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In my opinion

Is online learning at a tipping point?

Maybe – but the key question for colleges and universities is not the balance between online and face-to-face teaching, but survival.


In March 2020, some 1.6 billion learners around the world were suddenly being taught through online learning, with many instructors and learners experiencing an online platform or hybrid platforms for the first time. For others, it was a chance to showcase new approaches to teaching and learning they wanted to try for some time. For a growing number of faculty and students with experience in distance education and online learning, it was an opportunity to do even more online as more programs and courses were available in this mode than ever before.

No one knows when face-to-face classes and “normal” university or college activities will resume. The working assumption of some is that the earliest date for a return to normal activity would be summer or fall 2021 or even 2022, although some administrators are more optimistic. A limited return to campus is now occurring on some campuses in Canada, and many U.S. colleges and universities reopened, despite a surge in cases in colleges and universities.

When “normal” activities do resume, we can expect to see:

  • More blended learning, with instructors integrating some of their online experiences into “normal” classes and courses.
  • More use of open educational resources, which many faculty discovered as a result of the pandemic.
  • More use of technology for components of learning, including chatbots as tutorial assistants, more extensive use of support from instructional designers, and the emergence of augmented and virtual reality for simulations and games.

But we are also likely to see only a modest expansion of online learning in Canada unless:

  1. Universities and colleges are incentivized to expand flexible and online learning;
  2. Online learning becomes a financial imperative in terms of sustaining programs and markets;
  3. Investments of substance are made in faculty development; and
  4. Significant new investments are made in broadband infrastructure (especially for rural Canada) and supports are found for students with limited or no access to appropriate technology.

Students and staff will be pleased to be “back in the classroom,” even though a great deal of face-to-face instruction is known to be no more effective in delivering learning outcomes than instructionally designed online learning. In particular, students will welcome the return of social activities, sports, networking and accessing shared spaces.

A key part of the reason for this view is that a massive shift to online learning requires a fundamental rethinking of the business model of the institution, the employment contracts of faculty and non-academic staff (especially instructional designers, technology experts and librarians) and a new understanding of the potential role of expert students. Significant and substantial investments in the professional development of faculty and the expansion of centres for learning in colleges and universities are also prerequisites for the substantial expansion of online learning.

What we may see is the emergence of new ways of recognizing learning from third parties – MOOC providers, for example – and new ways of using assessment as the basis for qualifications, such as those offered by the University of Wisconsin.

The demand will be for greater flexibility, with more options to “mix and match” courses so students learn what they need for employment, more start dates for programs and courses, more short courses that can be accumulated for credit, and more cross-faculty options within programs. These elements of flexibility were emerging for some time, especially in colleges, and will now become more important as demand for work-related learning and skills education grows.

The real tipping point

The key question for colleges and universities will not be the balance of online versus face-to-face or other teaching methods, but survival. As one September 2020 review of university and college finances in Canada concluded, “the system will no doubt survive, but it’s not yet guaranteed that all individual institutions will do so in their current form.” It will be the pandemic and its consequences – financial, operational and personal – that reveal the vulnerabilities and dependencies within our post-secondary system.

At least one jurisdiction commissioned a review of its postsecondary system with the intention of a significant and substantial restructuring. Initial reports suggest that budget cuts already made to colleges and universities in Alberta, amounting to 20 percent by 2022-23, will be followed by mergers and possible closures. Performance-based funding, to be introduced by Ontario and Alberta, will be another consequential development that might create tipping points for institutions in terms of programs, student selection and flexibility.

After this pandemic, not all institutions will be able to return to the former operating status. Some will not survive. Others will survive and prosper, but in new and different ways. A few will return to their former ways of working, strengthened by their resilience and adaptability. The future will not be a straight line from the past. We can expect some disruption and change and a shift in demand for programs and courses. Universities and colleges will need to be adaptive and nimble in their responses, and online learning is just one tool in their armoury of possible responses to a different future.

The key will be the attitude and responsiveness of students, faculty and institutions to adapt and change. It remains to be seen whether the “new normal” will enhance opportunities for students, faculty and institutions or highlight the unsustainability of those that take a business-as-usual approach to higher learning.

This article was republished with the permission of the Ontario community-based organization Contact North | Contact Nord. A longer version of this article, originally published on the website, can be viewed here.

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  1. Stephen Rader / November 25, 2020 at 14:25

    While universities are ostensibly about getting information out of textbooks and into the heads of students, in practice there is so much more going on, and so much more value that students get from their university experience than simply learning academic content. Renowned University of California administrator Clark Kerr famously said that his job was to provide sports for alumni, parking for faculty, and sex for the students. While this comment was made partly in jest, it points to the kind of social interaction that students value, learn from, and, uh, can’t be had online. If learning social interactions seems trite and not worthy of societal investment, you might ask yourself how much of your work and personal satisfaction comes from interacting effectively with other people, taking charge in some situations, allowing others to when appropriate, and recognizing the difference. You aren’t born knowing these things, and post-secondary education of young adults is an important venue for this aspect of human development.

    The bigger question that this article — and so many similar ones — raises is whether we as a society value forming the future members and leaders of our communities. It is instructive to look at the options. Some jurisdictions in Canada are following what we might refer to as the Mississippi model of investment in the common good: minimize redistribution of wealth and do as little as possible to help those in poverty or with other needs. The result of this experiment is obvious: Mississippi lags in nearly every measure of personal and business success in the United States. The alternative is for society to agree that robust investment in our youth through excellent, in person education is not just wise but actually essential. Do we really need to be debating this?