An instructor teaches students remotely.

Leveraging Online Content in Higher Ed: Your Top 5 Questions

Article by edX For Business

An instructor teaches students remotely.

As academic institutions around the world prepare to transition to new models of teaching and learning next term and beyond, many face the same core challenges and questions around effectively integrating and structuring online learning experiences.

In our recent webinar, Transforming the Higher Ed Classroom, we brought together experts to discuss the ever-important role online content and digital resources will continue to play in student experience and education delivery. Panelists and attendees echoed a few common themes, which we explore below.

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1. Can online learning really replicate on-campus engagement and experiences?

This is one of the first questions that many people ask, but it isn’t necessarily the right one. A more effective way to approach student experience for online learning is not to directly replicate on-campus models, but to rethink learning altogether, and leverage the unique strengths and opportunities online environments offer. Online content can deliver effective, engaging experiences to students while not replacing faculty, but enabling them.

There are many tools in online learning platforms like edX that facilitate engagement, from discussion forums to assessments, and the modular structure of the courses themselves is designed to engage and motivate students. Using Online Campus platform tools, you can even quantitatively measure engagement, with the ability to track and evaluate student progress.

Instructor presence—the human connection faculty create with students—however, is still important to consider. On campus, the informal interactions that build presence and connections come naturally. Online, it must be more thoughtful and deliberate. For example, instructors may invite students to log into video calls early to replicate pre-class chats or email students to check in and ask how they’re doing.

To truly build an engaging experience for both students and faculty, think about: What does online do better and where is in-person truly necessary? Some instructors leverage ready-made digital content through Online Campus in a “flipped classroom” approach, optimizing their time to engage and support students and using online content as an out-of-the-box digital lecturer and textbook and the edX platform as an assessment tool.

2. How are online courses designed differently?

True, impactful online content is much more than a video recording of a lecture. Online learning is a unique environment with its own distinct strengths and opportunities for engagement.

Key building blocks for robust online learning experiences include elements of social and collaborative learning (as discussed above), in addition to flexible, student-paced learning, universal design for learning and accessibility, and more.

Active learning is a critical attribute for online learning that results in skills and knowledge that are retainable and transferable. It’s a well-known approach to designing a learning experience that pairs course material with application, feedback, and reflection. The edX platform was developed with active learning theory at our core; our learning experience design team works with university partners to develop and deliver impactful learning content at scale, leveraging insights from what we have learned in the last 10-15 years about how learning happens online and data from millions of learners taking actions within edX courses.

3. How do you teach technical subject matter online?

Online platforms are a great tool for teaching technical subject matter. Technical fields such as computer science, data science, and others change so quickly that curriculum must be able to be agile to keep up, making the flexibility of online learning a great fit. The increased availability of high-quality online courses in technical subjects also helps institutions that may not have the resources to offer on-campus instruction in those areas to create accessible opportunities for their students to learn these subjects, many of which are pathways to some of the highest paying, most resilient jobs.

The opportunity is clear, but to the nature of the question, what does instruction look like for these complex, sometimes hands-on subject areas? Teaching technical content does require practice and application. Instructors create living labs online by using free resources, commercial kits students order and ship to their homes, and even household items to demonstrate concepts. The C Programming with Linux Professional Certificate program from DartmouthX and IMTx, for example, uses two open source learning environments to remove the most common barriers to beginner coders and provide rich, formative feedback to learners in real time, at scale.

Learn more about the tools and techniques of online instruction and bust the myths about online learning lacking quality, rigor, and engagement in our webinar Teaching Online for Absolute Beginners.

4. How can you create real student value with online learning?

Beyond the necessary, sudden shift to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, experts predict that many of the solutions and directions academic organizations are turning to will stick and become not just short-term, emergency solutions but long-term pathways towards resilience and success. Both faculty and students benefit from the ability to blend online content into instruction, freeing up faculty time to provide individual attention to those who need it and students the ability to learn at their own pace.

Online learning also creates opportunities to offer more subjects to students and modular learning experiences that help build customized skill sets, increasing job prospects and career mobility. For example, in response to COVID-19, the University of Iceland used modular courses through Online Campus to offer diverse, custom programs to students and citizens looking to bridge skills gaps, make career changes, or better position themselves in the job market. Faculty from the University created a final graded assignment for students to complete based on the modular content used within the program, giving students a flexible, hybrid learning opportunity.

Ultimately, online learning increases access. Students who face geographic, financial, and time challenges are able to access knowledge and credentials that provide value right away from trusted, high-quality instructors and institutions.

5. What are the next steps to exploring and implementing a hybrid or blended model?

While experts agree that blended learning is here to stay, the path towards an effective, sustainable model can feel daunting. A question many of our webinar attendees, from provosts to faculty, asked was what this path looks like, and how they can support their institution in moving forward.

To truly make the most of online learning, it takes a holistic digital approach: rethinking delivering education and supporting learning from how classes are scheduled to how instructors teach to how tests are administered. Connect with our Online Campus team to learn more about how to envision and implement digital transformation at your organization.

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