As universities across the world grapple with the repercussions of the COVID-19 outbreak, comparisons between online and traditional modes of instruction have been put into sharp focus. Implications of this comparison are far-reaching for students, universities and employers of university graduates.
The World Bank reports that as of April 2020, universities and other higher education institutions were closed in 175 countries, with some 13 percent having their studies either completely or partially discontinued as a result of the pandemic. Moving study programs either totally or partially online, which had been previously based on traditional face-to-face learning, has been the main coping strategy.
A key issue that has come to the forefront during this process is the question of just how effective online learning is compared to traditional methods. The related and further question is how high online education is valued compared to traditional study programs. Historically, both issues of learning efficacy and attribution of value have been central in discussions surrounding the rapid growth of online options for higher education.
This article takes a look at the latter issue of value and legitimacy: How have attitudes evolved up until the recent COVID pandemic? Several studies covering this issue conducted over the past 10 years point to three main ways in which institutions can boost the acceptance and reputation of online programs: (1) Getting faculty on board, (2) investing in the necessary organizational resources, human resources, technologies, and training for faculty, and (3) proving results by studying and reporting on successes in terms of good student outcomes.
Moving Online: The Last Decade
Before discussing these, we should have an understanding of the prevalence of online higher education in recent periods and how it has changed over time. While the current COVID 19 epidemic has, and may well continue to have, a drastic impact on that number, data from over the last decade shows increasing adoption of this method of teaching by institutions, and an increasing number of students interested in participating in online programs. This rise of popularity in switching out the classroom for the laptop, however, has not been accompanied by championing on the part of academic faculty. In the Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States (2016), Authors Allen and Seaman note that “despite some three-fold increase in the percentage of surveyed higher education students participating in some form of online instruction, “…we have observed very little change in faculty acceptance of the value and legitimacy of online education.”
Professor Pessimism – Some Solutions
If the faculty itself is wary of the idea that online programs are of the same standard as traditional forms for learning, what do institutions do? If acceptance among faculty is lacking, then the other two pillars of successful implementation of online programs; institutional investment and student enrollments suffer. This issue of legitimacy could be considered more important in the longer run than actual learning outcomes. Both students and institutions are being compelled into adapting to this form of education, regardless of the institution’s actual capacity to do so. Churning out online degree program graduates out of necessity during the current pandemic could have negative consequences for both institutional reputation and student achievement recognition. A study by Educause in 2017 reported 45 percent of faculty said they “do not agree” online learning was effective. The Online Report Card study reported overall only some 30 percent of institutions said that the “faculty at my school accept the value and legitimacy of online education” for the period 2002 to 2015. (p.26). This percentage drops dramatically by the prevalence of online students at the institution: only 12% report faculty accepts the value and legitimacy of these programs for those at institutions with no online students. (p.26).
Give Technical Support and Prove Efficacy
Inside Higher Ed examined the topic of faculty resistance to online education in a pre-COVID-19 article in 2018. Echoing other reports from research into faculty attitudes, Lieberman asked a range of online learning experts their opinion about how widespread they thought the sentiment of wariness towards online education was among faculty and what to do about it. Ideas about how institutions could convince faculty to use or at least alter their opinions towards digital technology and methods centered on three main ideas: Addressing the issue of tenure and contracts, providing support, and showing faculty that online learning is successful in terms of student satisfaction and success. (p.2).
Support to faculty includes both the time needed to adapt the traditional face-to-face curriculum to online and training in implementation. Institutions need to have a toolbox of instructors in technology, experts to collaborate with faculty to figure out how to best design programs for their particular subject area.
How do higher education institutions, in the current climate of needing to rapidly deploy online and hybrid programs, manage? The World Bank Development Report (2020), provides a list of immediate steps recommended to higher education institutions in implementing online modalities at scale. These steps include benchmarks for course delivery, continuity of research and maintaining organizational operations. Focusing on the institutional investment in transitioning course delivery, the Bank prescribes training as “instructors on how to teach remotely: tailoring the training to allow each academic staff member to define their own plan for content, goals, and learning assessment within the new modality”, in addition to recommending surveying students about the adequacy of their technology to participate, providing the necessary hardware to all parties, and developing institutional policies about how to assess student performance. (p. 4-5).
The World Bank’s recommendation of collecting data from student surveys addresses our third way to boost the credibility of online programs: proving results by studying and reporting on successes in terms of good student outcomes. Higher education institutions and other stakeholders are encouraged to collect and report on evidence on the efficacy of newly developed or mature online study programs. In our next article, we will discuss the findings of recent studies reporting on indicators of student success in online programs.
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