It was Wednesday, March 11, at 8:09 p.m. when we officially received the email from Temple University President Richard Englert: "COVID-19 update: Temple University classes move to online and alternative learning methods for remainder of semester."
The message from our president mirrored what other universities and colleges across the country received. Suddenly, every student and every faculty and staff member in practically every school in America was thrust into a digital world.
College administrators could read "Online Education for Dummies" again and again, but unless they had a history of delivering robust virtual education, it wasn't going to help in these circumstances. According to an independent study conducted by Digital Promise, 43% of undergraduate students had never taken an online class prior to the pandemic and another 21% had only taken one. In other words, two-thirds of the undergraduate student population had little experience with digital learning.
Without a broad background in online education, how can a school ever prepare for that kind of transition? Many had no choice but to react. Too often, an underbaked digital curriculum wound up compromising learning objectives.
While the circumstances were less than ideal for us at Temple's Fox School of Business, we weathered the storm. One reason for that is because of our history of offering several online undergraduate and graduate degrees, which incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous components. Also, at the Fox School, we make sure students are familiar with the digital format; most take at least one online course each semester, even as undergraduates.
We offer six different majors through our Online Bachelor of Business Administration (OBBA) program, which has been a staple of the school for nearly a decade. We also offer an online MBA and three specialized master's degrees in an online format.
The strength of those programs has been cultivated through the Fox Online & Digital Learning department. The department is filled with a team of instructional designers, instructional technologists and videographers. Everything from video production to training to course design is completed in house within Fox's department. They're the primary reason that we were able to quickly pivot to the online format once the pandemic hit.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the learning outcomes of an online course cannot mirror those of in-person instruction. In some cases, that may still be true, but we believe that the gap between the two is narrowing.
What we say instead is that there's a difference between online education and "high-quality" online education; we work to provide the latter. In the wake of COVID-19, many schools adopted a "distance" learning model. Essentially, they wanted everything to remain the same, except that meetings now took place via Zoom or WebEx. This model is just not viable for keeping students engaged long term. In true "online" learning, all content, including activities and assessments, needs to be fully integrated into the course and delivered via the virtual format.
While another global pandemic may not be on the horizon, circumstances will change. Complications will continue to present themselves, and schools will need to be agile and adaptable. This past year has proven that we need to expect the unexpected.
Also, COVID-19 has changed the higher education industry, probably forever. Robust, high-quality, interactive online degree programs will now be the expectation for schools and colleges. Just getting by will no longer be an option.
Perfecting an online degree program does not just happen overnight. It takes time and patience. These are some guidelines that we have followed, which we have found to be instrumental to our success.
Training Is Necessary
Prior to the pandemic, the vast majority of our faculty were already trained to teach online. Now, they're required to be. All faculty within the school have since worked with the Fox Online & Digital Learning department to gain training. This is also a requirement for any newly hired faculty member.
Things change, and you need to be ready. For any number of unforeseen circumstances, a course may need to be moved online midway through the semester. Agile faculty members are able to make this switch seamlessly.
Faculty should receive hands-on training on common pedagogical, logistical, and technological strategies specific to teaching online. We no longer have the luxury to just choose to teach in a face-to-face format, so all faculty, new and old alike, need to be well-versed in the world of synchronous and asynchronous online learning.
In ideal circumstances, our faculty are working with our instructional designers six months in advance to map out a course.
The faculty members are the content matter experts, but the instructional designers are the experts in course design, so together, they work to think about the course material in a way that will work best for the online format.
At the Fox School, we have a 12-step course development process that we use to craft an online class. It starts with the faculty training and continues with content development, video recording, building content within the learning management system, and more.
Then, three months prior to the course's launch, we review all content and identify changes needed, whether it be new videos, new readings, new rubrics, or new assignments, and then add quizzes and tests.
Plan Out Everything
Zoom fatigue is real and it's only getting worse.
An engaging online course cannot just be a three-hour Zoom session. Plus, if we're being honest, you don't want to teach on Zoom for three hours straight anyhow.
The reality is that high-quality online education requires a lot more planning than face-to-face instruction. Professors must plan every activity well in advance, especially since students' attention spans can be so short. That was the case before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only exacerbated that fact.
What we do is "flip the classroom." We don't spend all of our time lecturing via Zoom or virtual meetings. Rather, we create videos that are short, engaging, and fun. The videos are just one component we integrate into our courses from the beginning of the planning process.
When you build the course blueprint, you can strategically set it up to include a series of activities. For instance, on one day students may watch a 10-minute video and offer feedback, and on another day, they may participate in an interactive group activity. Then, on the third day, they may have a set of readings. This diversification of activities greatly helps keep students' attention.
Multiple Touchpoints Are Key
Students do not like having assignments or tasks to complete every day of the week, and you need to check in with them. Maybe that's through email or maybe that's with a call, but whatever the case, engagement is key.
Students are not always the best time managers, so one of the important things a professor can do is frequently inform them of their task list through the syllabus or a content management system.
This also ties back into the importance of feedback. Whether you're providing that through detailed rubrics or specific comments, students need to know that you're there. You can never expect a student to be engaged if you yourself are not engaged.
When we speak about online education as a whole, we often discuss its limitations. We compare it to the traditional face-to-face model that we've come to know throughout the years. What we often fail to mention is that when online education is done right, it can actually help students achieve even greater learning outcomes.
Every student learns differently. In an in-person classroom, especially one with upwards of 50 students, it can be really difficult to cater the content to each student's needs.
However, online education allows us to better understand students' learning patterns and behaviors, and we can use this knowledge to integrate technology and help each individual student. We're able to build customized pathways, even within a single course, for each individual student. While the path may be different, the ultimate goal is the same, and that's okay.
When online education is done in its most effective form, we're able to create different paths, and students can choose the best path for them. All in all, that makes for a profoundly positive learning outcome.
Dr. Bora Ozkan is an associate professor of finance at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, where he also serves as academic director of the school’s Online MBA and Online BBA programs.
Steve Orbanek is the Associate Director of Communications at Temple University's Fox School of Business and School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management.
Header Image Credit: Jae Young Ju, nadla | Getty Images
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