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article imageQ&A: As Colleges move classes online, is this value for money? Special

By Tim Sandle     Sep 5, 2020 in Technology
Hundreds of colleges have reversed or altered their reopening plans in recent weeks announcing both online courses and close campuses for the new school year. How good are these courses and do they represent value for money?
As schools face rising demands for tuition rebates, increased aid and leaves of absence, Gordon Drummond, President of Sessions College for Professional Design tells Digital Journal what is needed for educators and students to navigate through these uncharted waters. Drummond considers how to evaluate the price of online education and what elements need to be factored in.
Digital Journal: What are the differences between in-person and online education models?
Gordon Drummond: It may not feel like it due to the rapid deployment of remote learning during the COVID-19 crisis, but there’s actually a tremendous diversity in online education. Online education offers a limitless array of options for delivering instructional content to students and just as many exciting technologies for student-instructor interaction. The question for online institutions is: how will you use this technology? To create an effective online program, teachers and administrators need to specifically think about how to design their courses to be effective online, which may require rethinking how they deliver content, how students and faculty communicate, and how they develop and assess the skills they want students to learn.
DJ: How do you give students individualized experiences and foster connection remotely?
Drummond: If some students are feeling isolated in online classes right now, that’s unfortunate, because online education can provide highly individualized experiences. Many schools that are new to online are simply replicating the traditional classroom model in Zoom, by asking a large group of students to sit there and listen to an instructor presentation. This “sage on the stage” model doesn’t help students feel connected to the instructor or what they are learning. (If anything, it’s more alienating than sitting in a classroom, where you have the chemistry of live interaction with other people.) In my experience, online education is much more individualized, and much more effective, when institutions commit to providing one-to-one instruction and feedback, and when they structure meaningful learning around collaborative projects or discussions that foster peer-to-peer interaction and learning.
DJ: How do you approach different learning styles?
Drummond:It’s important to diversify the way that instructional content is delivered because different people learn differently. In its early iterations, the concept of learning styles which emerged in the 1980s promoted the idea that students should be divided into groups based on their learning styles and that each group should be taught differently. Nowadays it’s generally acknowledged that learning styles are fluid and hard to diagnose. Truth be told, many of us may be visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners! At my institution, our solution is to diversity the delivery of instructional content so that we can engage learners with each style. Our students learn by reading, by seeing, by listening, by watching—and most importantly, by doing.
DJ: What is the role that data science can play in improving education?
Drummond:Data science can play a critical role in education, provided it is used in support of educational goals. In online education, analytics tools like Aspire’s Dropout Detective software can use real-time data to help teachers and institutions identify student risk factors that you would never notice in a traditional classroom. Dropout Detective uses an algorithm to identify at-risk students based on multiple data points, including grades, number of late assignments, last login, and so on. In our institution, we use this data to deliver extra advisor or instructor support to students who need it, in the service of helping more students graduate and meet their goals. At the same time, it’s important to realize that effectively using data science in education is not about automating education or replacing instructors. It’s about giving your faculty more tools to succeed.
DJ: What operational systems do you think are the best support for an online platform?
Drummond:The online education has gone through several iterations in its development and remains a diverse space. The core systems for any online institution are a Learning Management System (LMS), which is used to manage the delivery of content and instruction, and a Student Information System (SIS), which used to manage course registration and student records. Typically, institutions integrate the two systems because there is no one platform currently that handles both aspects. In the LMS arena, a range of widely used platforms such as Canvas, Blackboard, and Brightspace dominate the market, but some institutions have developed their own systems. In my experience – our institution uses Canvas, and it is our third LMS – it’s really important to find a platform that offers usability, reliability, and room for customization. It’s essential that any third-party learning technology can continually evolve to respond to user needs, to changes in internet standards, and to the unique needs of your institution.
DJ: What do you think the advantages of online learning are? What are the disadvantages?
Drummond:At its best, online learning provides a more accessible and affordable way to develop new skills or get an education. For many years, it’s been a great solution for busy adult learners looking to retrain, advance their careers, or earn a credential. Nowadays, more traditional college age students are experiencing online learning as part of their regular programs. According to the Babson Group, 1 in 3 college students took at least one course online, before COVID-19. As a result, there is an increasing acceptance of online education as a viable alternative in the general population. At the same time, one disadvantage of online learning is that it requires the investment of considerable expertise and imagination to effectively adapt any class or program for online format. For example, most fully online schools and colleges utilize instructional design teams to give the faculty support they need to ensure courses are both engaging and effective from a pedagogical standpoint. Traditional schools don’t always have those resources, which is one reason that we’ve seen mixed results from schools going online during COVID-19.
DJ: Do you think its fair for students to be paying full tuition for schools that are typically in-person and are now going online this autumn?
Drummond:It’s understandable that some students are frustrated to be paying full tuition for in-person schools that have gone online. First, in-person schools have – understandably – experienced major challenges adapting their courses and programs to online delivery, so the classes may not be as effective as they should be. Second, the tuition we pay at traditional schools is used to support a wide range of activities and services beyond the classroom, such as campus events, sports teams, semester abroad programs, and so on. When some of those services are no longer available and the tuition remains the same, it’s natural that some students feel they are not getting what they paid for.
DJ: How do you think the increased demand for online learning is going to shift education trends?
Drummond:From a public health and safety standpoint, it’s likely that many more education consumers will consider online learning as an alternative to traditional programs, particularly in higher education. If the COVID-19 crisis continues into 2021, more students and parents may consider fully online, accredited institutions as a safest option, and the best qualified option for delivering a high-quality online program.
How do you ensure that students get the full college experience still while most colleges are shifting to online?
The goal of online education is not to replace the traditional full college experience, but instead to provide a more accessible and affordable alternative with the same high-quality education, delivered online. One big change in the education landscape is the shift towards more non-traditional, post college age students attending college or taking programs to earn skills and credentials. In a time of constant evolution of the job market, adult learners don’t seek the full college experience; they need flexible and timely education options to upskill for today’s digital workplace.
DJ: Which education trends do you think will fade out and which ones will stay?
Drummond:Personally, I hope that the COVID-19 crisis can lead to a healthy reexamination of what we expect from our education system, particularly with regard to online education. In the last ten years, there has been a massive debate about how to encourage innovation in higher ed, and unfortunately, many have assumed that only organizations outside of education are capable of rethinking education. Pre-COVID, for example, we saw a lot of excitement about MOOCs (massively open online courses) and bootcamps (intensive, expensive technology training programs), but for different reasons, neither of those options seem capable of addressing our larger education needs in the United States.
From my perspective, there is a lot of innovation within online education, with many high-quality schools and school systems emerging to offer consumers a real choice. In a post-COVID world, I would predict that more students will consider online programs and hybrid programs (blended online and live) if they are looking for a training or education solution that is not only safer from a health standpoint, but also more convenient, affordable, and environmentally friendly.
Sessions College is an online school of visual arts offering degree and certificate programs for adult learners. After years as an educator and instructional designer with a passion for art, design and technology, Drummond joined Sessions in 2001.
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