COVID-19 and Online Education: Perils and Opportunities

By James J. Barney
Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor, do not represent the views of American Public University, American Public University System, its management, or employees. This blog article, written by a licensed lawyer, is intended solely for educational purposes, not to provide any legal advice or to solicit clients in any U.S. or foreign jurisdiction. This article should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state or locality.

In response to the coronavirus crisis, millions of students across the United States found their schools shuttered. To salvage the academic year, students at all levels used various conferencing systems and educational websites to continue their schoolwork.

Educators from brick-and-mortar institutions, who worked tremendously hard to provide students with a continuation of classes in this time of national emergency, deserve the country’s respect and commendation. Their stopgap measures and the conversion to “remote learning” prevented the cancellation of exams, a semester, or an academic year.

Unfortunately, media commentators have inaccurately described how these students continued their education “online” or how the schools were converted to “online education” during the pandemic. Not unexpectedly, the initial reviews of the stopgap measures employed by brick-and-mortar institutions, as exemplified by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, have not been favorable.

Mass Adaptation of ‘Remote Learning’ Seemed Like Online Education’s Moment to Shine

At first glance, the mass adoption of “remote learning” seemed like online education’s moment to shine and promised to alter education forever. However, the educational emergency measures sparked by the COVID-19 restrictions may paradoxically have an unintended consequence that commentators have not fully considered. Simply put, while students from shuttered brick-and-mortar institutions used technology to salvage their academic year, most did not engage in “online education.”

Improperly equating these commendable but hastily thrown together emergency measures to a properly constructed and delivered online course may cause long-term reputational harm to online education. The false comparison common in the media and among a large segment of parents and students may, in turn, give millions of students and thousands of educators a false sense of the nature and quality of online education. This false comparison must be combated by those who understand the difference.

While most brick-and-mortar schools have vowed to start the fall semester, some schools may have to revert to remote education for at least some portion of the 2020-2021 academic year as COVID-19 continues to spread over the United States. Schools must take measures now to mitigate the foreseeable damage to students by hasty stopgap measures.

For the best student outcomes, instructors at brick-and-mortar institutions must exercise the highest degree of flexibility, take the time to care for their students’ emotional and social needs, and seek the skilled advice of online professionals internally and externally.

K-12 Schools and Universities Adopted Stopgap Emergency Measures during COVID Closures

During this COVID-19 pandemic, K-12 schools and universities required students to use computers to continue their studies or to complete tasks on various websites. For example, some universities used platforms like teleconferencing and web-based conferencing to host lectures and classes.

These same institutions required students to take exams or complete assignments using computer programs or on educational websites. The use of technology to complete a school year in an emergency is not the same as pedagogically sound online education or a well-designed and delivered online course.

Some Online Education Practices Employed Have Been Widely Criticized as Ineffective

Some of the practices employed in online education, including using technology to remotely recreate the physical classroom, have been widely criticized as ineffective by online educators for several decades. Online educators who have reviewed students’ viewing patterns long ago concluded that the average student’s attention span is no more than a few minutes.

Thus, given the research into the attention spans of students, live-streaming multi-hour lectures or hosting extended conference calls make little sense. They may actually constitute a waste of time or be counterproductive, especially for pre-high school students.

While well-intentioned, many of the brick-and-mortar educators who continued their classes remotely opposed online education for nearly a generation. It is highly unlikely that these same educators, compelled by a new reality, provided their students with a truly rich and robust online experience.

Given all of these factors, students, parents, and educators should not evaluate the merits of online education based on their experiences with the emergency methods used to salvage the past academic year or semester.

Online Education Does Not Seek to Recreate the Brick-and-Mortar Experience

The best online courses draw upon an instructor’s subject matter knowledge and create an interactive experience with robust student-to-student and teacher-to-student interaction that does not seek to recreate the brick-and-mortar experience.

Properly constructed and delivered, online courses are often the product of years of experience as an online instructor, an online student, and subject matter expert. The creation of a pedagogically sound online course cannot be thrown together over a weekend or even over a few weeks. Instead, a skilled instructor takes years to learn the mechanics of online delivery and design with a clear understanding of the differences between online education and in-person instruction.

Online education is more than a platform for turning in and grading assignments and exams or for chatting in discussion boards. Instead, a properly constructed online course requires a tremendous amount of hard work by students and professors alike.

A properly constructed online course seeks to create a constant feedback loop between students and instructor that provides ample opportunities for instruction and meaningful interaction. This feedback loop is the heart of a properly constructed online course. But it can break down due to a collection of course design and delivery errors like constructing classes without robust opportunities for rich student-to-student and professor-to-student interaction.

Brick-and-Mortar Schools Can Adopt Reasonable Measures if Remote Learning Continues

As stated in a recent Brookings Institute article, the decisions of educational institutions in this time of crisis must focus on the needs and best interests of students. Educators thrust into this new reality can take several steps to minimize needless student stress, anxiety, and damage to their mental and emotional health if remote learning must continue into the new academic year.

