Online Education in the Spotlight

By Javier Miyares, President of University of Maryland Global Campus

Editor’s Note: A slightly condensed version of the commentary was published in the Baltimore Business Journal on Friday, April 10, 2020.

The global spread of coronavirus disease and guidance from health officials to avoid groups and gatherings have disrupted routines on many college campuses and driven a shift to “online” classes.

Fortunately, this new environment is not as unfamiliar as it might have been for many faculty members and students only five years ago. Institutions like University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC)—the largest public university in Maryland—have been teaching online for decades and are now being called on to assist other schools’ transition to an instructional modality that has evolved dramatically since the Internet spawned the virtual classroom in the mid-1990s.

The days are long gone when “teaching” an online class meant posting a lecture to YouTube, and the stigma of online instruction as ineffective is finally and fully yielding to reality. As Vanderbilt University’s Tuan Nguyen wrote in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching,” “Taken as a whole, there is robust evidence to suggest online learning is generally at least as effective as the traditional format.”

And according to a Learning House, Inc. study, 85 percent of students who have experienced both in-person and virtual classrooms said they felt that learning online is as good or better than attending courses on campus. Thirty-seven percent actually felt it was superior.

And there are other advantages.

Advancements in education technology and the sophistication of learning management systems encourage and support dynamic collaboration and interaction with instructors and fellow students alike.

The analytical capabilities of modern learning platforms can drive student success by yielding valuable insight into patterns of engagement, student interaction, and progress toward completion, thus allowing faculty to identify students who might be struggling and reach out to offer support.

AI-based advancements in adaptive and competency-based online programs offer pedagogy, which can be personalized and adapted to students’ individual abilities and current knowledge, allowing them to both progress at a pace that best suits them and function in a more cognitively engaging environment, and positioning faculty to intervene more selectively and effectively.

Digital content that is readily accessible on the Web is being curated into Open Education Resources (OERs) and incorporated into online classes at no charge to students, eliminating the need for costly publisher textbooks.  (A study by Bay View Analytics highlighted in “Inside Higher Ed” found that faculty who adopted OERs rated their quality as equal to that of commercial alternatives.)

And the Open University in the U.K. found that virtual learning environments are better for the environment itself, determining that online courses “consume 90 percent less energy and [generate] 85 percent fewer CO2 emissions per student” than traditional face-to-face courses.

As students pack up their dorm rooms and scatter across the country to their homes, perhaps in different time zones, a key advantage of fully optimized online classes is their asynchronous nature. There is no set meeting time, and students can participate in discussions and complete assignments on independent schedules.

If worst-case scenarios play out around containing the spread of coronavirus, and students are unable to return to campus until the fall, some may take on jobs while studying online. The asynchronous format provides the flexibility to juggle their education and employment.

The online modality has evolved—and improved—because it is the only option for a growing number of students for whom attending a physical campus is impractical, impossible, or—perhaps more likely today—unaffordable.

UMGC, whose public mission has always been to educate adults in the workforce or the military, offered its first online classes in 1994. Back then, the technology was rudimentary at best and its reputation as lower quality persisted. Today, an entire area of pedagogy has evolved for teaching online that focuses on student-centered learning, as well as interactive, project-based activities.

The current crisis is pushing many institutions to “test drive” online modalities, rushing to have faculty teach remotely—there is a big difference between teaching remotely and fully developed online courses— while examining what works and what doesn’t for faculty and courses that might be new to online delivery. It also offers an opportunity to examine how institutions that don’t have a significant online presence can explore how they can better design traditional pedagogy for access and equity—and do it at scale.

What traditional universities are acknowledging by shifting to online classes—even if only temporarily—is that learning must continue, even when campus access is restricted, and online education is more than up for the challenge. In fact, it is now the preferred alternative and a natural fit for students who have grown up as “digital natives,” comfortable working, playing, and learning in virtual environments.