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Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.

If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic should teach educators, it's the fragility of long-cherished assumptions about what is best or desirable for learning. It seems like just yesterday that the arguments were raging about whether colleges were going to be diminished if they relied too much on technology and online learning. Access to college classes, it seemed at the time, was something that must be added carefully to an existing way of learning. One thing that drew nods at faculty meetings was the conviction that making college accessible would not be at the expense of a quality residential experience. It never occurred to any of us (even those of us who were actively promoting online learning as an alternate but equally effective educational experience) that traditional residential classrooms would disappear, not because they had been destroyed by online courses, but because they might become obsolete in a world in which congregating in groups of dozens or hundreds is simply not possible.

Your child may now be staring at their computer screen instead of going to a physical classroom, but that doesn't mean that they are necessarily participating in quality, online learning. Your student is more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning. As we face this new era of remote instruction for everyone from K-12 students to graduate students and adult learners, it's essential that we properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students. It is also critical that we examine the respective roles of these two forms of instruction in the future of education.

[T]here have always been and continue to be skeptics of online learning and many of their fears are not unfounded. ... However, we often find that these concerns are due to a misunderstanding of the difference between high-quality, online instruction and emergency remote education.

In 2014, Georgia Tech partnered with AT&T and Udacity to launch what has now become the world's largest and most affordable (costing the average student around $8,000), accredited Online Master's of Science in Computer Science (known as OMSCS). The design and development of this degree program was a massive undertaking involving countless faculty members, online instruction specialists, educational technologists, and instructional designers. Due to the immense work and expertise poured into the OMSCS program and its curriculum, it has become a global success and has produced hundreds of successful alumni.

The remote courses offered by universities across the globe as a result of COVID-19 are not the same as online courses offered by a program, like OMSCS, that has been designed from inception to be offered in a fully digital format. For example, in Ashok Goel and David Joyner's popular Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence course, every detail from the user experience of navigating the virtual course content, to the highly interactive, pre-recorded video lessons, to the approach to peer feedback, exams, and office hours have been meticulously designed to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment. This course has been iterated upon and honed over many semesters of offerings.

A course in, for example, physics, that has never before been offered in the online environment but has been converted to remote learning due to COVID-19 does not have the luxury of many phases of design and iteration. A faculty member teaching a course like this unexpectedly needs to rapidly determine how to offer the best possible course to remote students, even if said faculty member has never before taught an online course. Universities need to be prepared to successfully equip and support the efforts of these faculty members. In the new normal, a university must provide a framework for both online learning and emergency remote education.

This will be one of the defining questions for the future of higher education: How do we properly equip educators for a future involving more remote and online instruction than any of us ever imagined?

Since campuses began to shutter due to COVID-19, faculty and university staff across the country have worked around the clock to convert on-campus courses into remote learning experiences for upcoming semesters. New research data shows us that at Georgia Tech, students have generally been accepting of the newly remote experience and what the university has been able to offer as a substitute for on-campus learning, with only 30% reporting dissatisfaction.

Yet, there have always been and continue to be skeptics of online learning and many of their fears are not unfounded. Concern about the quality of instruction, the lack of human-to-human interaction, the restrictions placed on instructional methods are more than reasonable--these are the types of concerns that excellent faculty and instructors should be asking of any new approach lauded as a game changer for education. However, we often find that these concerns are due to a misunderstanding of the difference between high-quality, online instruction and emergency remote education. Research has shown that students in an online variation of one of Georgia Tech's on-campus computer science classes do just as well in the course as their in-person counterparts and also take less time to achieve comparable learning outcomes (Joyner 2018). Yet, students in online courses that are simply recordings of their in-person lessons can find success more difficult because their remote course was not designed for the digital format from inception. For example, in face-to-face classes there is an immediate feedback loop between instructors and students. If a student doesn't understand something, the instructor can instantly try a different approach to help foster understanding. In remote classes that loop is weakened or even missing entirely. Understanding the differing natures of the two modes of instruction is the first step in building a bridge between the quality of programs like Georgia Tech's online master's degrees and the immediate need for a course to be available to students who thought they would be spending those class hours in a lecture hall.

There is no question that we need quality online and remote instruction now more than ever. What we as educators and administrators must do is take a close look at the challenges (and successes) we've experienced over the past few months, overlay that with what we know about meaningful online learning experiences, and build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Beyond that, we need to look past the traditional curriculum, instruction, and assessment aspects of a course and try to develop the less obvious (but perhaps just as important) intangible elements that make up a high-quality educational experience. It can be difficult to build community, establish relationships between students and faculty, and find motivation and career guidance in a totally online environment. But these things are at the heart of the higher education experience and we need to look for a way to bring these intangibles to our students, regardless of instructional delivery mode and even in the midst of unthinkable and unexpected change.

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