The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed educators to reach for new levels of “creative desperation.” Through Zoom, Teams, Blackboard and other platforms, millions of teachers and students worldwide adapted to the new reality of virtual learning.
While the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders made online learning a household name, it also led to one indisputable realization: it works. Online learning has some downsides, like the lower opportunities for peer-to-peer social interaction and the absence of valued face-to-face conversations with professors, but it also has many upsides.
In an informal survey of students in the program I teach, an overwhelming majority said they liked the idea of not having to go to campus, thereby saving on transportation, food and even childcare costs. They also liked the flexibility and convenience of learning anywhere, especially from the comfort of home.
Online learning technologies have grown so sophisticated that they are now being used to foster student success. Tools such as automated mobile phone reminders, a dedicated online mentor, access to knowledge databases, analytics and other techniques are becoming much more available. They help keep learners on track to complete a course.
In this period of dire economic need coupled with massive changes in the job market, it is only appropriate that we find ways to offer greater access to quality university education to everyone. Access to a university education is especially vital to groups experiencing the most significant economic anxiety, such as those living in rural areas and those who work in rapidly changing industries like retail and manufacturing.
Promoting higher university participation will serve society well, because many current jobs are being lost to automation thanks to advances in artificial intelligence. New high-paying jobs now require higher levels of knowledge and skills – such as critical thinking and creative problem-solving. And these are competencies that a university education provides quite well. Online learning can play a crucial role in expanding access to higher education and offering a new ladder for people to climb towards a middle-class existence.
As things return to normal, university educators and leaders alike would be remiss if we just put online learning back to where it was in the pre-COVID era. It will be a tremendous loss of opportunity if we don’t continue to exploit the power that it brings to the educational milieu.
Offering more first- and second-year classes online, for example, will help increase the low university participation rate in this country. According to Statistics Canada, the national university participation rate has for years been hovering around 30 percent (ages 18 to 24), while here in Alberta it is even lower at roughly 25 percent.
Furthermore, as we expand online learning, academic leaders should put more resources into the last two years of the university experience, particularly around providing high-quality, hands-on learning. Third- and fourth-year classes should be small in size and offer intensive real-world learning opportunities. Professor David Deming of Harvard University described this scenario as “high dosage” learning, where professors work closely with students to help them gain mastery and deep expertise in their area of study.
Expanding online course offerings, particularly for first- and second-year university students, might also prove attractive to students from abroad. International students can save a lot of money on living expenses by completing a chunk of the courses online in their home country. This strategy of growing international student recruits who pay significantly higher tuition rates could be a lifesaver to institutions that face government funding cuts.
Finally, as universities find savings and efficiencies by growing their footprint in the online learning space, it would help students, and especially parents who worry about what the future holds for their children, if university leaders also find creative ways to lower tuition.
Rey Rosales is a journalism professor and chair of the department of communication at MacEwan University.