Campus facilities across the United States are temporarily closed. Courses and programs are rapidly being shifted into distance learning online formats.
I have worked and done research in distance learning as an administrator, program developer, learning psychologist, researcher, and teacher for decades. My purpose here is to spotlight and share several important strategic insights to keep in mind as we respond to today’s needs and look toward to enhancing the future of online degree programs through courses and programs already in colleges and universities. To evaluate my research and validate my conclusions, I interviewed 12 recognized leaders in education. Following are the results:
Most current responses are situational.
Situational responses will be effective in the present circumstances. Many current “rollovers,” or moves into online environments, will work well, but they will neither scale nor be sustainable in the future. Almost every situational response that works is good for now.
For colleges and schools offering courses and degree programs, continuing and future success requires thoughtful scalability to help assure fiscal and enrollment sustainability. By following scalable and sustainable practices, the future of formal online and distance teaching and learning will continue to evolve and change for the better. Research results and anecdotal reports will lead the way. The component skills and competence of faculty and staff will grow, and all of the obstacles on the way to success will be overcome (McLuhan, 1985).
A large number of ads and promotions are now appearing, offering podcasts, webinars, and more. Many are useful; some are opportunistic (Luskin, 2019). I categorize these separately. For faculty and administrators who are concerned about the future of formal courses and programs, it is important to recognize those responses that are only situational. Only thoughtful structuring can make such programs sustainable. In the present emergency transition, a large majority of the adaptations are situational only, they are neither scalable or sustainable.
Scalable, sustainable online and distance education in traditional degree programs will grow.
Experts in online and distance education with whom I have spoken agree that the present COVID-19 pandemic will cause a permanent and positive expansion of distance and online teaching and learning practices in higher education. At this point, we cannot predict the extent, but it seems certain that the expansion will be substantial. You may call it home-schooling, online learning, or whatever, but it is important to recognize this paradigm shift and be thoughtful and realistic about the lasting implications (Luskin, 2020).
New and enhanced communications methods, such as Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, Microsoft Team Builder, GoToMeeting, and other virtual meeting tools are all easily available, low-cost—and they work. For complete courses and programs, learning management systems (LMS) such as Canvas, Blackboard, D2L, and Moodle, are available, and they work. Faculty and staff are generally willing to use them, and there are now substantial numbers of individuals with the necessary component skills to make the needed advances.
We now hold all of the necessary puzzle pieces in our hands. What will increase the quality, experience, scalability, and sustainability of formal distance and online learning in the future is how we put those pieces together and integrate them into the respective educational systems.
Teachers and support staff are key.
Support staff provide essential services in the distance and formal online equation. Faculty and staff are the key to our educational health, quality, and sustainability in the same way that health care professionals are imperative to our well-being and sustainability as we move through this pandemic.
There are already federal and state discussions of new legislation to support professional development initiatives in the field of education. The telemedicine and online teaching and learning systems in colleges and universities will continue to change for the better. Those courses that are scalable have the potential for fiscal and therefore programmatic sustainability.
“You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.” -Warren Buffett
It is important now to use common sense, to be thoughtful and ask, what features need to change and what features need to remain the same? Our silver lining is that there will be some new and important educational opportunities going forward.
Situational responses are good for what they accomplish today. In education, awareness of the foundational need for scalable and sustainable responses is important for educational institutions to be successful as they move into our new future. The coming changes will enable those colleges that do things correctly, to overcome enrollment, space, and access limitations and successfully offer their online and distance courses and programs in a very positive, successful and fiscally sustainable way.
It is professionally important to work together as we integrate new, quality online functionality into college and university distance and online learning programs. Innovation and new research will lead the way. The reset button has been pressed. Dr. King said it best:
“We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Special thanks: Toni Luskin, Ph.D for technical and editorial assistance.
Experts interviewed: Krishna Kumar, PhD, Henry Burnett, PhD, Ed Valeau, Ph.D., Ira Krinsky, Ed.D., Matthew Nehmer, Ph.D., Lorna Gonzalez, PhD, Casey Green, PhD, Rick Post, JD, Bob Wright, Ed.D, Brett Sokolow, JD, Stephen Sokolow, PhD, Phyllis Okrepkie, PhD
Luskin Learning Psychology Series No. 49
Luskin, B.J. (2019). 12 Best Practices in Online Teaching and Learning. Learning Psychology Series No. (44). Retrieved from, Psychology Today, The Media Psychology Effect.
Luskin, B.J. (2020). Media Psychology: A Lens and a Blade. Psychology Today. Retrieved from Psychology Today, Learning Psychology Series No. (48), The Media Psychology Effect.
McLuhan, M. (1985). The Medium Is the Massage (5th ed. ed.). Toronto: Ginko Press Inc.