Reimagining the university: what next for online education?

‘Developing high-quality online education will be a process rather than an event’ says Imperial College Business School’s David LeFevre, but the ‘largest international experiment in online education in our history’ points towards the opportunity in this moment of crisis

This year will be remembered for the introduction of public health measures which transformed the way we worked, shopped and studied, to a degree and at a pace we could scarcely have imagined.

Universities around the world closed the doors of classrooms and labs but continued teaching remotely. It has been by far the largest international experiment in online education in our history, carried out under duress and driven by necessity.

I have been staggered by the achievements of the global sector. Schools and universities across the world have overcome untold technical and logistical obstacles to move teaching and materials online, completing in a few short weeks a number of monumental tasks, each of which would, ordinarily, have been considered implausible. Teachers and students quickly learned the ropes together.  The volume and scale of innovative activity globally has been immense.

Moving beyond emergency measures

Traditional university teaching clearly won’t return for some time. Yet as students consider this new world, questions are being asked about the quality of the online learning experience, particularly when tuition rates remain at the same levels.

Understandably, some students are worried the online experience is not what they had wanted and that their education will be compromised, or at least different. In the UK, universities minister, Michelle Donelan, has even said students can demand refunds, ‘if they feel that the quality isn’t there’. But who defines quality in online education and how do we assess it?

Designing the next chapter of online learning is the challenge for universities. The good news is that we have more relevant experience than might be imagined because the core of high-quality online courses is not technology, but of academic strategy and course design. The delivery medium is new, but the core pedagogical principles remain the same.

Stabilise, enhance, innovate

Despite the lightning quick initial move to remote teaching, developing high-quality online education will be a process rather than an event. At Imperial College Business School, we view this process as comprising three phases: stabilise, enhance, and innovate. The stabilise phase consisted of an immediate response based on technical solutions, such as webinars, which enabled teaching to continue.

For many universities, a new academic year will mark a shift to the ‘enhance’ phase of the process as they look beyond video conferencing to find ways to implement more pedagogically minded approaches to enrich the educational experience. This will involve technical solutions and process-driven activity but also an element of craft, as creative ways to deliver hundreds, if not thousands, of differing course elements in online format, are introduced. The wider elements of the degree experience – ceremonies, clubs and societies, careers support, extra-curricular activities, competitions, pastoral support, and so on – will need equal care and attention.

This will require a flexible, imaginative approach from all concerned, and it will likely involve significant stress and risk for all. Much of the burden will rest on faculty who will be coping with general disruption while at the same time redeveloping their courses and teaching in unfamiliar ways.

Educational technologists will become central to teaching and learning strategy as never before. They will require a greater degree of agility and support from senior leadership if they are to build the underlying IT infrastructure on which success will fundamentally depend. Student representatives will need to give feedback in real time about what works and what does not. Throughout this activity, new expert teams will gradually emerge that are capable of delivering sophisticated and high-quality approaches to online education which reflect the needs of their own communities.

The future of online learning

Too often in the past, online learning has been seen as a threat to the age-old craft of teaching. The fact that this current transition is taking place out of necessity and at a time of high anxiety and job insecurity risks exacerbating this perception.

However, the real risk to higher education internationally now, lies in a failure to respond to the demands of the moment in a manner consistent with the values of our institutions. Just as the whiteboard, slide projector and computer were once novel additions to the classroom, online teaching tools will eventually be taken for granted by student cohorts of true digital natives.

There is opportunity in our moment of crisis. Institutions dedicated to sharing knowledge will discover new ways of reaching individuals and communities. Creativity and possibility will re-emerge. Our modes of learning are changing and, as well as losses and threats, there are definite opportunities to introduce flexibility and enhance quality.

David LeFevre is Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College Business School and Founder of higher education platform company, Insendi, part of Study Group.

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