The Post-Pandemic University: what is the future of online learning?

Student working on laptop with headphones in

2020 has been widely viewed as the year of online learning. Digital education moved from the periphery to become a mainstream global learning experience for students at all levels of education. In higher education, universities generally managed to balance an overnight emergency transition, while securing and maintaining the goodwill of their students and integrating new methods to recreate student immersion, cultural experiences, and relationship building. If there was a key takeaway from 2020, it was the heroic response of higher education to the pandemic.

Fast-forward to 2021 and the relationship between students and universities shows notable strain, reflecting the wider impatience with the continued impact of Covid on both education and our daily lives. Universities should be commended for meeting the challenge of the digital pivot, but they now face a new, complex challenge: interpreting the legacy of 2020 and employing it as a catalyst for new opportunities.

In some circles, the narrative positions the pandemic as a blip in the history of higher education. In actuality, the full return to the pre-pandemic university is not possible because so much has been learned. The widened scope of pedagogical approaches and the use of technology to support these new approaches has facilitated new pathways into higher education and lifelong learning, catering to new markets, and offering alternatives to once-unquestioned components of the student learning journey.

Views that situate 2020 as the testing ground for online education would be inaccurate. The pandemic tested the agility of higher education institutions, not the tools that supported the response. Online learning, just as with face-to-face learning, comes in many different forms and levels of quality, but succeeds when it has been developed and implemented in a considered way, with the resources and time to evaluate and improve upon it. Higher education had the luxury of neither in 2020.

Within the last year, higher education has created a tyranny of choice, where blended and online models have proliferated in endless variations and with equally varying success (Senior et al, 2021). The anxiety around an abundance of choice is compounded when there is an inability to decipher those choices. As a further complication, terms like ‘hyflex’ and ‘hybrid’ have been thrown into the mix to expand the nomenclature with which students and universities must grapple (for more about hyflex delivery, read Dr Carin Peller-Semmens’ article on Resilient Pedagogy).

Universities are at a critical juncture this year. They can no longer view digital education as a ‘just-in-time’ quick-fix solution. They must consider how the lessons learned in the past year are incorporated into the pre-pandemic model to generate an improved model moving forward. This creates an opportunity and challenge for each university to carve out its own future in the digital space, and institutions must negotiate multiple factors as they build their digital education strategy.

Quality is key
Universities face increasing budgetary constraints and a corresponding, heightened pressure to make difficult and cautious investment choices. Despite this, it would be a mistake to allocate funding away from blended and online learning resources in a bid to consolidate institutional investment. The digital pivot of the pandemic highlighted that developing and delivering online learning is neither easier or cheaper, and it requires commitment and resource from multiple stakeholders. Designing for multiple modalities – for example, for both in-person and distance teaching – demands investment in the short term, but with significant benefits in the long term. Designing for different modalities make institutions resilient and flexible, with the ability to reconfigure and repurpose while maintaining quality. Designing high-quality online options for students throughout their learning life cycle in an uncertain future will be a key differentiator for institutions.

Communicate the affordances and limitations of online
Student concerns should not be interpreted as a wholesale rejection of online learning but rather a belief that universities will continue to present the cobbled-together delivery models of 2020. Universities address and disprove students’ fears through careful and considered evaluation of each programme, including the online component, the ability to provide multiple modalities, and the balance of synchronous and asynchronous within online components. These considerations, while not exhaustive, provide an essential starting point. Once universities have clarified these details internally, they need to communicate this effectively to current and prospective students. Student and faculty feedback must form a central part of an iterative evaluation process.

Online isn’t a replacement – it’s an enhancement
Online learning does not replicate the physical classroom nor does it need to. Students have always been diverse in their needs and offering more flexibility means that institutions can tap into new markets and connect with students at various stages of their learning journey. A mature, part-time student with multiple commitments brings different expectations for his or her learning experience than the first-year undergraduate. Investing in high-quality, well-developed blended and online models allows institutions to offer students unprecedented choice that empowers them rather than confuses them. These models can be incorporated into a wider hybrid or hyflex approach that reaches a diversity of learners and addresses competing learner needs and expectations.

The next phase in online learning
While 2020 presented epic challenges for higher education, it also provided a unique opportunity to reflect on the role of higher education institutions, what learning and teaching should and could look like, and how universities might become more flexible in meeting the needs of their students. Universities should take stock of the lessons learned in 2020 and use them to regain students’ confidence. Universities have an opportunity to re-establish themselves, to carve out new paths, and to reaffirm their value proposition. Providing high-quality online learning will be one component of this, whether as an enhancement, an alternative, or a central offering.

Senior, C, Howard, C., Stupple, E J, & Senior, R. (2021, July). Student Primacy and the Post Pandemic University. In Frontiers in Education.

First published in Education Investor on 22 November 2021.

Shannon Farrell

About the author

Shannon Farrell is an Academic Engagement and Partnerships Manager at insendi. She holds MAs in English Literature and International Relations from the University of Sydney in addition to a teaching qualification. She recently completed her PG Certificate in Blended and Online Education at Edinburgh Napier University and is currently undertaking her PhD in Educational Research at Lancaster University.

She spent several years working in trade and academic publishing, fostering international partnerships before moving into further and higher education. She has experience in developing professional programmes and working with industry to support upskilling and re-skilling initiatives. As a former international student, both in France and Australia, she is interested in the way in which online learning can support international study and exchange.