Until last March, most college students had never taken an online class. The COVID-19 outbreak changed that.
During the 2018-19 school year, more than 6 million students took at least one online class. But while distance education has steadily become more popular, and more common among students in their late teens or early 20s, nearly 70% of college students had never taken a distance course until this past spring.
The sudden switch to the online format sparked a wave of problems from seemingly every corner. Students weren't getting the education they expected. Faculty felt under-resourced and unsupported by their institutions. Proponents of remote education could only watch in frustration as students who never wanted to study online were rushed into a watered-down version of what distance courses should be.
A Difficult Transition
Many students taking online classes for the first time in March struggled with the transition. They found the impersonal format frustrating, and soon recognized that some of their professors lacked the technical chops to effectively teach online. Universities with limited digital infrastructure and a very short ramp-up time could do little more than set up a Zoom account and hope their students had internet access.
The slapdash transition had critics wondering whether distance courses provide a comparable intellectual challenge and educational experience. In some cases, students and their parents even protested their school's decision to charge full tuition for online courses.
That frustration is understandable. But anyone underwhelmed by their initial foray into online education should know that they didn't get the normal distance education experience.
"There's sort of a continuum" of online education models, explains Michael Paulus, the assistant provost for education technology at Seattle Pacific University. "There's really basic — go online and talk over Zoom — and at the other end of the spectrum, you have professionally designed courses."
This past March, most students found themselves in the basic, bare-bones format; many found the experience unsatisfying, and came away with an unfavorable impression of online education writ large.
That's unfortunate. With the right teachers and tools, a well-produced online curriculum is just as educationally rich, rigorous, and rewarding as classes taught on campus. That's especially important to keep in mind given where we are in the pandemic. We don't know when it will be safe for everyone to return to campus, and for the foreseeable future, students should expect to take at least some of their classes online.
Colleges that already provided online instruction prior to last March offer several academic advantages over the schools that didn't. Anyone on the fence about whether or where to go to college over the next year should do their homework on what their prospective online program has to offer — and what it lacks.
Online Education Done Properly
Any criticism of online education inevitably returns to one theme: an inability to replicate the classroom experience. To a point, that's a fair critique. Remote education has its limitations, and the format doesn't suit everyone.
But students should also know that well-built online courses are just as intellectually challenging as the classes they're accustomed to. Dedicated online programs have long provided tools and resources that bring the feel of a classroom online, and the industry is full of educators pushing the boundaries of what students can expect to find in a remote setting.
One such person is Temple University's Bora Ozkan, an associate professor of finance and academic director of the school's online MBA and BBA programs. When I contacted him for this story, Ozkan wasn't just willing to talk: He thanked me for reaching out, scheduled a meeting himself, and brought a colleague to the discussion. I didn't really have to press much about online education, as he came prepared with a 15-minute preamble on all that Temple's Fox School of Business does to provide a robust online experience.
"Fox has everything online," Ozkan said excitedly. "We have instructional designers, instructional technologists. We have our own studios, our own video vault. Everything we do in house, we host in house."
Technology sets this kind of online program apart from schools that simply have professors lecture over Zoom. Instructional designers meet with faculty to determine class objectives and map each assignment to those goals, tailoring them for the online format. The extra attention to video and production quality helps make the content look professional, and all material is accessible for students with disabilities.
|ONLINE EDUCATION DONE WELL...||...AND NOT SO WELL|
|Full-time professors trained to teach online||Grad students or untrained faculty|
|Class materials and resources are accessible and intuitive||Few or no resources available online; poor or confusing navigation|
|Video is crisp and professionally produced||Grainy footage with poor audio quality|
|Integrated tools that foster participation and engagement||Limited interactivity|
|Custom resources available for students with disabilities||No customized resources|
Those points just scratch the surface. For Ozkan, a well-constructed online program isn't just built to avoid the pitfalls of the distance format, but also to capitalize on its benefits.
