The Future of Higher Education is Online—Let’s Do it Right

2020 has changed the face of higher education. Around the world, schools have closed their campuses and are switching to online learning during the Coronavirus pandemic. However, simply moving courses to a video platform will not produce engaged, successful students.


Take the lessons learned from the failures of the Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs took the best lecturers from the most prestigious universities in the world and made their courses available online. However, MOOCs only have a completion rate of about 4 percent, according to a 2019 study by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Clearly, just putting in-classroom content online doesn’t work.


We are now faced with a situation where nearly all instruction has moved online. Professors, students, and many administrators are, understandably, frustrated. Professors are not prepared for online teaching, students are not prepared for online learning, and universities are not prepared for online course delivery.


Online education is not simply improvising with the internet; it is a carefully designed and executed practice that requires technology and expertise. As President of University of the People, the first non-profit, tuition-free, American accredited online university, I’ve seen the power of online learning over the past eleven years.


We must use the lessons learned from effective online instruction to ensure that students and professors alike understand how distance education can work for them if it’s done right; otherwise, we risk the collapse of the future of higher education. At University of the People, we have offered to open our courses to any university, so their students can take our courses for credit. We also want to share our advice on what to consider when moving academic programs online.



1. How do you suddenly train faculty to become effective online teachers?

 Instructors must certainly be trained in the technical components of online course delivery; however, more important is understanding how to adapt their teaching methods for online learning. Instructors need to be available to help students in the online setting as they navigate the course materials and keep the class on schedule.



2. What tools do you need to help students adjust to learning online?

 Instructors must balance the instruction with human touchpoints in order to aid student success. Empathy, flexibility, and creativity are key. Personal attention, including live virtual office hours if possible, and providing timely feedback on written assignments are strategies to help keep students engaged. Universities must also make resources and student services available to students virtually, such as librarians, student advisors, and well-trained instructors.



3. What is the best format of online lesson plans to encourage student engagement?

Mastering subject matter alone is not enough; lesson plans must deliver an online course in an engaging manner that ensures that remote students are learning. Instructors should provide students with multiple modes of learning including online reading materials, multimedia content, peer discussions, and instructor feedback. Similar to face-to-face instruction, providing students with context, clear directions, and evaluation criteria around learning activities and assignments will increase engagement and help students understand what is required of them.



4. Why is group collaboration important for successful asynchronous learning?

Social interaction is a critical element of online education – students need a sense of collaboration and community, especially via distance-learning. Developing the social element, through peer-to-peer and collaborative learning, addresses the unique challenges remote students will face, such as motivation, self-discipline, and the ability to learn alone. The peer learning environment is an established best practice for high interaction, resulting in deep, transformational online learning.


Transitioning to online learning is an opportunity for universities and students to experience the future of education. We should do so using all the expertise available from those who already successfully deliver education online, which is why we are happy to help any university get there, especially during this challenging time.




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