Learning in the new normal

What is the road ahead, for higher education, post-pandemic?

January 06, 2022 01:24 pm | Updated 05:55 pm IST

The academic content should not only be accessible but also fight challenges posed by the online delivery medium.

The academic content should not only be accessible but also fight challenges posed by the online delivery medium.

While the response of higher education institutions, at the onset of the pandemic, to promptly adopt technology and maintain academic continuity was commendable, disruptions in the global supply chain meant that items such as webcams and microphones took longer to obtain and the quality of online sessions was initially spotty. The most important consequence of the surge in remote learning is an improvement in the level of access to quality education. We have become better at teaching/learning in an online environment and newer methodologies, technologies, software tools, and other resources are enhancing the quality of the learning experience.

Improving the remote learning experience

Critics have pointed out that 100% online mode can undermine the social part of the learning experience thereby impacting mental health, social maturity, and communication skills. Fortunately, numerous tools can contribute to creating a sense of community among students even in virtual mode.

The faculty are also learning to create a greater sense of their presence in their respective subjects by using tools such as discussion boards, video chats, audio and video feedback on assignments, and others. Many teachers elect to hold optional live meetings using platforms such as Zoom or Skype. Some universities have introduced student information portals that function more like social media platforms, creating a virtual environment where groups of students can interact outside of class. Higher education institutions have also recognised that they need to refine and strengthen procedures to identify students who may be suffering from a mental illness or struggling in an online environment. Sometimes, this simply involves providing advice on how students could change their classroom approach. In other instances, it might involve setting up an appointment for online counselling services.

Post-COVID shift

To make learning more impactful, teachers also need to think differently about how they approach an online class. The academic content should not only be accessible but also fight challenges posed by the online delivery medium. It is equally imperative to be thoughtful about how students process information in a virtual environment. Some teachers have reported that features, such as discussions, can be richer in an online environment than a face-to-face one. For example, international students who might be more nervous about speaking aloud in class may feel empowered by an online discussion board where they can take additional time to formulate a thoughtful response.

Asynchronous classes/courses where the class is not meeting in real time also offer flexibility. Students may be able to hold a job and work on classes at night. Video lectures can be replayed to make sure concepts are more clearly understood. Online courses that have a well-designed structure may help students approach their work more systematically and productively. If higher education fully embraces the potential of the digital medium, we can significantly expand the number of people with academic credentials and skills that the 21st century needs.

Return to traditional classroom?

Many classes will return to pre-COVID conditions — particularly those where a face-to-face component is important. Classes in disciplines such as art, music, and the physical sciences have a strong need to have contact with the tools of their discipline. Overseas universities are prioritising getting international students back on campus to the extent permitted in the face of travel restrictions and other travel impediments. Where necessary, they are looking to accommodate students from countries who may not be able to return as easily.

While there will certainly be many who choose to return to the traditional classroom, their teaching will unquestionably be shaped by their online experience. Conversely, many courses will remain online, or universities will provide choices between online and traditional classroom settings. Those who continue to teach online will be doing so with more user-friendly technology that will enhance students’ experiences.

The writer is Associate Provost, Truman State University, the U.S.

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