Learning Trends for the Now Normal

Published by Brett Christie, PhD
on Jul 08, 2021

I recently co-hosted a webinar with Dr. Jim Julius, Faculty Director of Online Learning at Mira Costa College and previous panelist to the EDUCAUSE Horizon Report: Teaching and Learning Edition. This year’s annual report, 2021 Educause Horizon Report, describes trends and developing sectors in the modern and rapidly changing education system. We led a group of educators through insights and analysis of trends in technology to advance higher education delineated in this year’s issue of the Report. For this discussion, we focused on the social, technological, and economic trends based on the Horizon Report research. Here are some key takeaways. 

  1. It is essential that institutions continue to modernize distance education resources. In doing so, they will bolster faculty and student enjoyment during and in preparation for class. This will hopefully shrink the gap between online and in-person learning experiences. As distance education development grows, the goal is to create a world where teachers and students feel fulfilled in online classes together. Making sure that distance education is experiential, just as in-person would be, is essential. These goals are delineated in the social trend section of the 2021 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report. A key aspect of socializing in distance education is cultivating a remote learning culture. This is done by creating baseline expectations for remote learning, offering students tools to improve their distance education experience, and continuing to equip educators with the most up-to-date, UX friendly and accessible technologies.  
  2. A course that was engaging in person will not seamlessly translate to the screen. In an anonymous Padlet survey, an educator claimed that after the 2020 and 2021 school years, they could no longer refer to themselves a “Luddite”, as they’ve had to learn platforms such as Canvas, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Classroom to fulfill their job requirements. Yes, becoming tech-savvy will be essential for the modern educator, but it is virtually impossible for educators to catch up with the latest buzzy technology their students are investing their time in and eyes on. However, institutions can commit to understanding the ins and outs of distance education technology and share this learning with faculty. Further, educators can utilize the research offered by institutions to inform how they create engaging and effective online courses. Topics to consider would be micro-credentials, length of class, attention spans, interactivity, accessibility, group learning, individual learning, and screen burnout. 
  3. Colleges and universities cannot expect teachers to intuit how to transform a class they’ve taught, often for decades, to an online audience with ease. Nevertheless, as technological opportunities in the education realm become increasingly accessible, this will remain the goal for learning communities. Did you know that creating an online course from scratch takes on average forty-nine hours? For an educator, that’s an unruly and overwhelming added responsibility. Investing in the latest technological developments empowers faculty to teach more efficiently and to engage students for longer. Advancements in artificial learning will help facilitate online teaching. AI will also reduce the amount of work educators need to do to develop an online course. Horizon Report’s technology section discusses how the pandemic upended traditional learning experiences. Online communication tools are now a fluency requirement in education. Institutions are now reliant on video conferencing and other online classroom models. The 2021 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report quoted, “83% of higher education IT reported ‘improving the use of instructional tools’ as a top priority for their institution in planning for the 2020–21 academic year.”
  4. Faculty must have time to take care of themselves. They must also be taken care of by their employer. Their fully equipped institution must meet their newfound needs in the teaching arena. In turn, schools must create a rubric for online learning to protect and inform teachers. Schools need to be savvy in crafting their distance education models. This is made easier by leaning on services offered by advanced distance education platforms. The modern student is far ahead of their institution in terms of technological prowess and vernacular. It’s time to meet them halfway. Horizon Report explains the importance of faculty development, such as groups designed to introduce and teach faculty solutions to online learning, course corrections, and advancements.  
  5. Student needs must be served first. Historically, it seems that that was not always the priority, as schools focused on campus enticement over the classroom excitement. To be clear, this shift was apropos of the times. Students were meant to be intrigued by amenities first and learning second. This transition has been percolating for decades, with billions of dollars poured into building beautiful campuses and college communities. This past year due to the pandemic, university missions shifted from acceptance, retention, and amenities to ensuring teaching, learning, and student mental health became the priority. In the social section of Horizon’s EDUCAUSE 2021, it’s made quite clear how mental health issues have increased a great deal due to isolation and other factors of the global pandemic. 
  6. There is a widening digital divide in the modern institution. Horizon Report’s social breakdown describes this divide, “Digital First in education laid bare the stark inequities in the demographics of our national student body.” Another enormous gap that came to light in the sudden shift from classroom to bedroom, common room to living room, learning was inequity. What if a student cannot afford a laptop or tablet? What if their home doesn’t have wifi? What if they don’t have a space in their home to learn? What if home is not safe? What if they do not want to share a screen? Many students have no interest in letting colleagues into their world outside of the classroom. And that’s fair. It’s the educator, education designer, and institution’s responsibility to make equity the top priority. Inequality is inherently traumatic. Today’s research in mental health makes clear that where one falls in the socio-economic and cultural schism correlates directly with the mental health state they are born into. Thus, schools must be cognizant of history, of equality and consider how this shapes the way they educate online, how they reach out to students, and meet students where they are in their lives. It’s not in the student’s capacity to communicate this with their institution. It is incumbent on the institution to intuit and meet their students’ needs. Funding research and data in this sector and also bringing mental health components to the distance education classroom continue to be vital. 
  7. With this shift came another wake-up call: take the bells and whistles away, and what does your institution offer? In the all too abrupt transition into wholly online learning last March, institutions were unable to offer a distance education atmosphere that competed with the intimacy and immediacy of in-person. Can distance education mimic the classroom? Considering how committed this generation and subsequent generations of students will be to technology, it seems plausible that they will adapt to a full-time shift to screen. However, if this occurs, what happens to campuses? The economic section of the Horizon Report claims that “Concerns over funding now also include the perceived value (and cost) of the online education now being offered at most institutions relative to in-person education.” Schools may become smaller and less campus-oriented. Funding for higher education by government and private parties may decrease or be usurped by education technology funding. One thing is certain, the economic model for the school is changing rapidly. 

As we gear up for a post-pandemic world, one thing is clear: online learning will continue to flourish as an essential element of our nation’s education system. There are enormous changes in learning on the horizon that can make our education system greater and fairer. We need pioneers leading the way in developing technology that benefits students and faculty. With hard work, outside-of-the-box thinking, and consistent commitment, this is achievable as we begin this new era. 

Watch a replay of our webinar “Looking Back/Learning Forward,” where we discuss the 2021 Educause Horizon Report.

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Institutions and faculty are emerging from the pandemic with the realization that they must reframe their courses for an evolving, and here to stay, virtual learning landscape. Many online courses resulted from an overnight shift from in person to virtual. With little time to reimagine learning with pixelated faces and on screen white boards, courses that were developed for in person do not translate to the screen. 

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