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Thu, Oct

Of Pandemics and Paradigms: How COVID-19 has Transformed Perspectives on Distance Learning

DC DISPATCH-It was only a few weeks ago -- although it now seems like a different age -- that I began preparing my return to graduate school using an online distance learning platform rather than an in-person classroom.

At the time, I detected bias against Internet classes as being somehow lesser than in-person sessions, and even found myself explaining that there were also on-campus requirements and the entire educational world was headed toward a hybrid, campus-and-online future. 

What a difference a few weeks has made, in so many ways. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the paradigm of how we think about online education, as millions of students from elementary school to graduate school have experimented and realized this is a viable alternative to crowded in-person classrooms. The pandemic threat has compelled hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide from USC to MIT to close their classroom doors and shift instead to online education. 

The question is, when the age of COVID-19 passes, how many of these schools will shift back to in-person education after millions of students have seen firsthand the potential benefits of the online education alternative. Any lingering confusion or stigma about online classes is quickly being erased, as students from elementary school to medical school are now getting their education over the internet instead of in person. 

Make no mistake, the virus has changed American education forever and the biggest misconception is that we are quickly transitioning into a “temporary” fix. College campuses will eventually re-open and students will return to mostly in-person instruction, but their distance learning experience will leave lasting impressions -- either good or bad, depending on how well they and their educational institutions adapted to the new model. 

A recent story in The Washington Post, “It Shouldn’t Take a Pandemic: Coronavirus exposes Internet inequality among U.S. students as schools close their doors,” illustrates the chaos. The Post reported on a teacher at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., who asked her liberal arts students, “how they would feel if instruction next term shifted online.” The Post reported that “… in response, she heard a wave of concerns from her class — students didn’t like message boards, they weren’t sure where they would live, they weren’t clear what they would eat, and ‘they were concerned about issues of technology.’” She also noted also noted that some of the students use smartphones, not desktop computers, to access online assignments. 

Yet, the use of smartphones is another reason the advances in distance learning will “stick. It shows that, really, this future was already well on the way. 

Even K-12 students were typically accessing some aspects of education online, albeit homework and school communications. Those systems were ill suited to adding classes, but they are being pressed into service. Indeed, even commercial workplace services like Zoom are being applied to education. 

So now, millions of students and their families who would have given little thought to distance learning are arranging at-home desks and logging on. Even this most basic acceleration comes with a full measure of chaos, especially in K-12 where economic disparity and the digital divide more often collide, but this is a shared national experience like few others. Only weeks ago, distance learning was being marketed in terms of cost savings for prospective students, realistic mid-career alternatives for at-home parents who need to care for children, continuing careers while earning degrees online, and expanded access in under-served communities that lack on-campus educational opportunities at all. 

Now in this time of pandemic, by giving millions of students a way to continue their education without classroom learning alongside dozens or hundreds of strangers, distance learning is saving lives. 

The long-term distance learning future is easy to see, even if the timetable remains unclear. Just this month, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would allow schools to use online learning techniques without having to go through the usual approval process. 

The next phase of the distance learning acceleration will be the migration away from the stop-gap chaotic systems adopted in haste and by necessity by educational institutions nationwide into organized, structured platforms designed to take advantage of online learning’s upsides while minimizing the downsides. 

In this respect, the colleges, universities, and programs that already have established online programs will have a clear head start and be best positioned to benefit from the heightened awareness of online education’s potential advantages. 

The program I’ve applied for, the “Masters of Science in Integrated Design, Business and Technology,” already illustrated the hybrid dynamic, promising that “… students work closely with peers, professors and industry and field  experts to apply the skills and knowledge they gain in real-world scenarios… the online learning environment, as  well as in-person residency experiences, allow us to facilitate this dynamic and engaging experience.” I received my formal acceptance letter last week and am thrilled at the prospect of returning to my Alma Mater. 

The USC online management partner for years has been 2U, a Maryland based company that has been partnering with colleges for more than a decade and counts more than 70 universities in its portfolio – not the stuff of chaos hodgepodge and an example that the future was already here – for some of us. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to adapt in all kinds of ways – but in rare instances, to learn and grow as well. Millions of students of all ages have had the enforced opportunity to discover the possibilities and alternatives that distance learning can present. 

It’s hard to see any silver linings when you’re social distancing in your basement, but at least this is one.

 

(Sara Corcoran is publisher of the National Courts Monitor and writes for CityWatch, Daily Koz, and other news outlets.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.