Texas A&M’s rapid transition to all-virtual content delivery back in March was a herculean effort worthy of praise. Generally speaking, administrators were able to prevent any technology-related catastrophes. From IT workers to professors, all staff members worked tirelessly through the early stages of the pandemic to foster continued access to learning. Unfortunately, not every student successfully transitioned, with some even considering postponing their studies until the pandemic ends. The above struggle of many students illustrates the fundamental problem with the virtual delivery method A&M employed (known as remote learning). It is a stopgap measure that seeks to replicate the style and structure of a face-to-face classroom, but consistently fails to generate the same level of learning. Professors often attempt to continue their typical classroom lecture and examination procedures in an online setting. However, due to differences in attention span and the number of surrounding distractions, this form of instruction is no longer useful. While this reduction in learning is acceptable in the event of an emergency, it cannot sustain a healthy society in the long-term.
However, this does not mean we should avoid the use of technology altogether. COVID-19, for better or worse, has changed the world's relationship with technology, and educational institutions must adapt to remain competitive. For this reason, colleges should expand online learning (which, unlike remote learning, is designed specifically for the internet), not to replace face-to-face education, but to supplement it. Not only is online learning a vast improvement over remote learning, but there is increasing evidence that (when conducted properly) online learning performs as well as or better than face-to-face instruction. A&M has a unique opportunity to innovate in this field and should act proactively and immediately to build the necessary infrastructure before the next crisis inevitably arrives.
But what can A&M do to improve online learning? Administrators can increase student agency, mandate training in online instruction and tie online learning into a student’s chosen career path.
First, the more agency students have in their education, the more online learning outcomes will improve. While college students have a reputation for requiring a firm structure for academic success, data tells a different story. A large meta-analysis found that students who can choose their preferred course delivery method score better on their midterm and final exams than students who had their approach randomly assigned. By offering multiple delivery options for the same course, A&M would enable Aggies to select the method they feel most comfortable with. This would ensure that students are more engaged and attentive as the semester progresses. Every student is different and has a unique learning style. However, with the help of technology, A&M can ensure all Aggies have the tools and resources they need to succeed.
Second, for an online learning environment to run smoothly, instructors should be adequately trained in its operation. While many necessary skills for teaching face-to-face will translate to an online platform, other competencies (such as discussion board moderation, technology management and multimodal instruction) have to be taught from the ground up. Admittedly, mandatory training would be an added burden on instructors, but it does not need to be a significant burden. University-funded platforms such as edX offer dozens of free or low-cost instructor training and certification courses, ranging from coding to online study habits. If A&M is serious about investment in online education (and they should be), mandating the completion of a training course would facilitate more significant learning for students. Moreover, it would make A&M's online experience a match for any other university in the country.
Third, online learning should tie into a student’s desired career path, offering them the tools they need to succeed. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses, from restaurants to law offices, are integrating technology into their day-to-day operations. For many post-pandemic industries, knowledge of Microsoft Office alone won’t impress potential employers and new graduates will have to be more tech-savvy than ever before. There are few better places to develop new technological skills than an online learning environment, especially if the source is in a STEM field or related to research methods. A&M has already done an excellent job of integrating skills such as coding in majors where one wouldn’t expect it, but this should only be the beginning. By combining this emphasis in computing skills with online learning, we could fill the future Aggie Network with well-rounded people — a valuable skill set to every industry.
Our collective relationship with technology, particularly in the context of education, will never return to the pre-COVID days and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Through the development of online learning, A&M has an opportunity to define the future of higher education. With adequate policy, the university will fill that future with independent, self-motivated and highly skilled Aggies ready to take their place in the world, and that’s just good bull all around.