Why Mission — Not Money — Will Lead Colleges to Truly Innovative Online Learning

While there are clearly lessons still to be learned from the ongoing pandemic, the ebb and flow of emergency remote instruction versus a return to in-person instruction has already brought a higher education issue to a boil: What are we going to do? Do you tag with online learning?

Over the past decade, online education has been driven by enrollments, especially out-of-state enrollment. Online courses have been developed as cash cows for years, by many of the institutions that have ever owned them. This approach is not only pedagogically bankrupt, but it has not worked. Many universities were initially lured with the promise of increased revenue by signing deals with online program management companies – but some have since rejected that. The University of Florida is one of the best documented examples of this, and it should be noted that they specifically cited unfulfilled enrollment goals when they breached their OPM contract. In the wake of this decision, the University of Florida has also made clear its new goal of high-quality pedagogy and one-on-one advice to produce a better student experience. This has been framed as a contradiction to the OPM-designed program, and was accompanied by plans to invest in faculty incentives to teach online, pointing to some weaknesses in OPM programs, which were emphasized in a 2019 Century Foundation report, “Dear Colleges: Take Take control of your online courses.” The report urges schools to move away from comprehensive service packages that outsource design, construction and sometimes even teach online courses, especially from contractors that promise to dramatically increase revenue.

However, in-house course design and financial responsibility alone will not be enough to create truly powerful online programs. We also need innovation and creativity. We need to expand beyond the subjective and asynchronous approach we have already tried. The content and design of online courses to date have often focused on balancing the in-person experience. In a purely asynchronous format, even this basic goal is not easily achieved. We see the paths of this conflict in the federal directives to include substantive interaction; Focus on teacher attendance and student participation in our faculty development offerings; And the common practice of including things like certain social forums in online courses, in the hopes of achieving fleeting social contact that are virtually the same as classroom supplies.

Indeed, if distance education in emergency situations teaches us anything, it is certain that interpersonal interaction is one of the most vital elements of teaching and learning, an element that cannot be easily replaced and should not be neglected. Without this element, student dissatisfaction grows, and one must suspect that regular comments and announcements from the teacher, no matter how elaborate and thoughtful they are, are really sufficient. In light of this, it seems clear that the almost equivalent training courses that many universities still use as a legacy of their expertise in managing internal operations are in dire need of an overhaul, or even phase out.

Once we stop allowing high enrollment rates to be the driving force behind online programs, what do we call driving development? I would argue that we need to start with our corporate missions and goals. Who are the communities we serve and attract our students from? What do they need in order to fully participate in our offerings? What can technology add to our school’s mission? If we start with these questions, a very different and more diverse approach to online learning may emerge. We have already seen some first steps in this direction, from a few schools; Let’s continue like this.

A distributed-campus school that wishes to provide students in all locations with the benefits of a wide range of courses and faculty perspectives may find itself better served by investing in blended technology to connect remote classrooms as seamlessly as possible. A school that focuses on experiential learning may want to invest equipment money and faculty development in creating and supporting augmented and virtual reality. A school that prides itself on offering its students an intimate classroom experience may want to use platforms specifically designed to mimic a small, synchronized, and personal classroom. A liberal arts institution may earn the most revenue by allocating funds to remote guest speakers and technology to make their presence seamless and accessible, thus increasing the diversity of speakers and events students can attend. Vocational school may be well served by exploring simulation technology. A local college whose mission is to provide equitable access to education to the entire community may wish to continue to focus on equivalent online course options, but also develop a robust equipment loan program to ensure that all students have access to these courses.

In all of these cases, infrastructure and support should also receive great attention. To date, students who choose themselves in online learning already have access to computers, network connectivity, software, and enough peripherals to do the required coursework. Many online classes list the equipment a student must have to participate, and offer few options for students who do not have or cannot afford these items. To create a broader and more powerful footprint on the Internet, universities and colleges must think about how to provide students who do not have such access.

So maybe, in the end, it comes down to the money after all – not how online learning can motivate it, but how we can apply what we have to best effect, to create online learning that truly reflects our institutions and benefits the students who come to us because of the unique opportunities that All of us provide it.

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