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How can educational institutions successfully pivot to distance learning?

by Alison F. Rainey, AIA

As designers in the higher education space, we have seen online learning grow at a gradual pace over the past decade. Yet, since the COVID-19 outbreak, many institutions have had to abruptly move all their courses online. Our clients say they’ve talked more about online pedagogy in the past month than in the past ten years.  We know clients are weighing the possibility that they’ll need to continue their online offerings into the Fall semester as a safe return of students to campus is carefully evaluated.

This prompts us to ask some key questions: What will the student experience be like in a primarily virtual world?  How will these virtual students develop emotional intelligence and build rapport and collaborate with one another? What new pedagogy will facilitate this?  And how will remote learning impact each institution’s technology infrastructure, physical campus, traditions and culture?

When campuses do reopen, the online learning model will inform the on-campus, distance and hybrid teaching and learning intersection now and into the future. And as institutions develop and expand pedagogy for a virtual learning environment, these are some areas they need to consider.

Evaluate the distinction between online teaching and teaching at a distance

While the online teaching set up in response to the pandemic is acceptable for now, it is likely not adequate to carry institutions forward, as they prepare new programs, review their cost models and evolve their educational offerings. Online teaching has a well-defined pedagogy, is enabled by training in digital engagement methods and is supported with a consistent and robust infrastructure in place. In contrast, teaching at a distance consists of lecture capturing and broadcasting, likely on different virtual platforms, with tools like chat and email for engagement.

With this distinction in mind, we recommend our higher education clients:

  • Assess your current teaching model and identify what you can substitute, supplement and complement with digital technologies.
  • Identify whether to hold synchronous or asynchronous classes based on the class or program.
  • Let the pedagogy and content rather than technology drive the experience, then invest in an agile and simple user interface.
  • Place the needs of your remote learners first.
  • Identify necessary training that will enable faculty and students to move their teaching and learning online.
  • Develop and leverage partnerships to expand your institution’s capacity and knowledge base.


Consider the equity issues around a virtual learning environment

Online education can have a broader reach, but it is not all equal. In contrast to the campus and the physical classroom, which puts everyone on equal footing, “home” environments vary by student and can bring up differences and amplify inequalities. And the digital divide can prompt stress and anxiety. At the same time, virtual education can be delivered with greater flexibility and at a lower cost.

  • What special considerations are you giving to students with learning disabilities?
  • What other support systems–beyond zoom, chat and email–can you offer your students?
  • How can you utilize smartphone apps to create a common ground? Students are more likely to have access to smartphones than laptops and will depend solely on a smartphone if they don’t have internet access.
  • Is your online education cost-effective and delivery-efficient? For example, students can potentially complete their introductory classes online and transition to campus later, saving on room and board.
  • How can you bolster your IT system to support students’ basic technology needs? A recent study found that roughly 25% of students struggle with basic technology needs–broken hardware, data limits, or connectivity problems.

Gather and apply feedback for continuous improvement

A robust, anonymous feedback loop is critical to monitor successes and challenges, as well as to identify areas for improvement. Feedback from both students and faculty can pinpoint the differences between physical face-to-face classrooms and online education. To capture this information:

  • Enable and facilitate anonymous discussions around course design and delivery, evaluation methods as well as technology issues.
  • Use data points to inform future decision-making about which classes should be taught remotely, on campus or as a hybrid of the two.
  • Design the virtual learning experience for individual learning styles.

Recognize student success, health and well-being need more attention online  

Digital tools were created to improve productivity online rather than replicate in-person interactions and social experiences students have on campus. While these tools can forge connections across physical distances, they also make all activity screen-based and may cause mental fatigue and stress. Ultimately, online education should also engage emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning as well as balance the need for student services such as mental health counseling, financial aid, advising, tutoring, career counseling, library resources, to name a few.

  • How are you enabling your student remote access to success services? This is especially critical for vulnerable and disadvantaged students.
  • How are you monitoring mental health of individual students and providing necessary counseling virtually?
  • How are students developing social skills and forming friendships in an online environment?
  • How are electives, sports, special interests and engagement, to name a few social activities, occurring?

As education becomes increasingly more virtual, it is important to keep it human through compassion, kindness, curiosity and acknowledgment of the new normal.

Cultivate a learning culture

Prior to the pandemic, a very small percentage of academics preferred to teach in a completely virtual environment, perhaps due to limited experience, comfort with technology and motivation to change behavior. Yet technology and pedagogy can be altered and transformed at a faster pace than culture changes. It’s an Intellectual and strategic exercise, whereas changing behaviors is an emotional one and more difficult to achieve. Therefore, institutions can focus efforts here to create a learning culture, while supporting and empowering all their people—students, faculty, administrators, and staff alike.

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