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Colleges must embrace changes brought on by the coronavirus

There are many advantages to online instruction that

There are many advantages to online instruction that need to be incorporated into future learning in higher education. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/fizkes

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The coronavirus outbreak continues to sow tragedy on countless levels.

Many lives lost, the economy turned upside down and life as we know it drastically altered. The natural desire for many is to want everything to just go back to normal once the pandemic is under control.

That is certainly the case in higher education. But while many want to go back in time, we must instead look to the future. The massive disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak has underscored the need for colleges and universities to move forward and not turn back.

As quickly as campuses closed, many also moved online. Universities and professors scrambled to create virtual classes. In March, Drexel, which began granting online degrees in 1999, moved all final exams for its quarter classes online. More than 750 different exams were given to thousands of students via online, over email or other remote communications. 

Drexel is fortunate to be at the forefront of online education. Drexel English professor Scott Warnock has been a leader in online education for years. As president of the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators, Warnock has written and researched extensively on teaching writing online, including co-authoring a book with a student titled “Writing Together: Ten Weeks Teaching and Studenting in an Online Writing Course.”

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York University called on Warnock to convert the writing courses at its Shanghai campus to online. Just days before classes were scheduled, Warnock conducted an online workshop for NYU instructors to teach them how to migrate their coursework online and oversee remote learning.

Not only were the classes saved, but NYU professors learned new teaching skills and techniques that can be carried forward. No doubt, face-to-face education offers rich experiences that can’t always be translated online. But there are many advantages to online instruction that need to be incorporated into future learning.

For example, online education offers targeted learning and flexible scheduling. Students can learn at their own pace and in their preferred environment. For instance, how about listening to a professor’s podcast lecture while exercising? Such flexibility is especially handy for companies and employees who may need to learn new skills to adapt to changing workplace demands.

Online learning can also break down barriers for many who want to go to college but cannot afford it, or live in remote locations. Online learning can save money on room and board, books, fees and travel costs. This creates greater access and opens new possibilities for many who thought they could not attend college. Online learning can also level the playing field for students from all backgrounds, and for those with disabilities or language barriers.

Such educational barriers are not restricted to higher education. A 2018 U.N. report found 263 million children, adolescents and youth were out of school — roughly 20 percent of that global population age group.

A free program offered by the Global Teaching Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, aims to bring world-class teaching to poor rural schools and other parts of the world. A school district in Mississippi is using video instruction to enable students to learn Advanced Placement physics from a Yale University professor. Students also receive tutoring from a physics major at Yale. The program has enabled the rural school district to increase its AP offerings.

A large and growing part of education was already happening online before the coronavirus outbreak. A 2012 New American Foundation report found that only 14 percent of undergraduates attend college full time and live on campus. The sudden shift to online learning brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak brought the disruption of higher education into sharp relief. Rather than “return to normal,” colleges and universities must adapt the current higher education model to meet the future.

College enrollments were already flattening and poised to drop in the coming years as the teenage population declines. The financial hit brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will roil state budgets, likely leading to further cuts in government spending on higher education. This comes while many employers are already thinking about how best to train and prepare future workers. At the same time, students and parents who already were weighing the cost of a college education may rethink their plans.

There is no turning back. Colleges and universities that embrace the disruption will be positioned to meet the formidable challenges ahead. Today’s students have grown up in a digital world. It is incumbent upon higher education leaders to meet students where they live.

John Fry is the president of Drexel University in Philadelphia. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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