Could the Social Distancing of COVID-19 Revolutionize Online Learning and Higher Education?

by Sharita Forrest, UI News Bureau  /   Mar 25, 2020

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Rethinking the design and delivery of online courses could help colleges and universities reduce costs and broaden access.

Editor’s note: As the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus has prompted residential colleges to suspend classroom instruction, many faculty members are suddenly scrambling to adapt their courses to online media. Former College of Education dean Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope, both professors of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, research and develop educational technologies – and teach their courses exclusively online. They spoke with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about the potential long-term impact on distance learning and postsecondary education.

Although residential universities adopted digital technologies in various ways and to varying degrees, the bulk of instruction is still classroom-based. Could the current imperative to migrate programs online be a tipping point?

Cope: Higher education has dragged its feet making the move to online learning, keeping lecture theaters, classrooms and textbooks as the core tools of its trade. These place-bound services have stifled the innovation needed to build engaging online learning infrastructures and approaches. E-learning is still viewed as second-best and face-to-face instruction remains the gold standard.

Few institutions were prepared for the sudden shift to online delivery that COVID-19 prompted. They had made awkward attempts to replicate the traditional classroom with video lectures, e-textbooks, online tests and learning management systems that look like old-fashioned syllabi. The result was often a step back into all that was wrong with traditional passive, teacher-centered modes of teaching.

Could online learning ultimately solve multiple problems that are threatening higher education now, such as escalating student debt and tuition rates, and dwindling access?

Kalantzis: Higher education is on the verge of a deep structural crisis because of rising tuition and ballooning student debt. Digital learning provides an opportunity for colleges to scale up programs and scale down costs.

For all citizens to achieve their potential, we need to make it possible for everyone, including nontraditional students with family responsibilities, to access higher education remotely.

But to achieve universal access, the sticker prices for online learning must be vastly reduced. Unless, of course, postsecondary education becomes a publicly supported right like kindergarten-12th grade education. Even then, it must become less expensive for taxpayers and the government to support it.

Read the full story from the UI News Bureau...