Founder & CEO of Top Hat
Few institutions were prepared for the sudden shift to remote teaching prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the response has been a real mixed bag. We have seen many institutions embrace this new reality, meeting the challenge head-on by training and supporting educators. But we’re also seeing scrambled and knee-jerk attempts at replicating the traditional classroom experience, which will no doubt affect attitudes towards remote learning.
As the CEO of edtech company Top Hat, my focus for the last 11 years has been to support higher education institutions in evolving teaching strategies and adopting technologies that prepare students for a rapidly changing world.
But this is a moment in history when pure necessity is the driving force of change. Faculty and students are experiencing a lot of anxiety and stress during this crisis, largely connected to their forced adoption of new technologies in a very short period of time.
What impact will COVID-19 have on higher education beyond the next few months? Here, I discuss some potential long-term effects.
There is a general recognition that higher education has been on the verge of a structural crisis for some time, due to the rising cost of tuition and ballooning student debt. In fact, the latest figures show that student loan debt in the U.S. has surpassed $1.5 trillion. The sheer cost of higher education has created a burden that many people continue to bear even as they move into retirement.
Many instructors are forecasting that drops in international enrollment and state funding will force institutions to reconsider their business models. Remote teaching is an opportunity for colleges to scale up programs and scale down costs. If this pandemic persists, or comes and goes in waves, we may see higher education institutions alternating between blended learning models (instead of purely face-to-face in-class instruction) and fully online teaching.
We’ve known for some time that students thrive when they actively participate in the learning process. Traditional sage-on-the-stage lectures and static print textbooks don’t enable the level of interactivity required for effective learning. And now that classes have moved online, it has become even more critical to help students derive value from courses delivered remotely. This could mean organizing synchronous lectures, class meetings, and discussions for real-time engagement, and then extending that engagement through assigning interactive, immersive reading materials, media, and assessment questions.
Another challenge with teaching remotely is that it can be difficult for educators to determine how well students are understanding the material, identify students who are struggling, and see which topics need reinforcement. And as we’ve seen with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that run purely online like Coursera, leaving students in the driver’s seat 100% of the time will guarantee low course completion rates. As institutions begin thinking ahead to plan for a future that may require a portion of their curriculum to move online, they will need to consider course designs with student accountability in mind. For example, they can deliver content in a way that allows for regular check-ins, like assigning readings that are interspersed with questions, videos, and quizzes, to drive student engagement and improve learning and retention.
After the COVID-19 crisis subsides, every institution will have to think about their remote teaching strategy across all courses. Colleges and universities will need to invest in technologies that are able to withstand a variety of crisis situations, whether they are natural disasters, pandemics, or economic downturns. The institutions that will come out strongest are those that can cultivate flexible environments for learning online.
Right now, students aren’t expecting perfection and educators are doing their best to minimize disruption to education. We don’t know what the new normal will look like, but we can be pretty sure that many faculty members will no longer be able to limit their training to onsite lectures. I expect many educators will have a new sense of understanding and desire to adopt these recently acquired remote teaching techniques to enhance their instruction.
There are countless ways technology can help us connect with students at all times, not just in an emergency. Many edtech providers have stepped up to offer their services for free during this crisis and I fully expect that they will continue to find innovative ways to help institutions prepare for the future. Here at Top Hat, we’re making our entire active learning platform free for the rest of the semester. Educators are using our interactive digital content and tools to facilitate effective remote learning for synchronous (real-time) class meetings, asynchronous (recorded or self-paced) learning, and secure proctored tests and exams in a remote setting. And we’re going to continue to explore ways that we can support educators and institutions no matter what the future is going to look like.
The way educators and institutions look at technology has profoundly changed. Some learning scientists like Tracey Noel Tokuhama-Espinosa, Harvard University Extension School professor, believe online teaching will shape the future of education. “If it’s a high-quality online experience, online teaching is better than anything,” she says. “Currently, around 60 percent of people still think that online and face-to-face learning are equal. But the best learning, according to university students, is blended—when you have a little bit of face-to-face and a little bit of online.”
I believe a best-of-both-worlds approach provides students with new opportunities for learning and empowers educators with new methods to teach, ultimately ensuring students benefit from a more effective learning experience.
If there’s anything that emerges as the new normal in higher education, it may be that educators will hold onto these learnings and commit to exploring new ways to connect with their students beyond the classroom. Ultimately, doing so will help them become better instructors in the future, no matter what that new reality is.
Mike Silagadze Founder & CEO, Top Hat