Did You Know? The Future of Online Learning

The overall success of online education is being hindered by the fact that some classes just aren’t meant for online instruction. If higher ed leaders can adjust online classes for the future, they may be able to build a collection of online course offerings that don’t make students dread them.

For example, Logyn Welborn, a junior at North Carolina State University studying fashion and textile design, told the Martin Center that her studio courses are redundant and poorly executed online. Students can’t interact with one another and it hinders their ability to immerse themselves in their projects.

On the other hand, Ansley Paris, a junior at NC State studying business administration and communications, has had a better experience. Paris told the Martin Center that the coding course she is taking has been extremely helpful as an online class. She said that the online format allows her to re-read her professor’s lectures as she completes her work. Paris said she preferred taking the class online rather than in-person.

The pandemic has taught students that some classes are better online, but others cannot be done without in-person learning.

If higher ed officials listen to students, they could create a strategy to keep the benefits of online learning while avoiding the negative consequences of the pandemic. What they can’t do is use the pandemic as an excuse to offer a worse education, blindly putting as many classes online as possible. Students have received a lackluster education that way.

“As long as universities don’t see this as an opportunity to move to more online classes (which I don’t approve of) I think education will be OK,” Anthony Solari, a political science professor at NC State and a lobbyist at the North Carolina General Assembly, told the Martin Center.

Knowing which classes work online and which don’t isn’t always clear-cut. Hands-on classes like textile design are obviously better in-person. Students need to touch the material and go through physical actions. But less hands-on courses don’t always work online, either. Political science classes rely on face-to-face interactions to encourage discussion and ask questions. Behind a screen, students are less engaged and less likely to dig into ideological differences. Students could read assigned materials and write essays responding to them, but social sciences and humanities courses are incomplete without student engagement on serious issues.

Other changes in higher education from the pandemic could go a long way. The short-run effects of COVID-19 are disruptive, but the long-term effects will be revolutionary, said John Zogby, an American public opinion pollster (and a relative of mine).

Zogby compared technological change today to the development of the printing press. While there were worries that the printing press would weaken memory, it made communication and sharing ideas easier. Society lost something but gained a greater store of knowledge to share with people in the present and the future.

Similarly, society today is trying to use new technology to be more flexible and adapt for the future. Higher education has struggled to adapt in this way and figure out how to use online classes or other technology in the lives of students, staff, and professors. The pandemic has accelerated the use of technology in education, and higher ed officials were unprepared for the challenges of the last year. The negative consequences of learning loss and social isolation were clear, but the future benefits of efficiency and flexibility could mean the costs weren’t in vain.

The current educational system, to some degree, is an “outmoded metric,” Zogby said. Colleges “are still conducting 19th-century agrarian-based schedules with little to no accommodation,” he noted. Zogby expects that the college of the future will not be a traditional classroom. He said he predicts “more teachers will be actual practitioners, while academics will be respected and wanted as mentors, [but] actual teachers should be those who have been proficient in the study.”

Zogby said that this transition will help students who need more individualized educational options. Zoom and other online portals can offer students convenient ways to meet online with their professors or teaching assistants during their office hours.

Universities in the future must be flexible and resilient to change in order to adopt changes in tech and society. Students who have been through good and bad online classes have experience that could help higher ed leaders, if they listen.

Megan Zogby is a Martin Center intern.