Designing the future of higher education — online learning is here to stay
The Justice interviewed Prof. Dorothy Hodgson (ANTH), the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, to find out more about prospective academic changes at Brandeis and how online learning will impact the future of higher education.
Like many students, I’ve spent the past year brooding over the switch to online learning that has replaced in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But after getting my vaccine last week and hearing about the hopeful return to mostly in-person instruction next semester, I realized that some part of me will miss attending a Zoom class with my camera off, bare-faced, while cozy under a blanket. Online learning has provided many students with more substantial conveniences and accommodations, such as allowing them to watch recorded lectures on their own time and when they felt best prepared to absorb the materials. In future non-COVID-19 times, will we be nostalgic and miss some elements of our experiences with online learning?
The last year of online education doesn’t just concern matters of convenience for students and teachers — it prompts the question of how educational institutions will move forward after making such significant changes. In an Oct. 17 Forbes article on the future of higher education post-pandemic, Glenn Llopis, a contributor to Forbes, said, “We're in the process of reinvention, whether we like it or not. Post-Covid will not look like pre-Covid[sic].” The Justice interviewed Prof. Dorothy Hodgson (ANTH), dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, via email on April 23 to learn more about how the structure of academics is changing at Brandeis. Hodgson's responses were informed and reviewed by Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Elaine Wong, Brandeis University Librarian Matthew Sheehy and University Registrar Mark Hewitt.
The University's March 16 statement regarding the plans for fall 2021 recognizes “many successful innovations” that have been taken advantage of this year that Brandeis plans to continue to implement in the future. According to Hodgson, these online innovations include using Zoom to connect with guest speakers, creating online discussion forums and navigating digital apps such as Perusall, all of which “facilitate student engagement with course content, one another, and course instructors [online].” Using Zoom to host guest speakers for events and classes has opened up an abundance of possibilities. “Zoom visits from guest speakers from around the world can enrich the curriculum in ways that faculty plan to continue in the future," she wrote. She explained the ease of booking “scholars, experts and artists from across the country and world, to participate in our classrooms and in our public lectures,” in which travel concerns no longer presented a barrier. Brandeis is unlikely to throw away the new educational tools it used during the COVID-19 circumstances — like many other educational institutions, Brandeis foresees a future that blends the advantages of physical and virtual academic experiences.
The online experience has also changed expectations involving academic assessments and appropriate ways of measuring the quality of student work. Expectations have changed in a multitude of ways, Hodgson explained. For instance, many classes have focused more on the application of reading and writing analytical skills as it remains difficult to monitor students during assessments. Many professors have allowed more time to take assessments and extensions have become more widely accepted. During COVID-19, traditional assessments for many classes were unable to suit students’ unique academic and learning environment needs, so faculty explored alternative forms of engaging with coursework. The effect of this is that previous standards for measuring student achievement have ultimately been disrupted and questioned. Hodgson explained that supporting students during the pandemic has not only enticed faculty to distribute “a wide range of assessments [and] approaches to student learning, such as replacing 'high-stakes' testing with forms of 'low-stakes' assessment,” but it has also opened up a discussion about “continued attention [toward] inclusive pedagogical methods” among professors and the Brandeis administration.
Is online learning as effective as learning in the classroom? According to an April 20 article by the World Economic Forum, students who engage in online learning actually “retain 25-60% more material compared to only 8-10% in a classroom” because they can learn faster online. In fact, according to research compiled by Techjury.net, a team of experts who test and review various technologies, “e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn … students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts … ” However, limitations to the extent of these studies exist in regards to scalability where larger groups learning the same topic seem to learn more effectively than those in smaller groups. The World Economic Forum article also notes that measures of effectiveness vary among different age groups, where age can play a role in whether online learning is effective for certain students or not.
Hodgson recognizes that for foreign language classes, in particular, the online format yields many benefits. Zoom classes not only provide a clear view of the teacher's face and mouth, which is helpful for pronunciation in learning languages, but Zoom breakout rooms allow students to easily be divided into smaller groups, providing them each with more individual attention and practice time. For these reasons, language professors and the deans have decided “some language classes will opt for remote teaching” even as in-person classes return.
As far as academic scheduling is concerned, Hodgson’s email stated that next fall students can expect a return to this semester’s modalities: 90-minute classes twice a week, with 30 minutes between classes, and with suggested 10-minute breaks within the 90-minute sessions. But there will also be class blocks that meet three times a week for one hour. “We have some hope that we might return to a modified pre-COVID block system in spring 2022, but with slightly longer breaks between classes, as both faculty and students have requested,” Hodgson said. Additionally, “the fall and spring 2021-2022 academic calendars will resemble pre-pandemic calendars” with their usual Thanksgiving, February and Spring breaks.
Although the pandemic has brought greater attention to inequalities within online education — including access to technology and stable internet services and learning while in different time zones — the future possibilities for online education have also opened up doors that could potentially reduce some inequity in higher education institutions. For instance, online education may have lost some of its initial stigma of being less legitimate and prestigious than the in-person format when colleges had to transition to fully online because of the pandemic. For many universities, this is pushing the boundaries of how we conceive the college experience, “[toward] an entirely location-agnostic hybrid model with no dependence on a centralized campus,” as stated in a Jan. 25 article by Politico. Opportunities for more students from various socioeconomic backgrounds to attend elite universities could increase if the costs of on-campus living expenses were eliminated and students had the option to attend fully online. Although this model is not yet an official practice incorporated by campus-centric private universities, this year of online-based education has sparked a global conversation among educators, journalists and business experts about online education’s inclusive and economically strategic potential.
The resilience of academic institutions has been tested this past year, and Brandeis along with other higher education institutions have demonstrated the capability of adapting student learning at any given moment. While a return to “normal” and traditional formats of learning and teaching may be desirable as the pandemic seems to wane, the University recognizes how critical it will be to continue applying a larger degree of online learning methods into higher education.