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Key Lessons From University Leaders Driving Innovation in Online Learning

Article by edX Online Campus

Online learning has never been more critical to the success of higher education than it is today. Since COVID-19 began, the departments and teams that deliver innovation and resources for online learning are in high demand. In June 2020, edX convened a Virtual Forum of its more than 150 partner institutions to discuss challenges and solutions for higher ed in today's environment. One panel featured the leaders of these units for a conversation about leveraging the full breadth of their knowledge, resources, and partnerships to meet their university's online learning needs.

In this post, we share some of the key takeaways from the discussion, including:

  • Why blended learning will be a key component of teaching and learning beyond the pandemic
  • How to leverage faculty creativity, expertise, and enthusiasm to drive initiatives forward
  • The importance of cultivating an organizational digital cultureBlended Learning is Here to Stay
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Blended Learning is Here to Stay

When our Virtual Forum panel of experts was asked “...of all of the changes academic institutions are implementing during the COVID-19 crisis, what will stick once we get to the other side?”, the use of blended learning approaches was unilaterally identified as a long-term solution, especially in creating more access and mobility for students. Where previously most panelists experienced some resistance to online learning in their institutions, now, they report a shared vision of a future where online resources are an essential part of the student learning experience.

For instance, while the Universitat Politècnica de València has an established history of incorporating online content into classes and as standalone offerings, those blended approaches were primarily the domain of campus innovators and special programs. Now, UPV MOOC Initiative Coordinator Ignacio Despujol sees concerted, institution-wide change management happening for broader adoption and long-term business continuity.

“Blended learning is here to stay. And I really think that it was already coming before the pandemic, but a lot of people didn't know. Now, the lockdown has forced the adoption of online learning and doing so has broken the resistance of people to use it and the tendency to do things as usual, we are usually very comfortable doing things as usual. We have been managing the emergency and now we need to make it a successful management of the change. I think that we need to get the good things of both worlds and keep the best of what works for the education of the future,” Despujol said.

Erle Lim, Associate Provost at the National University of Singapore (NUS), echoed a transformation from some resistance to a new broad acceptance of the opportunities blended learning presents.

“I've been involved in online learning for about four years now at our university and although I've managed to make strides in getting people to be interested, I’ve been sort of approaching the committed people who are willing to do a good job. COVID 19 has changed it completely. Suddenly everybody was forced to go online and even the most Luddite among us started to embrace it a little. To me, the most important thing is this hybrid face-to-face model. There's no way you can have a fully face-to-face model ever again, because if you think about how when we work, when we study, even if you're sick, you just come to campus because you don’t want to miss out. I think we'll need to always have some kind of online presence so that people will not be afraid to miss classes… Online and flipped, blended, is the way to go We need to band together and work on getting this right,” Lim said.

This more flexible access—the ability to take courses outside of the classroom—goes beyond missing a class due to illness. At Rice University, the idea of student mobility is a key tenant of the power and value of blended learning.

“What I would also predict will stick is a greater student mobility. One thing that we did this summer at Rice is we launched all of our summer sessions entirely online. And what we learned is our students had a great appetite for that. So we couldn't see a model where Rice classes are something that our students can’t access wherever they are all over the world, doing internships or other kinds of research projects,” said Caroline Levander, Rice University Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Digital Education.

Engage Faculty in Finding Creative Solutions

Faculty are inextricable to the creation of successful learning experiences, and online is no exception. Many of the panelists cited leveraging and encouraging faculty advocates as key drivers of creative, effective solutions for structuring and integrating online learning.

“Pre COVID Stanford and many other institutions were working with 20% of its faculty to produce online content. During COVID that number went to 100%. The opportunity: how can we help the 80% of faculty to improve their first time experience? And for the 20% of faculty who are experts how can we push the boundaries around pedagogy and communities online so that in the end, the learners really benefit?” said Paul Marca, Associate Vice Provost of Strategy, Programs, and Development, Office of the Vice Provost for Technology and Learning at Stanford University.

It’s the creative solutions driven by these faculty advocates that Ulrike Wild, Programme Director Online and Open Learning at Wageningen University, sees as pathways towards solutions that will truly stick.

