As of the end of August in the US, 49% of HEIs said they planned to do some form of hybrid or online learning.
Most universities in the UK plan to offer in-person teaching for now – although there are notable exceptions such as Cambridge which in May said it would be holding all lectures online until 2021.
“I want to change that mindset because students may not have had a positive experience last semester in online instructions”
Given the scramble to lecture-by-Zoom and other methods of digital delivery earlier this year, it’s not something all students are looking forward to, and there are more than a few petitions making the rounds to prevent further online learning or at least have fees for it lowered.
So what exactly have universities and colleges been planning for the new semester?
“The difference between the summer term and what universities are doing now is that over the summer, most of them have run training programs for staff about how to teach optimally online,” explained Geoff Webster of CEG Digital, which specialises in creating online degree programs and has been watching as university partners attempt to graduate from last year’s “minimum viable product”.
“They’ve also been training and working with their in-house tech teams to help them better shape content for online delivery. They’ve upgraded how they are moderating and setting up discussion forums for cohorts every week,” he continued.
“In addition, they’ve looked at their staff body and they’ve been quite sensible and pragmatic. People who are uncomfortable with education tech are now being allocated dissertation supervision rather than actually delivering teaching.”
One of the biggest challenges is making content engaging across lagging connections and combatting screen fatigue.
However, some teachers have embraced online learning and are trying to use techniques from the classroom to keep their courses interesting.
One such teacher is Benny Ng of Los Angeles Pierce College, whose syllabus introduction video, featuring him in a tuxedo intercut with clips of Snoop Dogg telling students to read the syllabus, recently went viral.
“In the face-to-face setting, it’s easier for instructors to engage our students with live demonstrations, theatrical acts, storytelling, and small group activities. In the remote online environment, students may feel that they are working alone in the dark because they see a bunch of black name cards in Zoom,” he said.
“I want to change that mindset because students may not have had a positive experience last semester in online instructions.
“Therefore, I need to find a way to reach out to my students before the first day of class so that I can capture their excitement at the beginning of the semester.”
Ng’s students will be studying chemistry with him online this year and he is preparing to teach using a mixture of recorded and live lectures, forums, built-in practice problems and a fully asynchronous lab component.
“If there’s a return to normality in January, I think another term of upgraded online delivery will be broadly accepted”
“Last semester, everything was live on Zoom. While some argue that it is not the best practice, my students preferred the teaching and learning via live Zoom because it tried to maintain some structures during the time,” he added.
Asynchronous teaching will benefit international students abroad, many of whom have worried at the prospect of attending lectures in the middle of the night.
Earlier this year, Indian students who should have been studying in Vancouver found themselves attending lectures every night between 1.30-4.30am.
Universities have had to also adapt to working across multiple countries to make sure students can access course materials. The most obvious place where this is an issue is China due to its tight internet restrictions and sensitivity to certain topics.
Others are however offering a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Rojin Rezaeian, Yorkville University and Toronto Film School director of international student recruitment, said they are currently offering three “online” options to students.
“[First we have] our traditional online that we have been offering for almost 16 years. The other option that they have is our global online. That is a new version of online that the students can pivot from online to on-campus whenever they are ready to come to Canada,” she explained.
“And the other option is our synchronous version. The synchronous version is actually when they want to just join the way that we are connecting right now through Zoom. They can join with other classmates and communicate with the instructors.”
In other parts of the world, having somewhere to work and study may also pose a challenge.
In the US, the University of Arizona recently announced a microcampus partnership with WeWork to allow international students to use their facilities in 37 countries.
Looking ahead to January 2021, reopening campuses is not without risks, as the thousands of reported cases at reopened colleges and universities in the US shows, and in North America universities are hesitant to decide whether online learning will continue into next year.
“We’ve invested heavily on programs, including virtual reality, to be able to deliver an experiential online experience for students,” explained Gabriela Facchini from the international department of Sheridan College in Canada.
“But some of it requires students to go on campus so we will be allowing a limited number of students on campus, especially those who have to do workshops and labs and are enrolled in hybrid programs.
“For the winter semester, the decision has not yet been made [to reopen]”
“For the winter semester, the decision has not yet been made [to reopen]. We want to wait until the middle of October to see how our in-person students do on the campus.”
However, Facchini added that some programs would continue online past January, most likely pathway programs done with outside partners.
On the flip side, schools such as NEOMA Business School in France have embraced the shift to digital, having opened the first 100% online campus in Europe.
“If there’s a return to normality in January, I think another term of upgraded online delivery will be broadly accepted by students,” concluded Webster at CEG.
“If it goes on longer than that, tension around the quality of what universities are producing and delivering to their students and what the students’ hopes and expectations are will get more and more strained.
“There will be no choice for universities but to embark on massive upgrades in terms of online pedagogy, online structure and online delivery at a total cost to the sector of multiple millions of pounds,” he added.