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.
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.
- Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
- More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
- SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
With COVID-19 ravaging our economy—leaving 40 million workers seeking unemployment benefits and 55% of Americans reporting lost income—the country desperately needs a better set of solutions to help workers reorient in the face of an uncertain future.
Employers have historically provided outplacement services to employees they lay off. Outplacement is a $5 billion industry in normal years that spikes dramatically during recessions. Companies that provide outplacement services typically charge $3,000 to $10,000 per worker.
But the standard offering is paltry. Employees who have been laid off or are about to be laid off receive a bit of coaching, access to job listings, and resume reviews—and that's about it.
Yet we know that a couple of short coaching sessions, job listings and resume reviews don't result in jobs. Research shows that 70% of all jobs aren't posted on job sites, and 80% of jobs are filled through connections, not blind applications.
Nor do these services result in the sort of higher paying jobs that allow individuals to become more productive working members of society on sounder footing, ready to navigate the twists and turns of a future that will see more technological unemployment and a vastly different set of required skill sets to future-proof jobs.
Instead, those who are laid off require something more: reskilling, relationships, and navigation to step it up and make progress in their lives.
Against this backdrop, a new effort, SkillUp, is launching to help workers select and prepare for career paths that align with the economy of the future. SkillUp is a non-profit leading a coalition of technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to support laid off and furloughed workers.
The coalition SkillUp is assembling is ultimately more than a set of solutions around outplacement that should persist past the current pandemic, but the coming promise of a more flexible, affordable, and convenient set of solutions to support individuals' upskilling and reskilling throughout their lives to fulfill their human potential.
SkillUp offers a three-pronged approach:
- Career navigation: Technology tools and coaching resources to help workers choose a productive pathway and orient around jobs and careers that will grow in the future of work.
- Training programs: The coalition helps workers find educational and training programs matched to their career goals to help them upskill, so that they do not just go back into frontline or entry-level roles, but can make progress in their career and fortunes.
- Job opportunities: Using relationships with hiring employers and technology to match workers with open positions, SkillUp pairs workers with available opportunities.
In addition, SkillUp is leveraging the technology of Next Chapter, an offering of Guild Education, where I'm a senior strategist, as well as Guild's partner network of large employers—many of whom are in a position to hire employees—and education providers. These relationships will help SkillUp move quickly to serve workers with a ready-made solution.
SkillUp's solution shows how employers can transition parts of their workforce to more productive pursuits over time. Employers have an incentive to drive this work to refresh their workforces in intentional ways that manage employee churn; to bolster employee morale; to preserve their company brand; to aid in personnel recruitment; and to ultimately help power the country's consumption-driven economy.
The coalition SkillUp is assembling is ultimately more than a set of solutions around outplacement that should persist past the current pandemic, but the coming promise of a more flexible, affordable, and convenient set of solutions to support individuals' upskilling and reskilling throughout their lives to fulfill their human potential. What that necessitates is a much broader shift in postsecondary education and a reshuffling of how higher education works.
Rather than just bank on existing colleges and universities and sources of debt-driven funding to disrupt themselves, the future of higher education will also rely on novel programs and arrangements, like SkillUp.
New funding mechanisms to pay for more education—from leveraging employers' willingness to pay in order to reap a return on investment to income share agreements that align incentives around the success of learners—will emerge to fund the education of learners.
On-ramp and last-mile programs along with hybrid colleges that marry online, competency-based learning with learning model innovations, no-excuses mindsets, and non-academic supports are emerging to alter how we prepare students to enter the workforce. Mobile learning solutions are making learning far more bite-sized and accessible on the job.
Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis [PDF]
Work in understanding the skills at the heart of the new digital economy is leading to novel assessments that allow individuals to prove mastery to faithfully represent their abilities—but also to give weight and stackability to the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials that make education more seamless across time and education providers. And we are seeing the beginnings of a renewal in the liberal arts, focused on building human skills in affordable ways that are accessible to many more individuals and far more effective.
Amidst these dark times, there is much opportunity to refresh the nation's education and training solutions to support the success of individuals and society writ large.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
In our efforts to understand COVID-19, contend with the suffering that it causes, and mount an appropriate response, it is tempting to resurrect well-worn clichés. One cliché in particular, the idea of a "new normal," stands out to us. One does not need to look far for thoughtful descriptions of how COVID-19 and its cascade of catastrophes are shaping so-called "new normals" for individuals, families, communities, and industries. But for one industry—higher education—COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious problems more than it presents new problems. For higher education, the new normal is partly an old normal that many ignored.
The notion of a new normal has always been compelling. You may recall this term being used widely in the wake of the Great Recession to describe the sea change in the U.S. labor and housing markets and the decreased public funding for higher education that followed. The phrase itself emerged from Vice President Dick Cheney's characterization of heightened security in the wake of 9/11 as a "new normalcy." Its perennial reuse reveals how the complex, highly interdependent systems that comprise our "normal" are designed to function only in a fragile state of equilibrium and are seldom prepared to adapt to unexpected shocks.We know something about these shocks and the new normal they each created in higher education. For example, our institution, Arizona State University (ASU), is one of the largest in the country and the largest in the state that during the Great Recession cut more from higher education than any other. While we can learn from past negative events, we must appreciate that the conditions COVID-19 asks us to embrace as part of its new normal have been around for years—or even decades. While some of these have been widely appreciated, others were emerging suspicions. We describe a few of each here.
