The Next Horizon for Online and Remote Learning

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How to integrate remote learning formats and build sustainable programs

Prior to COVID-19, remote learning and online education were seen largely as complementary to traditional learning formats. Platform and content providers created compelling tools to broaden access, challenge ever rising cost trends, and introduce new forms of connectivity. Educators, generally, were cautiously optimistic in their assessment of the possibilities this new paradigm and its ability to support the objectives of a diverse set of stakeholders. Despite this promise, it was never meant to be a silver bullet. As school systems, institutes of higher education, and even private employers began to experiment with online and remote programing, it quickly became clear that this approach would require careful implementation. Educators, administrators, and policy makers had not yet found the balance required to provide the social experiences and technology access required for students to maximize the benefits of this new format.

The world has changed dramatically, and though those concerns have been underlined by the initial experience of educators around the world during this accelerated push towards remote formats. In many cases, schools across primary, secondary, and higher education backgrounds alike have been forced to dive headfirst into a new reality, often with educators and students learning as they go. This, of course, is understandable as stakeholders seek to minimize disruption to delivery of curricula. The next step is to apply learnings from historical experiences to existing programs to ensure success for students and educators alike not simply because remote learning will remain a necessary reality in the short-term. Its potential to deliver on all the benefits it originally promised remains. To enable this, policy makers and administrators must address three major pain-points:

    1. Online platform suitability and implementation challenges
    2. Educator training and support
    3. Student participation and material retention

Each of these issue areas require monitoring and adjustment and schools gain more experience with remote formats. Below we examine key considerations and insights from historical success stories to inform decision-making as stakeholders grapple with these four issue areas and evolve programing.

  1. Online platform suitability and implementation challenges

For many schools, the primary objective during this time of crisis has been to accelerate implementation of remote learning and ensure access for as many students as possible. Bootstrapped solutions involving a patchwork of Zoom conferences, parent-led technology deployment, and non-traditional content sources have laid a foundation in primary and secondary school communities. Some public schools and institutes of higher education are further ahead than others in terms of their existing technology capabilities, and can offer insights into how to evolve going forward for their peers. However, proliferation in recent years of platform providers, technology consultancies, and learning management systems has driven rapid innovation in the core architecture and functionality of available solutions, providing a broad array of potential options for decision-makers to choose from.

Tech-enabled solutions can help educators better connect to their students, reduce administrative burden, and create clearer alignment in terms of coursework expectations. There is no one size-fits all solution for each circumstance, and picking the right option requires clarity in several key areas:

      • What are the core functions that technology solutions must address?
        • How can this elevate student and educator experiences?
        • Will you pursue both synchronous and asynchronous formats?
      • What level of backend IT support can you manage in-house?
      • What level of technology support will my student population require?

In most cases, platform selection, implementation timeline, and technology distribution for student populations will be policy-driven or be decided up-stream by central administrators. Still, these questions are important for front-line educators to consider as their voices can and will have a material impact on strategic decision making for their schools and communities.

  1. Educator training and support

For many teachers, the transition to technology-driven and/or asynchronous formats will constitute an extreme shift from their core professional experience. Furthermore, for some esoteric or narrow academic disciplines, there simply isn’t a substantial body of online content available to quickly scale remote programs. Each case risks leaving educators feeling isolated without the core tools available to succeed in this transition. Luckily, there are clear historical best practices that schools can turn to in order to develop their own solutions.

Assisting educators with this transition requires redeploying training and feedback programs to accelerate adoption and ensure success of technology platforms. Drexel University, an original pioneer in the transition to online programming, excelled at this. The university developed user working groups to integrate continuous feedback from pilots into training programs, proactively addressing educator pain points in its internal curriculum. Going still further, schools should consider implementing an expanded listening strategy to track educator satisfaction with programing and support, and use feedback to inform long-term program evolution.

For the latter issue, historical experience can help create solutions. The Shared Course Initiative, a collaboration between Cornell, Columbia, and Yale Universities, was created to share resources and expand programming for less commonly taught language courses. Similar ventures can provide educators with support from peers outside of their immediate networks, and provide a reproducible model for schools to share resources as they adjust to this new environment.

  1. Student participation and material retention

Expanding access to remote learning is a critical first obstacle that stakeholders continue to grapple with. The next issue to be solved is to ensure quality delivery of programming and outcomes. Parents alone cannot ensure student engagement with course work – many families are experiencing unprecedented levels of economic disruption, grappling with language and technology barriers, or are unequipped to provide the support needed for children with learning disabilities. Schools must develop strategies for delivering small scale interventions that protect the health and safety of their staff and communities. In some cases, this will extend beyond the remit of existing capabilities, and require cross-sector partnerships with experts to develop solutions.

In the near-term, educators should be empowered to evolve courses and curriculum to maximize student participation. Several institutes of higher education again offer examples of how small programmatic adjustments can created outsized impact on student outcomes:

      • UC Berkeley
        • Initial move to online formats saw ~90% drop out rate for participating students. Implemented smaller course segments with a greater focus on interactive or gamified programing to ensure participation, resulting in dramatic increase in course completion.
      • MIT
        • Initial experience with “MicroMasters” courses received poor student feedback on quality of instruction. Implemented tools to track how long it took students to complete coursework, exams, and whether they needed to repeat sections. Used metrics to adjust coursework and programming to drive greater material retention.

Conclusion

This accelerated transition to remote learning across has by no means been seamless, but the commitment displayed by educators, parents, and communities to reestablishing equilibrium for students has been inspiring. Policy makers and administrators must now transition to longer-term planning for how sustain safe and socially distanced educational formats in the communities they serve. They can help foster better outcomes for students and educators by deploying long-term strategies to 1) integrate remote formats into curricula, and 2) build institutional expertise in the design and delivery of programming. Institutions face unique challenges and even starting points as they contemplate the future of remote learning in their communities, but collective action, information sharing, and shared learnings can deliver creative solutions in this time of great need.

Authors

Jaime Batista

Jaime Batista

Principal, Santa Barbara

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