Changing Perceptions About the Quality of Online Education – Changing Higher Ed Podcast 118 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Brandon Busteed
Brandon Busteed is the Chief Partnership Officer and Global Head of Learn-Work Innovation at Kaplan. In his recent article published by Forbes, Busteed cites data showing a monumental shift in Americans’ perspectives about the quality of online education.
According to a New American survey, 55% of Americans now rate the quality of online education as being equal to or better than in-person education. In this podcast, Busteed joins Drumm McNaughton for an important discussion about why perceptions are changing so quickly, how online education modalities offer advantages for students and other stakeholders, and what potential implications might lie just around the corner for the higher education industry.
Changing Perceptions About Online Education
With new data showing that most Americans rate online education as equal to or better than the quality of in-person education, Busteed writes that we have entered uncharted territory.
“We have reached the tipping point on opinions about the quality of online education, and it will ultimately spur the disruption that experts have long predicted.”
While online teaching modalities have been around for some time, online learning had long been relegated to specific programs, certificates, and sensitive subject matter that was better suited to private learning environments.
From Initial Resistance to Eagerly Improving the Quality of Online Education
When Americans abruptly transitioned from campus life to online learning at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, stubborn attitudes towards pedagogy and resistance to evolving modalities of education likely inhibited the evolution in quality that we are now seeing in online education. While some tech-savvy students may have welcomed the transition to learning from home, Busteed points out that not everyone came willingly.
At the advent of the rush to platforms like Zoom and other video conferencing tools, neither educators nor students had expertise in how best to leverage existing technologies. Many Americans have now adapted to online education tools out of necessity, often through an arduous process of trial and error. Busteed adds that learning from one another and sharing best practices, especially for teachers, has enabled many educators to improve the quality of their online classes.
As students and faculty became more familiar and confident in the tools, the quality of lessons and learning outcomes improved organically. As the data shows, these improvements have cultivated trust and confidence around the ways in which higher education is evolving in America.
For many students and teachers who engaged in some sort of online education program prior to 2020, frustration was a key marker. Early educational technologies existed, and institutions often used different systems with no clear industry leader. Many of these proprietary online tools lacked flexibility, intuitive design, full functionality, and important capabilities. Virtual learning environments were often buggy, and instructors were neither experienced in using the features and functions available to them nor equipped to deal with any of the technical issues that interfered with their lessons.
Today, educational technologies have evolved, becoming much more streamlined and user-friendly. The pandemic created an immediate, high demand for technologies that offer seamless functionality, rich useful capabilities and features, and ease of use for all demographics. This created a highly competitive industry of ed tech. New and highly capable technologies continue to emerge, and educators have become much more skilled at utilizing these new tools.
“I think it’s been our pedagogy and our own human resistance to embracing and knowing how to use new technologies really well that has held things back, more so than the technology itself.”
Optimism, Advances, and Growing Benefits in Distance Learning
The upward trend in Americans’ optimism about the quality of online education is a good sign because in-person higher education is beset with well-known problems. Online learning modalities have the potential to ease some of the biggest issues facing the higher education industry:
- Rising tuition costs pose major challenges to lower-income students and may prevent them from enrolling in an in-person institution
- Many students, especially adults, are working and parenting in addition to seeking post-secondary education and need more flexibility than in-person classes currently offer
- Many small schools are struggling financially with the costs of maintaining and operating a physical campus and may find themselves in better financial shape by transitioning to an online or hybrid model
- Mental health issues among youth have reached a crisis level; these issues affect all campus residents and can profoundly disrupt the quality of education and overall wellness of students, faculty, and staff
- World-class instructors who teach classes on campus can only teach a limited number of students
Although these problems are far from fully solved, they likely would have remained unaddressed without the advent of COVID-19. Without the pandemic, there would have been no mad dash to virtual learning environments, no heavy competition to drive innovation in education technology, and no need for Americans to push through their initial reticence and aversion to learning new technologies, even though evolving ed tech may hold answers to some of the biggest problem facing the higher education industry. As Drumm puts it:
Like working from home, online learning provides many benefits to all members of the higher education community:
- More flexibility
- Ease of access
- The reclaimed time that would otherwise be spent commuting
- Cost savings on gas and parking
- Cost savings on childcare for parents
Because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a threat to large gatherings of people including residents of college campuses, many students may also feel safer with distanced learning.
Improving the Value Proposition Through Instructional Design
Traditional pedagogy in higher education has historically relied on the model of the so-called sage on the stage – a single professor whose subject matter expertise supposedly negates any need for additional supportive faculty, such as an instructional designer. We know that the students who fill these large lecture halls often struggle to absorb the material being taught while simultaneously taking notes that they can review later. We also know that the human brain is not designed to multitask. With all the imperfections of the sage-on-the-stage model, many in-person educational institutions are likely failing to deliver on their fundamental value proposition.
As the higher education industry begins to pivot away from the sage on the stage, instructional design is becoming ever more crucial in developing, planning, and implementing curricula for online education. We know that understanding something is not the same as being able to teach it to someone else; those two things require very different skill sets, and the same rule applies to professors who may be subject matter experts but lack expertise in designing and implementing courses in virtual environments. The emergence of instructional design as a critical component of online education is perhaps one of the most beneficial outcomes of the transition to online learning.
Online Education Suits Students Who Learn in Different Ways
The transition to virtual learning environments benefits many students who learn differently, including those who are shy, neurodivergent, reluctant to engage in classroom discussions, or those who need to review materials more than once to absorb new information. Students who have experienced bullying or other forms of harassment on campus are also much more likely to embrace online education.
Among the many capabilities of virtual learning environments, perhaps the most well-used and beneficial is the ability of professors to record all lectures and classes, which students can access at any time. This aspect of online learning alone can vastly improve comprehension, especially for students with learning, cognitive, or developmental disabilities.
Busteed also believes that online education has always had a rightful place for very specific subjects, such as online alcohol abuse prevention and sexual assault prevention courses. Students of sensitive courses like these, which are critical components of risk management and public health, Busteed says, “prefer to take those courses in the privacy of an online course.”
Three Takeaways for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
- For traditional institutions that have already begun to pivot toward online modalities, adopting a positive mindset is important – the shift toward online education offers much more opportunity than threat.
- Institutions that are still on the fence about whether to shift to online teaching modalities must make intentional decisions about which direction they will be heading and why that direction is their best choice. Transitioning to a hybrid or online model cannot happen successfully without strong leadership, intentional goals, strategic planning, and a deep and shared understanding of how it will help the institution deliver on its mission.
- For institutions that remain dedicated to in-person models of higher education, leaders must look at their value propositions and make sure that their institution is delivering on its promise. Before throwing darts at online education, become a tougher critic of your own classrooms; make sure your institution is delivering world-class quality there before considering any major pivot.