Covid-19 and distance learning
The onset of Covid-19 and the related global shut-down has had many impacts, not the least of which are those on education. Overnight, students, faculty and parents were launched into a virtual learning environment that required everyone to learn a new way of learning.
Before the pandemic, distance learning was primarily centered on Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive, Open Online Courses (MOOC), both considered ways to increase access to quality educational content across the entire student population, regardless of socioeconomic status.
The global shut-down that began in the spring of 2020 changed all that.
Suddenly, Zoom, Google Meet and other online services were pressed into service by K-12 and postsecondary institutions struggling to provide some sense of a normal education environment to students who were forced home by circumstances beyond their control. Print materials were copied and distributed to students, either directly or via online services, like Dropbox. The results, at best, have been mixed.
In revisiting lessons learned about distance learning during the pandemic, The Brookings Institution offers the following :
- Leverage user data to tailor programmatic design to learner realities… “We needed to understand what life was like at home, ….what barriers they faced learning outside the classroom, and if gender affected their ability to participate.”
- Go beyond broadcasting content: Layer strategies and build in interaction… “It’s widely recognized that real and meaningful learning occurs in the classroom only when curriculum goes beyond rote memorization and lecture-based instruction”.
A transition period.
Over the past year, vaccines have become more widely available and approved for people down to 5 years of age in the developed world. This has enabled K-12 and postsecondary institutions to re-open their doors to students.
In response to calls by educators and parents, most K-12 institutions in the developed world re-opened their classrooms to students using mask mandates, strict protocols, and rapid testing as support. The classroom is still the focal point of the K-12 educational environment, and distance learning in K-12 will likely remain a second line tool if needed again.
However, postsecondary institutions continue to serve students via distance learning formats. Over 7.4 million students were taking at least one distance learning course in 2019, and nearly half of those were taking their entire course load online. In postsecondary institutions, it’s clear that distance learning will continue to play an important role in serving students. The question is how to best serve them.
Moving forward with distance learning strategies.
The forces that constrained adoption of distance learning pre-pandemic remain for postsecondary professionals and institutions. The time and effort required to build content and the technical skills to implement a distance learning course are still significant. The list of barriers includes:
- The time and effort required to curate content to make sure it is accurate and meets student’s needs/
- Time and ongoing effort required to maintain content to ensure it is up-to-date and keep up to date with current research and practice in higher education.
- The time required for training and supporting educators who will be responsible for setting up an OER and maintaining it.
- The monetary value of the educators and staff time to set up and maintain the OER, and the resulting pressure to increase tuition.
- The opportunity costs of the entire venture. Where is faculty time and focus best spent—through building an OER, or in the classroom with students?
- Student engagement suffers with OER solutions due to the typical 90% text to multimedia ratio.
- There is no means of immediate feedback on student performance tests and quizzes.
- Ability to offer valid and reliable assessments as part of OER solutions.
- Ease of LMS integration.
To this list, one could add the concerns that some academics and educators might have around protection of their intellectual property.
As a result, increasing the adoption of online materials becomes a function of using a better designed technology platform that simplifies the process for the professional and the student, and supports a more truly interactive experience.
This evolved platform would offer several benefits that address current barriers, including:
- Flexibility supporting free or for-fee access to content.
- Ease-of-use, requiring little technical prowess on the part of the professional to implement.
- Easy, efficient publishing of original content by the professional.
- Collecting or linking to third party content.
- Supporting independent study and work.
- Supporting interaction between faculty and the student.
- Easily updating as needed.
- Integrating with popular LMS to support existing workflows for student and professional, while also supporting tracking, monitoring of student progress.
- Secure access addressing intellectual property concerns of the professional.
- Secure learning environment with respect to student information.
This list may remind the reader of courseware, which is not a new concept, and has been around for a least 20 years. Over the years, the courseware industry grew up using the “publishing house” business model, where companies developed and produced courses and professionals and/or institutions purchased the course for use.
What is envisioned in the list of benefits above goes one step beyond the traditional courseware/publishing house model, as it empowers the professional to develop an online learning environment that includes content, links, interaction with students without requiring deep technical knowledge.
This approach would do for distance learning what platforms like WordPress did for the blogosphere by breaking down the technical barriers to publishing online content and curricula. This new approach would open the benefits of distance learning to wider ranges of educators and students through more interactive experiences that leverage the online environment.
The result will be more engagement by students who are native to the digital world and more engagement by professionals who can see the benefits of the digital environment, but who may not have significant levels of technical prowess.
 Towne Amporo, Angelica and Nabbuye, Hawah. Taking distance learning ‘offline’: Lessons learned from navigating the digital divide during COVID-19. 2020, August 7. From https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/08/07/taking-distance-learning-offline-lessons-learned-from-navigating-the-digital-divide-during-covid-19/
 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. How MIT OpenCourseWare became an educational resource to millions around the world. 2021, April 6. From https://news.mit.edu/2021/mit-courseware-educational-resource-to-millions-0406