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Responding to Coronavirus: Differentiating Remote and Online Education

Every industry and service across the world has been affected by the novel coronavirus, and the COVID-19 illness it causes.

At colleges and universities across North America, in response to government mandates for people to stay at home, great efforts have been made to change gears quickly and transition face-to-face programs to remote formats.

What’s important to recognize here, though, is the terminology. There’s a big difference between well-designed online education programming, and the fast actions taken by postsecondary institutions to respond to a pandemic.

“To be clear, delivering courses through alternative means doesn't necessarily mean they are fully conducted online,” said Maureen MacDonald, Dean of the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto, in an  interview with The EvoLLLution®.

“Our online courses have been developed and consciously designed to be outstanding courses for the online environment. But in some cases, we're just trying to get the learners through the last three weeks of the term.”

This sentiment was shared by Cathy Sandeen, President of the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

“We had to respond right away by going to alternative delivery. We use that term deliberately because it's not all going to be a traditional online course,” Sandeen said in an interview with The EvoLLLution.

Sasha Thackaberry, Vice President for Digital and Continuing Education at Louisiana State University, wrote an article for The EvoLLLution providing six tips to online education leaders helping their institutions adapt to the sudden need for remote learning.

In her article, she reflected on the importance of ensuring we remain cognizant of the differences between our response to a pandemic, and our leveraging of online resources to offer high-quality programming:

“This language shift serves another critical purpose; it helps communicate that what we are doing right now is not “online learning”.

What we are doing right now is keeping the semester going through the end of an instructional period so that students can progress towards earning their degrees and certificates. We are keeping the wheels on the bus and focusing on accomplishing the courses’ instructional goals for a specific period of time in a specific situation.

This is important to recognize. For all faculty and students out there: what you are currently experiencing is not online learning, even though it is learning delivered remotely.

Online degrees and certificates should be intentionally designed learning experiences that are engaging, efficient, and effective. Online learning as a field has moved away from a “broadcast mentality” of delivering information to an “engagement mentality” of designed experiences that go beyond student-to-content engagement and include rich student-to-student and student-to-faculty engagement. Online degrees and certificates should also have an integrated virtual student support structure that is focused on customer service focused and provides online tutoring, coaching, career services and other critical components of a holistic education.

The use of “remote learning” means we must communicate to faculty and students that:

    • We know you didn’t sign up for this.
    • This is a temporary solution to an extraordinary circumstance.
    • (My personal favorite) Hopefully you won’t judge an entire modality based on an experience with a pandemic.”

Thackaberry’s third point is essential to bear in mind as we move into another week of remote education. In spite of the social distancing guidelines mitigating the effects of the novel coronavirus, the world continues to move forward.

As we shift from a three-stage life model to a 100-Year Life model, ongoing and continuing education is going to become a standard part of the lives of every student currently pursuing a degree, and for almost every adult currently in the workforce.

It’s really important that this experience doesn’t taint their perspective of online learning, because it’s more than likely that they’ll need to leverage online learning to maintain their career progression later in life.

In the early stages of the transition, however, it looks like both learners and faculty might be really embracing the possibilities offered by remote learning technologies.

“Some of the feedback that's coming from the main university is that the learners are really embracing it. Faculty are being much more creative than they have been with their standard classrooms,” said MacDonald, from the University of Toronto.

“It’s too soon to say what the final picture will look like, but it will certainly bring an openness to discussions that in the past were verboten.”

The EvoLLLution is publishing articles and interviews focused around higher education’s adaptation to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, we’re developing whitepapers to help highlight some of the central trends we’re seeing rise across the board.

 The first paper, focused on higher education’s true innovative spirit, is available now to read.