“We all know that there is so much more to offer for designing the best learning experiences than just meeting face-to-face in different ways. What I think, and what I see happening, is actually the teachers now get more and more used to the digital tools and methods and with it they discover interesting options. They find creative solutions and I'm really positive that once they find the creative solutions, they will stick to that. One teacher told us, when you go back to the campus, really think about what you really cannot do online, where it's obvious and added value what you should do on campus,” Wild said.

Regardless of the extent to which faculty seek to deploy online courses in the classroom, an increasing number are seeing access to more digital content as additive to faculty facilitation and the overall experience. By using ready-made digital content, lectures, assessments, and other work can happen outside of class. Instructors can tailor their level of course facilitation to their specific needs and spend more time on student support and mentorship, individualized attention, reinforcing ideas, and helping those who are falling behind, while others continue to progress without impediment.

A Culture of Digital is Essential

Many panelists shared the value of having cross-departmental collaboration and an organizational culture around digital learning during the sudden shift to online from the pandemic, as well as for digital transformation moving forward.

At New York University, Nasir Memon, Vice Dean of Academics and Student Affairs cited the value of tight collaboration and understanding between digital and on-campus departments in place prior to the pandemic.

“One of the, maybe not unique, but slightly different situations we had at the Tandon School of Engineering was that our online programs and classes were not separate only for online students. There was no firewall between the two student bodies. There were many of our classes which were online and offered to on-campus students and many classes which had a mixture of the two, on-campus and online students jointly in the class. So that meant that they were a large number of faculty who had experience, who had taught in this mode before. It also meant that our teaching and learning innovation group, which mostly dealt with on-campus learning, were tightly collaborating with the online group that we had. That communication between the two allowed us to transfer that knowledge very quickly and have a united front as we helped faculty who had not taught online before,” Memon said.

From her experience at Rice University, Levander discussed the needs and benefits of having champions for digital transformation in key positions.

“I think one of the biggest transformations to my leadership because of COVID was a result of a paradigm shift in how the entire university communities—students, faculty, trustees, staff—suddenly understood digital strategy, which is what I'm responsible for. I think before it had been understood as a peripheral activity of the university and it was transformed from peripheral to mission critical and that transformation was immediate. I think it's irrevocable for the next year and even beyond. That recognition has transformed faculty's teaching and students' awareness of how to be in a classroom. I do think that my role as institutionally bilingual has been very helpful as well to transformation leadership. The fact that I'm a faculty member as well as a vice president means that I really understand the challenges of building an online class and sustaining student community and success remotely,” Levander said.

While many colleges and universities around the world considered the pandemic an isolated, historic event requiring novel and perhaps short-term approaches, at the National University of Singapore, Lim recognized it as a moment for further progression, and even opportunity.

“Well, if you consider this lucky, Singapore had the first pandemic in 2003 with SARS. We were one of the first countries to be hit and we were taken completely by surprise. But the funny thing is that even after that, it took a few years for us to actually start mandating online preparedness. So from 2007, we've had a week of compulsory E-learning where the whole university goes away from campus. So that's actually a synchronous learning experience, but we've also been exploring blended learning and MOOCs. The interesting thing for us is that we saw COVID, as disastrous as it was, as an extinction event. So like the dinosaurs, if we're not going to evolve, we will be destroyed by this meteorite. So we said let’s evolve. The whole university got together,” Lim said.

Finally, Wild underscored the importance of empathy and trust as higher education professionals continue to navigate a path forward.

“When people who have very different backgrounds suddenly work very closely together under high pressure, you have to invest a lot into building trust and psychological safety, which is necessary to encourage concerns and ideas and make sure that you admit the uncertainty and make sure you move forward. Another important ingredient I recognize now is you have to really give attention to everybody, because on top of everything, we suddenly changed our working mode. Remote is not something everybody has been used to. You can easily forget it if you are behind a computer. So it was really valuable and it still is to give a high degree of attention to everybody and make sure everybody's in good humor, safe, and positive,” Wild said.

Forging a Path Toward Digital Transformation

As academic institutions around the globe continue to face common challenges head on, learning from each other will remain crucial to success. Subscribe to the Online Campus newsletter for the latest expert insights and advice and learn more about how colleges and universities are effectively integrating and structuring online learning experiences in our webinar, Transforming the Higher Ed Classroom.

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