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Opinion: Meeting the digital learning demand

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A little over a year ago, I was part of a team that led the Evangel University faculty to transition over 700 in-person courses to remote and online instruction. We were fortunate to have the personnel and systems in place to support this emergency response due to the coronavirus pandemic. When students returned to campus last fall, we had to develop new strategies to support in-person teaching and learning in light of the ongoing challenges of capacity limitations, quarantined students and precautions for high-risk personnel. I know that our experiences are not unique. It was a busy year for all educators and administrators that lead or support digital learning.

The experiences of this past year are reshaping the forecasts for higher education. While many industries anticipate a return to “normal,” educational leaders are reflecting on the unprecedented pace of change and the long-term impacts for various stakeholders. The pandemic has changed students’ perceptions and expectations, placed greater demands on teachers and support staff, and established a stronger collaboration with technology providers. To thrive in the post-COVID era, institutions of higher education will need to account for these shifts.

As an educator, I am deeply concerned about the experience of students. Beyond the personal hardships that many families faced, students had to deal with the loss of community as part of a sudden shift to an unfamiliar learning modality. I foresee mixed responses from the student market based on these experiences.

On the one hand, their perception having been tainted by COVID-related trauma, students may have a short-term aversion to online learning. As a recoil from the forced shift to online, I anticipate a resurgence of in-person learning and campus community for traditional-age students in the coming years.

On the other hand, our collective response to a global pandemic has proved how flexible higher education can be, and I believe that the student market will continue to demand increased flexibility and expanded access. I expect nontraditional students and programs will come more fully into the mainstream for colleges and universities. Capitalizing on lessons learned from the pandemic, I anticipate a marked increase in the quantity, quality and variety of online programs available to dual-enrolled high school students, traditional-age students and adult learners. As a longtime advocate for diversified academic offerings, I see this as a positive development.

Teachers and support staff have borne the brunt of rapid change amid uncertainty and heightened anxiety. They responded with determination. They adapted quickly. They inconvenienced themselves to accommodate students. Over a year later, we are still in a season of fallout – still coping with increased workloads, uncertainty and anxiety. In the months and years ahead, colleges and universities will need to invest in support systems and personnel to mitigate burnout and create healthy margins for faculty.

Despite the setback of the pandemic, there are numerous breakthroughs to celebrate. We have seen incredible gains in digital literacy and competence in using various educational technologies. To maintain momentum and pursue greater innovations, institutions will need to resource and support faculty with professional development, best practices for digital learning and instructional design services.

The shift to remote teaching and learning has established a deeper collaboration with and dependence on technology providers. My university used a learning management system and various educational technologies before the pandemic, but we never had to depend on software solutions at this scale. To their credit, many technology partners rushed to add features and even offered free or low-cost access to solutions. We have seen product refinement, added and enhanced features, and expanded usage throughout our digital learning ecosystem. These developments have emphasized the continued need for digital learning platforms and the personnel that support them.

This job is not easy, but I love the work I do, and I am excited about the future. I see the potential for program expansion and innovations that will deliver on the promises of affordability and accessibility. The future of our institutions will be what we make it. It’s an exciting time to be in higher education.

Mark Fabian is the director of strategic partnerships and digital learning for Evangel University. With over 10 years of experience in online teaching and administration, he leads the team that provides instructional design, training and support for Evangel’s digital learning initiatives. He can be reached at 
fabianm@evangel.edu.

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