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Online learning shift will bring positives, but adapted not replicated content is key

In a major effort to keep students on track with their studies, last month NYU Shanghai launched a digital teaching and learning program to deliver 293 courses using state-of-the-art digital tools to engage students and encourage live feedback and interaction.

Gayle Allard, professor of Economics at IE University, giving a masterclass on the macroeconomic impact of coronavirus. Photo: IE

"The quality of global education will have taken a significant step forward"

“It typically takes months to launch really high quality online learning programs”

According to NYU Shanghai, more than 1,000 students and faculty successfully participated in the first week of the program, from as far away as Brazil, India, the US, and as close by as the university’s residence halls.

In order to make it work, “an extraordinarily high level of collaboration and coordination” had to take place internally, explained NYU Shanghai provost, Joanna Waley-Cohen.

As more institutions embrace digital technology as a means of mitigating some of the impact of coronavirus-related school closures, questions are arising as to how seamless the switch from offline to online delivery can be, and how both modes of delivery compare in terms of learning impact.

According to Keith Ross, dean of Engineering and Computer Science at NYU Shanghai, one clear benefit of using “asynchronous interactions” over real-time delivery is that it has encouraged shy students, who normally do not ask questions in the classroom, to participate in discussions.

And at Spain’s IE University – where all classroom-based courses at the Segovia campus are being moved online because of recently diagnosed cases of COVID-19 among its student population – feedback about the shift is reported to be positive.

“We bolstered the content on our online training platform for all our students who cannot attend classes on campus, and the feedback we have received is very positive,” said Gonzalo Garland, vice president of External Relations at IE.

However he added, “Twenty years ago, we were pioneers in Europe with the launch of our online training programs.” All 7,000 IE students have had access to online platforms to continue their studies.

Bur while much has been made of efforts, like China’s, to switch to online learning, other education administrators are likely to run into technical and infrastructural issues.

“It typically takes months to launch really high quality online learning programs that reflect the quality of top education brands,” related Luyen Chou, chief learning officer at 2U, which works with institutions around the world to develop their online learning platforms.

And at Canada’s Humber College, director of the English Language Centre, Stephen Allen, who studies online learning ecosystems, explained that a problem can occur when simply transferring lessons that are designed for the classroom to an online environment.

“This increases the potential for materials to be at best, dull, but at worse, not supporting student learning,” he told The PIE.

“I’m worried that it can set a benchmark of low to reasonable online education”

“There’s a myth that creating online learning experiences is as easy as uploading all the resources you use in class and recording a few lectures,” agreed Lisa McIntyre-Hite, senior advisor at consultancy firm Entangled Solutions. “In reality, bringing an on-ground course online requires institutions to think of so much more than just course content,” she said.

“Segueing from offline delivery to online is no easy task and will require both students and teachers to adjust how they learn and teach to an online context,” confirmed Robert Hsiung, China CEO of online educational company, Emeritus.

He told The PIE that over the past number of years, online education has evolved to adapt to the online learning environment.

“Most schools have directly replaced offline class time with online class time. In China, students must log in every day to online platforms to listen to teachers, however, teachers are finding that students are having difficulty staying attentive in this online format.

“The problem they are facing is very similar to the issue that MOOCs face,” he added, referring to the low completion rates for pre-recorded online video courses.

The small private online courses (SPOCS) that EMERITUS offers has, by comparison, over a 90% completion rate.

But, Hsiung continued, the benefit of this shift to online is that it will force educators to change the way they approach teaching and learning, from a learn-by-lecturing/listening to learning-by-doing, interactive format.

“When the coronavirus fears subside and students return to school, there will be a higher acceptance of online learning creating opportunities for online education platforms like Emeritus, but more importantly, the quality of global education will have taken a significant step forward.”

In an episode of The Edtech Podcast, Digital Learning designer at Cardiff University, Neil Mosley, said he felt that there are both pros and cons to the digital uptake.

“There are many people who are reluctant or cynical about online learning so this forces them to engage with that, and in my experience that is always a positive thing,” he said.

“I also worry about the unintended consequences of quickly scaling online provisions – I’m worried that it can set a benchmark of low to reasonable online education, and I think we need to raise the quality of online education.”

“Countries like China and India with booming youth populations really have no choice”

Chou at 2U is hopeful that the move online could be a critical solution to higher education’s capacity problem.

“My hope is that this period will prove to be a useful testing ground that pushes schools to think more holistically about their long-term online learning strategies,” he said.

“Universities in countries like China and India with booming youth populations really have no choice but to look online in order to support the educational needs in their markets.”

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