsider the future of education — with student needs and outcomes top of mind. Of course, professors and administrators are always considering how to best connect with and inspire students inside and outside of the classroom, but recent disruption has resulted in a new level of urgency and openness to innovation as the benefits of online and blended learning will continue to exist long after a coronavirus vaccine is distributed.
Innovation in learning delivery can differentiate programs in the highly competitive higher education market. While the draw of the campus will persist, as a community, we need to design how these two modalities will work together in the future, respectful of — but less tethered to — tradition. Just as the delivery of fully online education evolved from ebooks and PowerPoints with exams to the wide range of more refined options available today, traditional learning will evolve toward a more efficient, rewarding, and effective intertwining of digital and in-person (asynchronous and live) practices.
One key to the next era in higher education is getting ahead of trends. Universities with robust online options were much better prepared for COVID-19 response than those that held firm to place-based learning only. Building the acumen and comfort with new delivery models requires time and expertise to complement and support faculty. Collaboration with learning experts now will better prepare higher education professionals to deliver quality instruction, no matter what the future holds. The universities that will be best-positioned to succeed long-term will embrace high-impact course designs including online and blended pedagogy as a core component of their product plan and develop strategies with the faculty community to evolve to best meet their missions.
Take the Next Step
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About David Migliorese, Vice President of Academic Services
David Migliorese’s custom course development group at Wiley University Services works with faculty to create high-impact, technology-enabled learning experiences for an array of degree programs.
David began his career in user experience, then spent eight years working with faculty and leading teams in the design and development of online learning experiences. Since joining Wiley University Services in 2009, David has built a team of world-class learning designers, media specialists, and faculty support professionals who share his passion for student‐centered, high engagement learning. His academic services team has developed and manages a catalog of more than 5,000 distinctive online courses.
David earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and a master’s in humanities from the University of Chicago.