A New Era of Schooling: What Is The Future of Remote Learning?

Higher education’s shift toward digital has been a long time coming, but the coronavirus pandemic accelerated college life headfirst into the so-called “new normal.” What will school look like moving forward?

Online Education Graphic

With the school year fast approaching, college students across the country are making sure they have the tools they need for their first day of classes.

Among other things: a good internet connection and a comfy chair.

The coronavirus pandemic shifted the once-steady ground of higher education. Where there once existed classrooms and communal meeting spaces on campus, there were suddenly Zoom calls, breakout rooms and emails aplenty.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of undergraduate students enrolled in at least one remote learning (also called distance education) course was 97% higher in 2020 than before the pandemic in fall 2019 (11.8 million vs. 6 million). The number of undergraduate students exclusively enrolled in distance education courses was 186% higher in 2020 than in 2019 (7 million vs. 2.4 million).

“Of course, sometimes you have to adopt a terrible idea in an emergency. A lifeboat is not comfortable, but it is better than being eaten by the sharks.”
Russ Poulin, Executive Director, WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

But experts say the shift was a long time coming.

“What is clear is that while total higher education enrollment was declining from 2012 to 2019, the enrollments of students taking all their courses online and those taking at least one course online was increasing each year,” says Russ Poulin, the executive director for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, based out of Colorado.

In other words: “Students were already moving online; the pandemic pressed fast-forward on this move.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by those teaching in the trenches locally. Marsha Lovett, a teaching professor in the department of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University as well as the vice provost for teaching and learning innovation and the director of the school’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, says the shift to digital in a short span of time created “a unique inflection point.”

“Faculty were not just motivated to give technology a try as a form of innovation or professional development, they all had to learn these new approaches to fulfill their teaching responsibilities,” she explains.

This is not, however, necessarily a net negative. Lovett says the implementation of these technologies has benefitted the classroom in a range of ways. Faculty can invite guests from around the world to join their classes, so students have direct exposure to individuals they would likely never meet in person. Students have greater flexibility on where and when their education occurs, and students can also learn to use the skill of online collaboration — something that’s becoming more and more important for future careers.

In Uptown, Duquesne University was starting to implement some tech that would lend itself to HyFlex learning — that is, a model in which students can choose to attend class in-person or participate synchronously via Zoom or a similar software — even before the pandemic. This included classrooms equipped with multiple interactive screens, cameras and/or microphones. The benefits of HyFlex learning, supporters say, include the fact that students can better customize their learning to suit their specific needs, schedules and lives.

“When the pandemic hit, we expedited this process to implement HyFlex in every classroom on campus,” says David Dausey, Duquesne’s provost and executive vice president. “Many professors immediately took to HyFlex and expressed positive results. Some professors expressed concerns about the number of students that chose to mute their audio and video during their lectures.”

He also says some professors noted that this made it difficult for them to hold class discussions and engage in class activities. And even though students overwhelmingly enjoyed the flexibility and safety of online learning — and the HyFlex model, too — the shift hasn’t been without its share of growing pains.

While Poulin says that some students prosper and often do better with “hybrid” or “blended” modes — when some in-person time has been replaced with typically asynchronous online instruction — he is not a fan of the HyFlex model. In fact, he says that, except for in exceptional cases, HyFlex learning is generally “a terrible idea.”

“Teaching is a difficult task that takes great skill to be successful in one mode. Trying to teach in two modes at the same time is very difficult,” he says. “Many of the faculty were not fully developed in how to teach via Zoom. It is not their fault that they were thrown into a difficult situation on an emergency basis and that the experience was a negative one.

“Of course, sometimes you have to adopt a terrible idea in an emergency,” he adds. “A lifeboat is not comfortable, but it is better than being eaten by the sharks.”

