Covid-19 is forcing universities to move their courses online quickly. Here’s why they should think past the current crisis.

It’s the story of every headline these days: Covid-19 is disrupting every facet of life around the globe, and one of the sectors where this change is most profoundly felt is in the world of education. In a way, it’s strange that Covid-19 is having such a profound effect, because online education offers a pathway for many educators to continue teaching despite the pandemic. Doing so is not easy—especially for those who are making the transition for the first time. But it is possible, and that has more going for it than many other jobs.

Still, although many colleges and universities have made this shift abruptly and by necessity, most are longing for a time when teaching returns to the classroom. Online education—no matter how good it can be—will never fully replace in-person teaching, for reasons we’ll get to later in the post. But colleges shouldn’t dismiss its possibilities too quickly, either. Instead, those educational institutions which embrace a well-developed and fully-integrated online classroom will be making a wise investment in their future. Here’s why your institution should do the same.

1. We don’t know how long the current pandemic will last, or what the social impact will be.

Education is perhaps the most future-proof industry in history. People will always need to be taught, and people will always need to teach them. Furthermore, humans are social—something many of us are painfully aware of these days. We want to learn together, and most of us want to learn in person.

But despite its historic durability, modern education needs to continue to evolve if it’s going to help its students—and developing a quality online curriculum should be a first priority. The current reasons are obvious: there’s a pandemic, and until a vaccine is developed, it is unclear when classroom teaching will resume. But even once in-person teaching resumes, Covid-19 may have changed the social dynamic of teaching in profound ways. We may expect students and teachers to stay home more frequently if they have any kind of cold or flu symptoms, for instance, and a student staying home with a mild cough will still want to access the day’s lecture.

Education aside, work environments across a range of industries are moving online. Remote offices are keeping many people employed during the crisis, but they may also become the new norm in the future. Students may feel more comfortable with the idea of online education, especially if they view it as preparation for a remote work environment.

2. Online education allows colleges and universities to extend their courses to wider audiences.

Many college campuses have experienced a boom in enrollment in the past few decades. As more and more students attend, accommodating them can be a challenge. Universities have raced to build new student housing, and the construction costs have played a role in rising tuition prices. For the students staying in student housing, dorm living can add significantly to their overall expenses.

By investing in online education, colleges and universities could add another avenue toward a degree that doesn’t rely on building more campus housing. This won’t appeal to every student, but for some, it might be a lifeline toward a more affordable college degree.

This doesn’t just apply to four-year university courses—it can apply to community and trade colleges as well, which typically don’t offer student housing. Especially in rural areas, many students have to drive long distances to commute to class. Online community college courses also offer more flexibility for working students, or for students who have schedule conflicts but want to complete their program on a short timeframe. I’ve been all three: I’ve taken an online course while living overseas, another in the middle of a packed semester, and most recently out of sheer curiosity. This may not be the traditional experience for most students, but it could become more common in the future.

3. Online education offers more possibilities to those with special needs.

For many students, online education has made learning more accessible than previously possible. These include students who are bed bound, those who have impaired vision or hearing, those who have learning challenges that make classroom settings prohibitively difficult, and even those with severe autoimmune disorders. While many of us take in-person classroom access for granted, for them it is the opposite.

While online education has accessibility challenges of its own that all educators and course designers should be aware of, addressing these issues is a far easier remedy than overcoming many of the barriers that have long prevented these students from attending in-person classes. A robust online education infrastructure can open the classroom to students who might otherwise be shut out from it.

4. Colleges have a chance to invest in quality lecture recordings and innovate with online materials.

While many colleges have tenured faculty with strong reputations in their respective fields, many have yet to compile an archive of legacy lectures from some of their most well-respected professors. Now is the perfect time to do so, especially as these lecturers are already preparing to teach online courses in the coming semester.

Similarly, online courses afford educators an opportunity to try new pedagogical techniques, with the goal of find more effective ways to teach their courses. While classrooms have a similar history of innovation, online courses give more quantifiable feedback, which could prove more useful in developing new teaching methods.

5. Online learning can become part of a more effective blended learning environment.

Finally, while online learning is currently the only option for many colleges, there’s no reason to view these experiences as intrinsically opposed. In fact, uniting the two—what’s known as “blended learning“—is one of the more dynamic and exciting ways colleges can offer better educational experiences.

Imagine if, instead of using classroom time for students to sit in place listening to their professor deliver the same lecture they give every year, students watched the lecture online and devoted class time to in-person discussion or lab work, or student-lead presentations? This would result in a much more effective learning environment, where “participation” meant more than mere attendance. Blended learning can be the future of education, but it won’t happen without significant investment from colleges in online education. The present moment is precisely the time to make that investment worthwhile.

The current experience of online education should not reflect the future.

None of this is to dismiss the current concerns of many online educators. The transition so far has been rough on students and teachers alike. Many are unprepared, unequipped, and stressed. However, despite its rocky start, colleges and universities shouldn’t overlook the very real possibilities it opens—especially for students who may never be able to have the chance to attend a traditional classroom. The more universities prepare their themselves for online education, the better they will be able to serve all their students, and be prepared for whatever the future may hold.

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