Beyond Emergency Response: Distance Learning Advice for Higher Education Leaders

Many colleges and universities across the nation have decided to move their summer terms online and are considering the same option for the fall semester. Leaders across all sectors of higher education are attempting to forecast the impact of virtual learning and services on enrollment, and ultimately the bottom line. Education as a whole is grappling with the same challenges are school districts are reporting alarming rates of disengagement or no engagement from students now that schools have shifted instruction online.

For weeks I’ve been concerned that some might misinterpret the rapid shift to online coursework as an acceptable measure of what online education should look like. We should all expect that summer courses will look better than the spring, and fall courses, if it comes to that, look better than the summer. Although there are many institutions and faculty who had already built an infrastructure to have a quality online presence, but for some, this was the first step in that direction.

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A good place to start is to understand the terms. In the state of Texas a distance education course is defined as “a course in which a majority (more than 50 percent) of the instruction occurs when the student(s) and instructor(s) are not in the same place.” They further explain that there are two categories of distance education courses: (A) Fully Distance Education Course–A course which may have mandatory face-to-face sessions totaling no more than 15 percent of the instructional time. (B) Hybrid/Blended Course–A course in which a majority (more than 50 percent but less than 85 percent), of the planned instruction occurs when the students and instructor(s) are not in the same place. Institutions sometimes also define the differences between online, virtual, and remote learning. Learn more about how your campus defines these terms to ensure you are aware of the corresponding expectations.

Remember, the shift to distance learning this spring was an emergency response to a global crisis. We will learn, grow, and change from it, but it should not be the measure of quality or excellence in this field. There are some incredible tools and resources available to faculty that will elevate the learning that occurs in your course. Connect with the experts on your campus to learn how you can use technology as a tool to elevate your course content. When you look back you should see growth not only in your students, but in your abilities as well.

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Luckily one thing we have as we prepare for the future is time. While many institutions have began this process, Dr. J. Kenneth “Ken” Young, Associate Professor at Lamar University, has provided guidance on a few important things to consider.

What reasonable progressions do you think we should see this fall, as we move from the current emergency distance learning response to something more in line with existing standards, such as Quality Matters?

  • I think a reasonable progression would be that courses for the Fall semester could be built out in a manner that more fully meets best practice standards for online teaching, but doing so in a manner that they are prioritizing the delivery and content aspects of those practice standards. What I mean by this is that they spend less time trying to get objectives and outcomes written exactly right and more on making sure there is some level of standardization between courses in the same program in regard to the look/navigation of the course, their courses are well organized, and that all ADA requirements are met.
  • Regarding content, faculty should be evaluating what would be the most important assignments, assessments, and supplemental resources to facilitate learning in an online environment. The requires some curriculum mapping based upon the course objectives and then breaking down the various outcomes each week that would meet those stated objectives. It also requires faculty be mindful of the amount of time it will take students to do the work each week, as well as how long it will take to grade the assignments. If assignments build off each other, it is vitally important for students to get feedback in a timely manner, so faculty want to make sure they build in enough of a buffer to grade assignments and provide the feedback before students move on to the next step or assignment. One way to do this is have a consistent weekly due date and time. For my courses, all assignments are due on Sundays at 11:59 PM and students know that they will get feedback from me by Wednesday at the earliest, but that it may come as late as Friday.

What questions should each constituent (faculty, students, administrators, etc.) be asking their colleagues to enhance their preparedness and experience in the future?

  • Faculty should be asking what resources/tools are available and who do they go to for help. They should also be asking themselves about what learning outcomes are most important for their courses, then build their online courses to meet them.
  • Administrators should be asking what design elements do we need to have to make program and course navigation the least of the students’ worries. They should also be asking what resources need to be in place to support learning in a 24/7 environment. For example, how are they providing technical support for the various software programs used by the university, library assistance, and student support services? By focusing on enhancing their capacity for the support services, they are minimizing the factors that lead to student frustration. Closely related, they should be asking how to minimize the need for face-to-face interaction on a campus. This includes both live meetings (e.g., faculty/committee meetings, training, etc.) and the submission of documents (e.g., grade changes, contracts, etc.).
  • If institutions are not planning to utilize online instruction as a permanent aspect of their content delivery (i.e., keep online courses as part of their ongoing course offerings), then they need to develop a comprehensive plan for rapid transition and deployment for future instructional interruptions such as the one created by COViD-19.

What resources are available to faculty or administrators interested in learning more?

  • Fortunately, the world of online education is not a new one, so there are a plethora of resources available for just about anything one could imagine. Unfortunately, imagination and creativity may be the most delimiting factor for faculty and administrators who have not taught in an online environment. Some places to begin searches for resources would be with established, reputable organizations such as the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). They have multiple books and  empirical research that would be incredibly helpful for online delivery. Multiple publishers also provide resources for online delivery, which would help provide adequately vetted assessments and instructional supplements for courses. Finally, I would suggest that YouTube is your friend. If you need to create tutorials or supplemental resources, don’t recreate the wheel. Spend some time vetting sources on YouTube—many of which are created by experts in their fields and are already close captioned.

Contributor: Dr. J. Kenneth “Ken” Young, Associate Professor, Lamar University

Dr. J. Kenneth “Ken” Young completed his Ph. D. in educational psychology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.  Dr. Young’s primary teaching responsibilities include courses in applied research methods, basic applied statistics, and scholarly writing.  He has also taught doctoral level courses in adult learning theory, leadership/ethics, organizational change, and multiculturalism. His research interests are in the fields of cognitive epidemiology, individual differences, and hiring practices in education, and has 22 presentations and 18 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters during his time at Lamar.

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