“The pandemic highlighted the importance of in-person instruction and the critical need for humans to interact with one another in real life.”
David Dausey, Provost and Executive Vice President, Duquesne University

At Carnegie Mellon, Lovett says, most professors tend to prefer teaching in a single modality — either entirely online or entirely in person. Having everyone in the same modality avoids the challenge of tending to students across two different “channels.”

For some, the issue is balance. But for others, it’s more complex than that.

Professors across the country have struggled with finding ways to make their courses equitable in the wake of ongoing technological disparities, as many students lacked the resources to be successful in online courses. Students without a dependable laptop or Wi-Fi at home, for example, used to have access to public libraries or on-campus computer labs. But the pandemic shut those down. While many students enjoyed the option to attend school from their beds, others struggled to find a space at home that was suitable for schooling.

“I think one thing that did surprise many of us who have been in online education a long time was the extent of the challenges many students faced,” explains Deb Adair, the executive director of Quality Matters, a global organization leading quality assurance in online and innovative digital teaching and learning environments. “We have to work to provide equitable access to these things.”

Lisa Lambert, biology professor and assistant vice president of academic affairs at Chatham University, says some (but not all) of these equitability issues are being addressed at schools around the country, and that these issues “will continue to need attention as Zoom meetings become a daily part of instruction and the workplace.”

For Lambert, the incorporation of remote instruction and the HyFlex model was a double-edged sword. There were positive aspects — Zoom allowed students from all over the country and the world to participate on an equal footing for class registration and have access to faculty and staff — as well as negative aspects, including the loss of the spontaneity and creativity that comes when people are together in a physical space.

“One good thing about the pandemic is that it got everyone quickly up to speed with using Zoom. Being able to shift to online due to bad weather, for example, reduces disruptions in learning at the college or graduate school level,” she says. “Hybrid learning gives us one more tool to use.”

But she also adds that it can’t replace the energy of in-person learning.

“There are still many glitches that can interfere with smooth delivery and I have definitely seen that students are more easily distracted and less engaged when we shift from in-person to online. And there are still many types of learning that can’t be done remotely: using a scalpel, throwing a pot in ceramics, etc.,” she says. “I certainly wouldn’t want a nurse who had only learned to start an IV by watching a video.”

So what comes next? While the pandemic is not yet over by any means, universities, professors and administrators have begun to think about what the future looks like. The University of Pittsburgh saw record enrollment for the start of the school year in 2021, and Carnegie Mellon would recover to have a record-breakingly large freshmen class that year, too. (Both lost about 100 students from 2019 to 2020 in the first year of the pandemic, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times.)

“Students were already moving online; the pandemic pressed fast-forward on this move.”
Russ Poulin, Executive Director, WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

The general consensus is that these new technologies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“Institutions have made significant investments in educational technology over the last two years,” Adair says, adding that experts in the field anticipate an increase in digital modalities even as the pandemic wanes.

Similarly, Lovett thinks hybrid and HyFlex learning (which Duquesne is currently not offering in an official capacity, though professors can opt to utilize it) will continue, allowing more students to engage in a new, flexible type of education. For example, she says, more people may be able to be a remote or online student while holding down a full-time job, thus opening new pathways to education for a larger set of learners.

But fear not: We aren’t headed toward some sort of techno-future where we live, work and go to school in the metaverse. Experts say nothing can replace the value of in-person interactions — something so fundamentally human.

“The pandemic highlighted the importance of in-person instruction and the critical need for humans to interact with one another in real life,” Dausey says. “Some courses (and topics) lend themselves to digital learning better than others. Thus, digital learning will continue to grow but its growth will be limited by the reality that in-person instruction continues to have significant value.”

This also isn’t the first time technology has made its way into the classroom — and the classroom has always remained intact.

“I remember watching language videos in fourth grade many years ago on a portable TV — the ‘wave of the future’ they said,” says Lambert. “Online learning won’t replace the traditional classroom. It will be one tool among many.”

Categories: Education, From the Magazine, Hot Reads