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Ideas in Motion

Virtual Learning's Effect on Higher Education

The pandemic has proven that virtual learning (“VL”) is possible at every school. With the extremely high cost of higher education, much is being made of the need to move away from traditional models. It is unfortunate that it took a global pandemic to get countries to realize not only that VL is the way of the future, but that an overhaul of teaching and learning approaches and degree/certifications offerings is the only way American education can become relevant again, and that remaining relevancy is an ongoing effort. Advancements in technology have brought changes to nearly every aspect of our lives, including the way we learn. Innovation is as important in education as it is in any business.

In highly a competitive market, organizations are under constant pressure to stay a step ahead of the pack or risk obsolescence. There are many examples of business that failed to realize this in practice such as the taxi business, Blockbuster, to name a few. Innovation lives in the future. Industry-leading organizations sustain and grow their business by anticipating future industry needs and by continually being on top of, and influencing, the market. They are continually testing and experimenting with solutions that will distinguish themselves from others. Educational institutions must as well.

To do this, state educational agencies, district administrators, teachers, and other experts must regularly conduct rigorous “landscape assessments” of the most successful schools and emerging technology that may apply to learning. Before any of that can occur, we need to redefine what “successful schools” look like, be they K-12 or colleges/universities.

“Success” must be linked to the knowledge and skill requirements employers seek at an affordable cost, the flexibility to allow students to complete a course of study at their own pace, and to design content that allows them to learn according to their learning style. Potentially, VL can be a great catalyst for re-imagining education, as long as we can collaborate to overcome objections from students and parents during the COVID pandemic.

 According to CNBC research, more than 50% of public school K-12 teachers said the pandemic resulted in a “significant” learning loss for students, both academically and in their social-emotional progress and has caused a significant setback in achievement, particularly among Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities. Another study by McKinsey & Company found similar results in other countries. More than half of teachers from eight different nations said that remote learning is a poor substitute for being back in the classroom. The U.S. and Japan gave distance learning the poorest scores overall, with a majority of teachers ranking the effectiveness only slightly better than skipping school completely. Educators in schools in areas with higher poverty found virtual classes to be especially ineffective (for more data on the impact of COVID on academic learning, click here.)

Compounding the problem were institutions that did not have the infrastructure to support virtual learning and could not find substitute teachers to assist. The schools that did give students the choice at some point to remain virtual or come back to the classroom often had to mandate that teachers facilitate both modalities of the class simultaneously.

Even at the college level where many students have experienced some virtual classroom work such as recorded or “live” lectures from the professors already, the move to completely virtual classes was the subject of much criticism from parents and students who thought that the schools ought to have cut tuition. Nearly 40% of college students reported being dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied with students and staff connection in a completely virtual learning environment, according to a Student Voice survey by Kaplan.

It does seem however, that many of these objections could be overcome with an adequate enabling infrastructure and training in the use of the virtual platforms. Just as employees need training in how to work in a virtual environment, and their managers training in how to supervise virtual staff, students and teachers will need similar instruction. Many college classes probably could be (and many are already) using a hybrid of virtual and classroom activities.  Colleges and universities should assess different scenarios for cost savings and impact on student and teacher performance. Such scenarios could include students learning virtually while remaining on campus (for those who want the “campus” social experience), students who want to be remote, or some combination of both approaches.

Adaptations like these could lead to more affordable tuition by reducing the need for large campuses, decreased need for student housing, classrooms, and other services, as well as reductions in staff. Just as many businesses have had to take measures to remain viable, the educational system must, too. It is no surprise that there are several benchmarks for measuring the quality of education in a given country. Pollsters use a variety of criteria and test scores and other factors that vary widely. Consistently, though, the U.S. is falling behind in most surveys. Given the student failure rates from the pandemic, we may drop in the ratings again. While it is important to agree on the criteria for measuring the “success” of education, most of the surveys and studies to date are consistent in raking the U.S. well below other civilized countries with a downward trend, despite the amount of money we spend on education.

At the high school level, VL could be used in various supervised study venues on campus with teachers available during class to facilitate collaborative learning after the students have worked through online learning modules, and to meet with students face-to-face, through Google Meet, Zoom or other technology.  Supervision and social interaction are important considerations. During the pandemic, many high school, and even middle school students, were unsupervised at home while the parents/guardians were at work. This was a major contributing factor to the spike in failure rates this school year (in some districts 50%).

Finally, we need to take a “hard look” at the length and content of curricula at high schools, colleges, and other job-specific certification programs for relevance to the student’s career goals. This may mean modifying existing requirements for completion, and even shortening programs in some cases.

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