First, educators must exercise the highest degree of flexibility and patience with students during this crisis as they attempt to gain their bearings in this new world. Students are likely to struggle for weeks to make the transition, and educators must have patience and flexibility because they are likely to encounter numerous obstacles.

For example, a significant portion of students, especially younger ones, may struggle with the technology to complete assignments, exams, and attend lectures. Other students may face a collection of other challenges exasperated by the rapid transition. Some percentage of students may not have access to computers, other technology or high-speed internet service.

Students might have to share their computers, internet service and space with other family members. Likewise, the parents of these students may be under tremendous financial and emotional stress caused by steps taken to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Given these factors, educators cannot pretend that nothing has happened in the world. Instead, they must acknowledge the barriers that a sizeable share of students and parents face and give students as much latitude as possible.

Second, educators must not forget how school is more than a collection of assignments, exams or reading lists. Instead, schools at both the K-12 and university levels also must provide rich professor-to-student and student-to-student interactions, mentorship opportunities, and extracurricular activities.

During the COVID-19 closures, schools and institutions largely focused on the continuation of studies. In doing so, they ignored the other roles that schools serve, causing possible long-term, serious harm to students’ mental and emotional well-being.

To supplement remote learning and mitigate possible harm to students, schools must encourage and maintain constructive interactions among students as well as between students and instructors. Moreover, brick-and-mortar institutions must try to recreate some extracurricular activities remotely.

For example, the Department of Student Affairs at American Public University System hosts dozens of clubs, professional organizations and student groups remotely. APUS’s model provides schools across the country with a template that brick-and-mortar institutions can adopt to provide student activities remotely if the crisis becomes the new normal.

In addition to recreating extracurricular opportunities, educators and other school professionals, including student counselors, must reach out to provide students with wellness checks, demonstrating that they care about their students and their needs. APUS has spearheaded a mentorship program that offers students meaningful, remote relationships with professors.

Mentorship does not have to end because students are not in physical classrooms. Even during a pandemic, instructors and school professionals must make sure that students do not miss meaningful milestones like deadlines for college financial applications or job searches. While these issues may not appear so relevant in a time of crisis, failure to keep students apprised of such deadlines may have a long-term impact on their lives.

Finally, instructors at brick-and-mortar institutions must recognize and acknowledge the fact that the methods used to salvage the prior semester or academic year were merely stopgap measures. To prevent a recurrence of the mistakes made during the spring crisis, brick-and-mortar institutions and their instructors should seek professional advice on how to create and deliver pedagogically sound online courses. Such help and advice will prove invaluable if the crisis continues into the new academic year.

It’s likely that the educational crisis sparked by the coronavirus may speed up the emergence of relationships between online institutions and brick-and-mortar institutions, as predicted by some before the COVID-19 crisis. Seasoned online instructors and institutions have years of experience that they can share with their brick-and-mortar peers regarding best practices and the construction and delivery of online courses. While most brick-and-mortar institutions offer online courses, fully online educational institutions like APUS have decades of institutional knowledge and experience to share based on their interactions with a large population of students in various academic disciplines.

Similarly, during the post-COVID-19 era brick-and-mortar institutions might provide online institutions and professors with a host of opportunities like study-abroad programs, visiting professor positions, and research opportunities. When the crisis ends, both brick-and-mortar and online professors and their respective institutions should forge stronger relationships that will provide students with the best educational outcomes using top-notch online practices. Such relationships might become even more important if the COVID-19 crisis were to change the educational landscape for a prolonged period.

COVID-19 Will Change the Educational Landscape for Millions of Students

While it is difficult to predict when the financial and public health crisis will end, it nevertheless will likely alter the educational landscape in foreseeable and unforeseeable ways. The unfavorable experience of “remote learning” may improperly shape the perspectives of online education for millions of parents and students as well as thousands of educators for a generation. To avoid such a result, online educators need to make sure that students, parents, and educators do not equate the emergency measures adopted to salvage the past academic year with properly constructed online courses taught by trained professors in online pedagogy.

For the sake of the millions of students and parents forced to continue their education via stopgap measures, one can only hope they take measures to mitigate the harm done to students. Specifically, educators must exercise the highest degree of flexibility and patience with their students, look out for their emotional as well as the mental well-being, and seek the advice of skilled online educators on the best practices in online course development and delivery.

Ultimately, there may be a silver lining to the mass experiment in “remote learning.” The experience may ultimately forge mutually beneficial relationships between brick-and-mortar and online institutions that previously considered themselves rivals. These synergistic educational relationships will provide students with better learning outcomes and richer academic experiences, both online and in-person.

Hopefully, the crisis may cause educators to question some of the previous sacred cows of education, including the utility of the lecture-based model. However, such positive outcomes are only possible if all stakeholders carefully navigate the crisis with the best interests of the millions of students at heart.

James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. In addition to possessing a J.D., James possesses several master’s degrees, including one in American foreign policy. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in History. James serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club and is the pre-law advisor at APUS.

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