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By Frederick Singer
May 18, 2020
Kiersten Essenpreis for Money

Purdue University, University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University, and more than two dozen other colleges are now facing lawsuits from students who are demanding tuition refunds after the spread of coronavirus forced many institutions to finish spring classes entirely online.

That frustration will only grow as campuses struggle to safely reopen in the fall, with many already saying they will likely remain online in some form next semester.

The pandemic has essentially unbundled the value package of higher education, exposing the relative importance of each of its individual components: social experiences, exposure to innovative researchers, extracurricular activities, and classroom learning. As most of those components fall away, leaving only a digital facsimile of the classroom experience, parents and students are asking themselves if another semester online is really worth as much as $40,000 or $50,000 a year.

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In the wake of the pandemic, many colleges understandably resorted to an emergency teaching protocol of sorts, mostly relying on video conferencing. These tools are a great way for staying in touch, but they are an insufficient tool to replicate the real teaching and learning experience. Far too many schools are trying to repurpose existing lesson plans over Zoom. Communication is not the same as learning.

The good news for parents is that it’s not only possible for online learning to match the quality of face-to-face instruction, it can even surpass it when done well.

As the founder of a company that helps faculty create more engaging learning experiences — off- and online — I’ve spent the last decade observing the learning data generated by faculty using technology creatively all over the world. And as a father of three high school and college-age sons, I know firsthand the frustration of watching your child’s interest in learning wane with growing Zoom fatigue.

Here are five markers parents should look for in a high-quality online program.

Faculty Prioritize Interactions With Students

The strategy currently being used by many institutions looks a lot like what happened within the news industry in the 1990s. Newspapers, at first, took their print edition and placed it on the internet as is. The result was a product that readers and advertisers felt less and less compelled to pay for.

In print editions, the articles were the primary point of interest, but as the internet allowed for new ways for readers to interact with the news, that value shifted. Newspapers quickly learned they had to prioritize interactivity, launching comment boards and forums alongside the news. Instead of trying to replicate an existing experience, they had to take advantage of the specific benefits that come with moving to an online version. Today, we see how that original insight into readers’ desires to express their opinions is the foundation of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter. It’s a lesson institutions should be learning as well.

Online learning allows faculty to enhance their lessons with interactive features that can keep students paying attention and engaging with the material. Good online programs do not just ask students to absorb information but encourage them to ask questions and explore. This could take the form of answering questions at the end of a learning module, hyperlinking to additional materials such as interesting YouTube videos, or asking students to respond with video and audio assignments of their own.

Class Isn’t Bound By the Course Schedule

One of the greatest assets of an online course is its flexibility. Online learning allows students to study on their own schedule. This is even more important as students are learning from home and across several time zones. To restrict an online course to the kinds of pre-fixed blocks of time necessitated by classroom schedules is to ignore one of online learning’s most powerful benefits.

The flexibility of online programs is why they have been so popular with adult learners, and why a large majority of online courses for the past decade are asynchronous or pre-recorded. Many students have other obligations outside of school, including work and family responsibilities. This may be especially true now, as coronavirus disrupts childcare services, careers, and financial circumstances. Institutions that do not recognize this benefit do not understand the real power of online learning.

Content is Bite-Size for Online Attention Spans

Online class materials should be delivered in shorter bite-sized pieces. Given students are not forced into classrooms at an appointed time, the size of lessons and materials should match what is known about social media behavior and attention spans online.

Rather than static 45-minute lectures on a screen, students want shorter modules, or “learning objects,” that include some type of interactivity. This requires greater preparation by the instructor. They must focus on the types of questions students will want to ask, and how they will react to the material in real time. Teaching online becomes preparing more for a conversation, rather than a one-way imparting of information. But it will yield better engagement among students.

Students Remain Connected With Peers

Though it is often misused, video conferencing does have an important role to play in online learning. Repurposing and distributing live lectures through video conferencing tools will never be as good as the real thing. Nobody wants to learn alongside a tic-tac-toe board of 30 other students, and chances are many students are going to just turn their cameras off anyway. The experience is far closer to a conference call than a classroom.

But the tools can be used to great effect in smaller sections and breakout sessions, allowing students to stay connected with one another. As students are spread far and wide, video conferencing tools can be an effective way of fostering peer-to-peer learning, an important aspect of keeping students engaged. Students who may be reluctant to participate in a large class may learn through talking with their peers via smaller breakouts. Great online programs know the difference between using these tools in ways that encourage engagement and ways that push students away.

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Learning and Engagement is Measured in Real-Time

With online learning, institutions have access to unprecedented insights into student performance. Online platforms can track students’ engagement with, interest in, and understanding of what’s being taught. The best programs are also constantly measuring the feedback loops between students and teachers, and determining, in real-time, how students are performing. Are they taking notes, showing confusion about materials, or testing well on assessment questions?

Strong online programs encourage instructors and advisors to dive deeply into how students learn and how they react to specific materials — and then adjust the curriculum to make it better. This is the ultimate feedback loop, and where online can be even better than face-to-face learning. So often, in analog classrooms, faculty receive little insight into student engagement or reaction to course materials.

As institutions head into the fall and the shock of this derailed semester fades, parents should expect more because the technologies and best practices already exist. Even with the recent lawsuits, most students and their families have been remarkably patient with higher education’s response so far, but only because they view it as a temporary band-aid during a sudden and difficult transition. They will expect much more as an emergency response transforms into the norm. Demanding that institutions possess and understand these five markers will help parents ensure the education their students receive is still worth the price tag.

Fred Singer is CEO of Echo360, a founder of WashingtonPost.com, and the father of three high school and college students.

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