Remote learning has been an accessible option for universities for many years, but only recently have some institutions begun making the switch. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it irresponsible to hold classes in traditional learning settings, as transmission of the novel coronavirus is extremely hard to control when people are physically close to one another. Accordingly, universities throughout the United States (and around the world) have incorporated new policies and new technologies to allow their students to learn remotely.
But how exactly are institutions handling the transition? And what are the long-term effects?
Options for Remote Learning
There are a variety of options available to universities that provide ongoing education to the students who need it. However, the most common approach is to integrate video education and training tools. With the help of high-definition video and audio feeds, professors can live stream and/or record the lectures they would have given in a lecture hall. They can also allow educators to stream live training sessions, guiding students through the practical coursework and experiences that used to be hands-on.
Additionally, some universities have incorporated more online social opportunities for their students. For example, some universities are providing tools for students to share work, comment on the work of others, and participate in forum-like discussions on a given topic.
Universities that have offered online coursework in the past have had an easy time transitioning, but even the best-prepared colleges have run into some obstacles while trying to protect students from COVID-19 transmission, including:
- Accessibility. For anyone with a handful of digital devices and an internet connection, online learning is highly accessible and reasonably manageable. But if someone doesn't have a laptop, or if they rely on public locations (including on-campus buildings) to get access to the internet, they may not be able to have the same educational experience as their peers. Some universities are working hard to make sure all their students have access to the same resources and opportunities.
- Server loads. The increased need for bandwidth is putting pressure on university servers. For example, free education organization Khan Academy saw a massive spike in traffic as more people began to pursue online education during the pandemic. If the server is no longer able to handle requests, the entire operation can shut down.
- Staff preparedness. Many professors have built their careers on in-person lectures, and have structured their curriculum around practical, hands-on learning sessions. If they haven't had any experience or time to prepare for these new demands, they may not be able to provide an adequate educational experience for their students. That said, many educators are rapidly learning to adapt.
- Student costs. Some universities are also facing controversy related to student costs during the pandemic. The cost of college tuition is already exceedingly high, and many students are willing to pay it only to get access to in-person resources, physical buildings, and social opportunities; when you strip away those advantages, it's only natural for some students to want at least a partial refund. However, issuing refunds can put additional financial pressure on an institution that may already be struggling; it's a dilemma with no clear or immediate solution.
- Timing. Universities are also struggling with how to plan for the short-term and long-term future. Most universities could easily handle going remote for a week, like if they were responding to a natural disaster. But it's uncertain how long this pandemic will last, or how long these social distancing measures will need to be in place. Accordingly, university administrators are unsure whether to invest in short-term or long-term changes.
Regardless of how the pandemic plays out, these changes are going to have an impact on the future of higher education. Notably, the pandemic is introducing many universities to options they may not have previously considered; for example, many lecturers and administrators have outright refused to use video lecturing or remote learning experiences to educate their students. This pandemic has forced them to experiment with it. Even if they aren't sold on the concept, they may begin warming to it — and their peers may gravitate toward remote learning as their preferred method of education.
Additionally, universities that spend money on better servers, video learning tools, and other infrastructure that allows them to operate remotely will be much more likely to utilize those resources in the future.
Overall, universities were well-positioned to transition to remote learning, and the majority of higher education facilities are managing the transition well. There are a number of problems that still need to be solved, but once they have a good framework in place, they may find themselves in a position to offer remote learning options for the indefinite future — including long after fears of the pandemic have died down.
Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer, and researcher. A graduate of Iowa State University, he's now a full-time freelance writer and business consultant. Currently, Larry writes for Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryAlton3), at LinkedIn.com/in/larryalton, and on his website, LarryAlton.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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