With the likelihood of most colleges and universities teaching the fall — and perhaps spring — semesters online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that many educational institutions will improve over their improvised performances in the spring of 2020. There are many people, including me, who are writing about the financial distress due to room and board refunds and lower enrollments due to freshmen taking a gap year and international students choosing to not visit the U.S. for a potential online college experience. Based on my 18 years of experience in online higher education, I think there are opportunities for colleges and universities that survive financially.
First, the move to online learning caused by the requirement to socially distance students from each other, faculty and staff has substantially increased the number of faculty with experience at teaching online. In order to improve their online experiences, many schools have expanded their instructional design personnel through hiring or contracting. Colleges have also increased faculty training in best practices for teaching online over the summer.
With the potential for many classes to be online this fall due to the current pandemic, faculty will become more experienced at how to improve their online instruction. Post-pandemic, having the capability to offer online courses and degree programs brings the potential to institutions with a brand to expand their student enrollments. Much of this change depends on the college’s ability to further refine its online offerings as well as to develop a marketing and admissions team that can highlight these offerings against the many seasoned online offerings.
Another benefit of the move to online education is the digitization of course syllabi and assessments in the electronic Learning Management System (LMS). While most colleges and universities had selected an LMS (or two or three), the rapid move to online forced all faculty to upload the standard documents in the system.
If the university has an assessment team, I would take advantage of bringing together faculty from all departments to discuss institutional learning outcomes and minimal requirements for every course syllabus (i.e., learning outcomes objectives for the course if completed satisfactorily). Faculty could also explore how to implement a system for collecting and reporting the program and institutional outcomes over time (assuming that there is no centralized or standardized system).
If syllabi are loaded in an LMS and courses are built with multiple styles and types of assessments, a savvy institution would consider utilizing an LCMS (Learning Content Management System) to integrate authoring, delivering, publishing, and analyzing content across the university to anyone authorized to use the system. An LCMS used widely could avoid the recreation of course content by multiple instructors and allow the repurposing of content as courses are revised and new ones are built. Assessments are/can be structured as content and should be included in an LCMS.
Over time, data could be collected on the frequency of content utilization, the value of the content, and the effectiveness of the content (which could be linked to the program and institutional outcomes measurements). Utilizing semantic analysis tools available from the evolving artificial intelligence field could assist faculty in mapping their course content and objectives to employer hiring objectives.
Automating the review and analysis to a semi-annual pace could keep courses and programs relevant for a world where technology often changes faster than the theoretical knowledge transferred to college students over four years of education. If an institution was really progressive, the utilization of an LCMS could also assist the faculty in authoring, procuring, cataloging, and utilizing content to reduce the costly utilization of textbooks.
The handwriting is on the wall that those who pay for higher education (federal, state, and local government as well as employers, parents, and individuals) are much more interested in how effective a college or university is at helping its students graduate and get a job than they were 20 years ago. The digitization of course syllabi, along with the authoring, delivery, and analysis of content including assessments of learning, will aid the university in proving the effectiveness of its programs to regulators, employers, and accreditors.
Building such a system is well within the capabilities of most universities if all data is digitized. The bigger question is how many institutions see the future benefit and are willing to commit to develop an integrated system. I would enjoy exploring this topic with any experienced online educators who choose to comment.