Finding the New Normal of Online Learning

By Laura Hoxworth

As an unprecedented academic year comes to a close, experts on distance learning from UVA’s Curry School reflect on what the pandemic has taught us about online learning – and how those lessons can guide us to a more open, accessible future for academia.

Across the country, academic leaders are beginning to imagine what a post-pandemic future looks like for higher education. Will we eventually return to a reliance on traditional, face-to-face education, or will online education become the new normal in academia? And what will it all mean for accessibility and learning outcomes?

For experts in educational technology, however, these are the questions they’ve been researching for decades.

At the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, distance and online education have been a core part of the curriculum for decades, beginning with individual courses, then developing into course series and ultimately degrees. The Curry School launched its first fully online degree program in 2015. Last year, U.S. News and World Report ranked the Curry School as the #3 online graduate program in the country.

Stephanie Moore, assistant professor of instructional design and technology, has coordinated the School’s online programming since 2013. She has taught online for 20 years, built three award-winning online programs, and currently teaches on both online and blended instruction. She also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Computing in Higher Education. Jenny Provo-Quarles is the Curry School’s director of online initiatives. Prior to joining Curry, she was the Director of Instructional Technology for the Virginia Community College System, overseeing education technology and distance learning for 23 colleges.

Here, Moore and Provo-Quarles share the lessons higher education leaders can learn from the last few months, and how those lessons can guide us to an even more accessible, resilient future for both students and institutions.

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Moore (left) and Provo-Quarles (right)

Lesson One: Effective online learning is about much more than content.

Researchers have been studying distance learning for more than 100 years – since the days of correspondence courses sent through the mail – and online learning for more than 20 years. but the pandemic has made it clear that plenty of confusion remains about what exactly “online learning” means.

A subset of distance learning, “online learning” is itself an umbrella term, used in popular media to describe anything where people use the internet to learn – from YouTube videos to rigorous, carefully designed degree programs.

According to Moore, however, much of what is labeled online learning, including “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses) and websites like Khan Academy, is more accurately just online content. From an academic standpoint, content is only one piece of the puzzle.

“What’s essential about online learning is that it’s not just content,” she said. “There’s a big difference between just putting content online and actually facilitating a learning or educational experience.”

One critically important puzzle piece: social interactions. “Learning is not just a cognitive process – it’s also a social process,” she said. While the absence of social interactions is a common critique of online learning, well-designed online courses are full of opportunities to interact.

“The best of online learning, what we focus on at Curry, includes creating a community of learners who engage regularly with other learners and their faculty to not only master content, but also apply personal experience to deepen their understanding,” explained Provo-Quarles.

Specifically, Moore said that high-quality online learning intentionally facilitates three types of interactions: student-to-content, student-to-instructor, and student-to-student.

In an effective online course, just like in a traditional classroom, students should actively engage with course content and apply what they’re learning. Similarly, most faculty know to provide constructive feedback to students through things like discussion posts, virtual office hours, and email. Student-to-student interactions, however, are often overlooked – but just as critical for learning. During a typical course design process, Moore suggests that faculty build in components like peer reviews, collaborative assignments, and opportunities for students to casually connect with one another about something other than coursework.

Together, Moore said, these interactions create a sense of presence, shrinking the psychological and emotional distance and facilitating learning. “If you do build in these types of interaction, it is more effective, and satisfaction among both learners and instructors goes up dramatically.”

This is borne out many times over in research, she said – and also in personal experience. “We have had many students who told us they got to know their classmates better in the online environment than they ever did in face-to-face classrooms – because we purposefully facilitated the interactions.”

Lesson Two: Emergency remote teaching is not equivalent to online learning.

To build that type of high-quality online learning experience, Moore said a typical design process takes at least six months, or ideally closer to a year. Faculty start with the big-picture questions – Who are my students? What do they need? – and eventually work toward the technology and other specific details. Organization and planning are critical.

It’s no wonder, then, that in the wake of a rapid, unexpected pivot to online instruction with little to no planning, many have raised concerns about quality and questioned the ability of online courses to cultivate an effective, satisfying learning experience.

“In some ways, the pandemic has negatively impacted perceptions of online learning,” said Provo-Quarles. “When pre-planning cannot occur or when we try to force a direct replacement of face-to-face activities and assessments online, faculty and students may not have a high-quality online experience.”

First and foremost, Moore said, it’s important for everyone to understand one central fact: what we’ve had to do in the last few months is not online learning in the true sense of the term. It’s something else entirely, and comparing the two is like comparing apples to alligators.

Instead, in a recent article for Educause, Moore and fellow researchers proposed the term “emergency remote teaching.” Moore likens it to waking up inside a burning house and grabbing what you can before fleeing to safety. Faculty, staff and administrators completed heroic efforts to move the essentials of their courses online, but “there’s no comparing sleeping on a cot at a Red Cross center with sleeping in your own bed at home.”

Lesson Three: Higher education has a promising capacity for flexibility and accessibility.

If emergency remote teaching is a concept all its own, then what can we learn from the last few months? Plenty, said Moore and Provo-Quarles.

“Like all instruction, the best learning experiences come from faculty who plan and prepare,” said Provo-Quarles. “At the same time, the pandemic has demonstrated the tremendous innovation and determination of faculty and students across the world.”

Under extraordinary circumstances, academia has demonstrated an incredible capacity for flexibility. Faculty and administrators have worked overtime to not only conduct their coursework online, but also to acknowledge their learners’ diversity and accommodate students with challenges like limited access to internet, children or family members to care for, disabilities, full-time jobs, and more.

All of this hints at the possibility of an even more flexible and equitable future – one that fully realizes the opportunities of online education. Of course, concerns about accessibility, particularly those related to technology, are critical, and will require resources. At the same time, access to flexible learning modalities, including online courses, will be a core piece of accessibility in a post-pandemic world.

Plus, flexible educational options not only afford students more opportunities, Moore said, they also make institutions more resilient. And if one thing is clear, it’s that the future is uncertain. Investing in online and blended learning is one way to ensure institutional resilience.

In particular, Moore said she hopes the pandemic will highlight the value of blended courses, which combine online and face-to-face interactions. Blended courses can leverage the strengths of both modalities to create a rich, flexible design that can more easily pivot to fully online or fully in-person if needed.

“You can actually leverage asynchronous online experiences even as part of a face-to-face classroom environment and afford your learners a lot more flexibility and accessibility to the learning process,” she said.

In order to realize this future, however, we have to move past the dichotomous framework that we often use to compare online learning to traditional classrooms. “What’s happening is we’re having this debate about face-to-face vs. online,” Moore said. “Rather than ‘either, or,’ it should be ‘yes, and.’”

Ultimately, she said, online is simply a different medium for learning with strengths and weaknesses of its own. Comparing online to a traditional classroom is like comparing a film to a novel, and “Is film better than a novel for storytelling? What a silly question to ask!”

Instead, Moore urges education leaders to lean on their educational technology experts as they navigate the coming months, and to ask better questions – questions like, “How can you be creative in the medium that you’re operating in, based on your learners and their needs?”

If we can embrace that idea, she said, we will open up even more opportunities for learning – particularly the type of flexible, accessible learning that students need, now and in an uncertain future.