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The Coronavirus and Online Learning – An Alternate Perspective

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

Let me be clear – I believe that our primary concern at this point should be to protect and save as many lives as possible. That said, the issue of how online learning will be impacted by the Coronavirus is one that deserves some careful thought. China, Italy, Korea and other countries have opted to close K-12 and Higher Ed institutions in an attempt to slow the spread of the Coronavirus.

The University of Washington canceled on-ground classes. Early this morning Stanford followed suit. Undoubtedly many other will do the same in the coming days and weeks. Having spent most of my professional life in online learning, I am connected to a large community of practitioners, administrators, and vendors in the area. Through direct conversations and social media I have heard many discussions about these closures, that have taken two directions.

First, there is the question of how institutions that have focused on on-ground instruction can quickly make the shift to online. Second, there is a slight sense of euphoria that finally the time of online learning has arrived, albeit catalyzed by this tragedy. What I have not heard is how there exists the potential for this event to severely damage what has been a slow but steady march of online learning in terms of both quality and market penetration. You may ask how could this possibly be the case? Surely the merits of online learning will become apparent following this mass experiment. To answer this, lets look first at how institutions are facilitating the change to online as a crisis response.

I have heard many anecdotal accounts of faculty being given a crash course in how to use their learning management systems (LMS) prior to or immediately after the decision has been made to shut down a campus. While LMS shells may have existed for all courses on campus, in many cases they were utilized for little more than posting a syllabus and grades. Now, suddenly faculty are expected to move their entire course to this space and sustain interaction with students for an indeterminate amount of time. In support of this change, the crash courses they are purely mechanical in nature; consisting of instructions on how to upload documents, create external linkages, receive assignments, and, perhaps, create discussion postings. There is little to no training on best practices, aside links to tips from the online learning organizations such as Educause, OLC, WCET, etc., let alone discussions of differences in pedagogical implementations between face-to-face and online. For elaboration on those issues faculty are referred to the two or three instructional designers who work in a building on campus that no one knew existed.

In other words, these faculty are where those who have been devoted to online learning were 20 or more years ago. We are about to see mass uploads of PPTX’s from lectures, journal articles in PDF format, and Word docs full of lecture notes. Here and there, we will see the ambitious faculty member record hour long lectures and post them up for students to view. If the closures persists long enough, we will see the highly scientific spaghetti methodology employed – faculty will throw everything they can think of against the wall and if it sticks it is deemed to be good.

Granted, there are institutions that have been fully online or have had a significant online presence for many years. At these institutions the above will not be the case or it will be limited to the departments that have been hold-outs against online all along. However, in the overwhelming majority of other institutions, expect this to the be the norm.

When the Coronavirus has passed, or rather when we have learned how to live with it, things will return to normal and the classes that were previously taught on-ground will return to on-ground. Here and there institutions will have had a limited number of positive experiences with the online courses and maybe a little extra funding will be pushed to the Distance Ed department. However, the majority of institutions and their students will have survived the nightmare scenarios I set forth above. What I fear is that the damage from these negative experiences will influence a generation of students and faculty. Sure, there will still be those who passionately advocate for online learning and institutions that are dedicated to delivering high quality online experiences, but lingering in the background will be the ghost of 2020’s exodus to online and the horror stories that will inevitably be associated with it. My greatest fear is that the hard fight of the last three decades will be partially eclipsed by what is about to happen. Could institutions do anything to change the outcome? Sure, but that would cost money and with the overall cloud of uncertainty that we are under, I have a hard time envisioning that happening. I hope I am wrong.

Chief Solutions Officer at Analytikus

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Analytikus. From:

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