"Online education does not necessarily mean three hours of lecture on Zoom. It doesn't work that way," he explains. "We flip the classroom model. We try to keep videos below 10 minutes. Instead of lectures, there are topics of videos."
In a twist on the usual lecture model, Ozkan has his students watch a few related videos before each class meeting. Instead of lecturing, he uses class time to answer questions about the material and build collaborative learning into their time together.
"We put them in groups of three or four, and they do an activity. They submit and then come to the main room to present. It's an interactive process."
Educational technology has come a long way in recent years. It's now possible to break students up into groups over video and have professors pop in and out of discussions. Online content delivery systems, like Blackboard and Canvas, make it easy for students to participate in class discussions, access course resources, and submit homework.
As you'd expect, professors at the Fox School are trained to teach remotely. The school has its own online teaching certificate program, and it requires new faculty to complete the program before they teach an online class.
Talking to Ozkan, it also becomes clear that the enthusiasm and charisma that all of the best and brightest educators share translates well into the online format. The toughest part of interviewing him is getting him to linger on my questions long enough to get an answer before bounding off about Temple's latest investments in online education or how the school has learned from sharing online resources with other institutions.
Ozkan's colleague, Steve Orbanek, only spoke up once in our conversation. In a rare quiet moment, Orbanek deadpanned: "As you can probably tell, Bora is very passionate about all this."
Distance Education of the Future?
Just before the pandemic hit, Ozkan was already pushing his online curriculum into another frontier: virtual reality.
For 18 months, he'd been preparing to offer his MBA-level fintech digital disruption course in virtual reality. The anticipated launch time? Mid-March of 2020.
"The timing was coincidental," he said with a smile.
Virtual reality has some obvious benefits: It's completely immersive, and students have to pay attention because they can't look at their phones or laptops with a headset on. It also feels more like a regular conversation.
"If I have a dual screen, if I'm looking at your picture but not the camera, it does not look like I'm looking at you," Ozkan said.
While it sounds complicated, the setup was actually quite easy: The school simply shipped everyone a headset and told students what time to show up for class.
"We got great feedback" on the course, Ozkan said. "This enhanced our discussions. Our students were actually more immersed, maybe even moreso than face-to-face class, because they had zero distractions."
Will it catch on? Check back again in a year or three.
Most Students Didn't Get That Experience Back in March
As COVID-19 roiled the country, colleges hastily pivoted to online instruction. Technology, or lack thereof, was a major stumbling block. Some students, particularly those who never expected nor wanted to take courses online, lacked access to a computer or a stable internet connection. Many professors tried to adapt their curricula to an online setting, but had no experience or training in how to teach remotely.
"One of my teachers was an older math professor, and he just struggled to record lectures," said Thomas Thongmee, a double major at Pitzer College. "He's not trained in how to do this, he never expected to do it, and here he is at home, trying to upload stuff on his iPad."
Visual arts programs were hit particularly hard by the switch to online. Luisa Rodriguez, a rising junior and a theater major at Wesleyan University, saw the curriculum change dramatically overnight.
"We had started hoping that our theater production would have been put in the live theater. Then halfway through the semester, we ended up switching to Zoom."
She says her professors mostly handled the change well. They adapted to Zoom effectively and sought student opinions on how to best conduct classes online. Still, the challenges of preparing for and putting on a production over the internet were considerable.
"We were working from Eastern time zones, Singapore, Macedonia, and my Pacific Standard Time," Rodriguez said. "It was a coordination nightmare."
Students had to make this adjustment while also processing everything else that came with the pandemic — new living situations, shelter-in-place orders, and a heightened degree of stress and anxiety. All of that made engaging with course material much tougher than usual.
"I started to feel like everything just took a lot more energy to complete," Rodriguez said. "I wasn't following the readings or assignments as closely as I would have if I had a chance to discuss them in person."
By and large, professors did their best to accommodate students. The students who spoke to TBS for this story praised their instructors for their compassion and understanding. Many schools acknowledged the unprecedented situation by shifting to a pass/fail system or by giving students A's.