[F]or one industry—higher education—COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious problems more than it presents new problems. For higher education, the new normal is partly an old normal that many ignored.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?
First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.
These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as disruption, technology management, and so-called "mergers and acquisitions" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.
Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, shareholder interests—are placed above student well-being.
Photo: Getty Images
Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person instruction.
Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.
As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.
Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?
Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.
In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional closures and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.
While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail.
Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.
For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary.
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images
A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.
Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as Harvard's eviction of students over the course of less than one week or Yale's apparent reluctance to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the old normal. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.
Where can the new normal take us?
As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.
COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years.
ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but driving innovation in higher education. We have adopted a charter that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "who we exclude." We adopted an entrepreneurial operating model that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as InStride, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU EdPlus, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale.
For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 enrollment speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time."
OpenStax reimagined textbooks and saved students $1 billion. Now is a moment to reimagine even more. How can education help students learn more, better, and faster?
- In 2012, I founded OpenStax as a then-radical solution to the Great Recession: Why not make college textbooks free for students? And why not make them open-licensed?
- Now we are faced with COVID-19, another crisis of enormous scale—and one that is once again underscoring the harsh inequities in our communities and accelerating the existing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
- Student engagement and open education are the next frontiers that innovators must address if we want education to live up to its promise as the great equalizer.
I still cannot get over how much the world has changed in the past few months. We have seen an upheaval in education across our nation and around the globe with tremendous impacts on students, teachers, and our workforce. School and college closures have sent millions of students home to study remotely in hastily prepared online courses. And unemployment is reaching Great Depression levels, with millions of workers looking to upskill and re-enter the now rapidly changing job market. Education is supposed to be the "great equalizer." Yet, COVID-19 has underscored the harsh inequities in our communities and accelerated the existing gap between the haves and the have-nots. I expect that things will never quite be the same.
I founded OpenStax in 2012 as a then-radical solution: Why not make college textbooks free for students? And why not make them open-licensed so that faculty could easily customize them to create the perfect course?
The economic impacts of the current crisis remind me of the Great Recession that followed the financial collapse of 2008. Then, as now, students were looking to our nation's colleges to rebuild their lives. But their situation was aggravated by skyrocketing college textbook prices, which by 2012 had risen more than 800% over the previous three decades to hundreds of dollars. It is not an exaggeration that college students were having to decide between buying a textbook or groceries.
In response to this crisis, I founded OpenStax in 2012 as a then-radical solution: Why not make college textbooks free for students? And why not make them open-licensed so that faculty could easily customize them to create the perfect course? Leveraging the Connexions digital textbook publishing platform I had been developing at Rice University since 1999 and building an editorial team comprising leading college educators funded by forward-thinking philanthropists, we published our first five textbooks.
Today, OpenStax's library of 40 textbooks covers most of the introductory college courses and has saved students nearly $1 billion. This past school year, 3.4 million students used these texts across 60 per cent of all US degree-granting institutions and many high school classrooms. We have seen true market disruption, as prices dropped for the first time in history starting in 2017, which has largely been attributed to OpenStax and the open education movement. Free and open texts have gone mainstream, they're no longer radical; they simply make sense for students.
Digital versions of OpenStax textbooks.
Photo: Jemel Agulto, OpenStax
In the face of COVID-19, OpenStax is experiencing an unprecedented demand for free resources and a first-of-its-kind experiment in online education. OpenStax's students and instructors have doubled during the pandemic as compared to the same period last year. Instructors have rapidly transitioned online, restructuring courses and learning new technologies and practices. In response, we are focused on meeting faculty and students where they are at this moment, creating an express lane to quickly and easily integrate our resources into their online learning platforms. Additionally, we are partnering with the Association of College and University Educators to infuse our materials with research-based best practices around engagement to support teaching and learning for the benefit of all students, rather than just a few. The real test will come down to impacting student engagement at a time when there are rising gaps in equitable opportunities.
Students don't learn if they're not engaged. In a traditional course, we may lose a student's attention in 15 minutes; online this narrows to mere seconds. We need to develop interactions that better reflect a new reality in which learning takes place in shorter cycles and in which bursts of activity break the monotony. Brief activities, videos, peer review, dynamic discussions, and rapid review need to be used in a consistent and predictable manner for students. The implementation of these engaging experiences will vary from class to class. So we need highly modularized solutions that work globally to scale but act locally to meet the unique needs of instructors and deepen engagement for their students.
As the nation now faces increased tensions, changes, and anxieties, it is hard to see bright spots ahead. Yet, perhaps now more than ever, this is a moment to reimagine education. What if students could better understand themselves as learners—could that spark curiosity and motivation? What if teachers were supported in using data to personalize experiences and interventions for all their students, rather than just a few? These would be huge advances. If we want education to be the great equalizer, then it's time to double-down on open education models that drive toward student engagement.
Charles Koch Foundation
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