But even that came with its own backlash. Sketchy internet connections, ad hoc delivery systems, and inflated grades fed the perception that online education was less rigorous than traditional college courses. Parents and students, already burdened by steep tuition prices and the prospect of staggering loan debt, openly questioned why they were paying so much money for what appeared to be a flimsy product.
For supporters of online education, it was not the ideal way for the format to reach a widespread audience. Most schools didn't have enough dedicated faculty or built-out programs to transition well, and proponents worry that people are getting a bad impression of what online education is.
Kevin Gannon, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University, was one of many educators who encouraged people to keep an open mind. Responding to an article that argued the pandemic was the perfect time to test and evaluate online education, he likened such an exercise to "giving people a swimming test during a flood."
Schools with Online Experience Were Better Prepared
There are only a handful of colleges throughout the United States that offer all — or even most — of their programs entirely online. But even institutions that only had some programs available online had a leg up on schools without any online infrastructure.
Seattle Pacific University is one such institution. The private Christian university has offered some graduate courses and programs online for years, but until 2020, had held most undergraduate classes on campus.
Seattle's King County was home to one of the nation's first outbreaks, and the surge in local cases coincided with the end of winter quarter at SPU. According to Michael Paulus, the school's assistant provost for education technology, that gave SPU precious time to prepare undergraduate instructors for a quarter like no other.
"Online education requires a whole different orientation. We were actually getting ready to do a faculty-in-service training on how to design online courses. Within a week of the first deaths associated with COVID, we started thinking about taking that program to our faculty."
The big challenge was to get faculty comfortable with the technology they'd be using. SPU is a small school that offers intimate class sizes, and most professors and students come to SPU in part for the face-to-face element. Few professors had any training or experience in online education.
Fortunately, SPU's online grad programs provided a foundation to build course content around for undergrads. The transition was still difficult, but more manageable than starting from scratch. "We had the skills; we had the tech," Palus said. What they needed was "massive scale adjustment."
Paulus's department leapt into action. They trained professors to use the school's online tools, developed templates for certain classes, and offered technical support for students and faculty. It grew into an iterative process, where professors shared lessons and advice on what worked and what didn't with each other. Through it all, Paulus noticed that professors learned how to integrate the tools into their classes. Some even made interesting discoveries that will carry over into their teaching when classes return to campus.
"Professors found that some students are more willing to interact online through chat than they were when they were trying to engage a classroom. I think there's [now more] comfort with giving students more digital materials to work with."
All of that would have been much harder to accomplish if SPU wasn't adequately prepared with a host of online resources.
"A lot of schools had to start from scratch," Paulus said. "They had to get a Zoom license [and] video capturing software. You then have to learn how it works and to support it, and train faculty how to use it. Fortunately, we didn't have to do all that."
Daniel Allred, a program coordinator at Utah State University, echoed a similar sentiment. As a land-grant school, USU has long provided distance education in some format, and the school's experience with digital education left it better prepared to offer student services and to transition classes from in-person to Canvas's digital management system.
"If every class didn't already have a Canvas section associated with it, just that work alone would have been back-breaking for our developers," Allred said.
What To Look for As You Evaluate Programs
Schools that have invested in customized, professionally produced courses with dedicated online administrators and professors are simply better educational investments for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, not every school with an established online program falls into that category. There's a very big difference between the schools that offer a quality online program and colleges that let students earn credits without coming to campus.
Here are a few things prospective students can do to make sure they're getting a quality education.
The Future of Higher Education
The question isn't whether the online format is a part of college curriculums in the future. It's how much material will be taught and accessed online. Already, most students are familiar with doing much of their research and plenty of their homework online. The transition to a more holistic online format isn't as large as it may sound.
Or, at least it isn't at the institutions that already offer dedicated and well-constructed online programs. Any student who feels uneasy about attending class on campus in the midst of a pandemic would be wise to evaluate their school's — or their prospective school's — online offerings; it's always best to be prepared.
Learn more, do more.
Popular with our students.
Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.
Take the next step toward your future with online learning.
Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.