08-13-2020 01:40pm

Despite pandemic’s challenges, students have hope for online learning

By Ryan Stowers, Executive Director, Charles Koch Foundation

Colleges and universities have been among the organizations most affected by the unprecedented disruptions introduced by our country’s response to COVID-19. As a result, the rapid transition to online platforms and distance learning has revealed important challenges and opportunities for faculty, administrators, and learners. We are encouraged by the results of a recent survey conducted by College Pulse and supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, which show that students are eager to see what the future holds for online learning. 

While students experienced significant disruption and uncertainty during the spring 2020 transition to online learning, more than 60 percent of the students surveyed said better tech platforms could improve the quality of their experience. The poll also found the more exposure students have to digital tools, the more they are satisfied. A majority, including 66 percent of public university students, said they had taken online courses at some point before COVID-19 forced schools almost exclusively into virtual learning. These students were significantly more likely to say spring 2020’s online classes were effective than their peers with no previous online learning experience. 

Even with some whiplash from the rapid transition off campus, students gave their schools mostly positive marks for their coronavirus response. In fact, nearly 70 percent said their school did an “excellent” or “good” job getting students the support and resources they needed to finish their classes and coursework.

These results mirror a Langer Research Associates survey that found “courses that included more engaging elements of online instruction saw substantially higher levels of student satisfaction.”

College Pulse’s findings did not surprise us. The Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) has had the privilege of supporting some of the most exciting innovators in post-secondary education and digital learning. With a relentless focus on individualized learning, these organizations were already adapting to accommodate students’ unique needs and abilities. When the pandemic hit, they were prepared to respond with innovative solutions in hand.

CKF is proud to support OpenStax, a Rice University project that is accelerating digital content creation by producing peer-reviewed textbooks and making them available to students online and free of charge. We also have provided seed-funding to projects like Curriki, which recently launched a new authoring and publishing tool that allows users to create compelling content that will help students of all ages learn more effectively.

At the height of the spring semester transition to distance learning, the Association of College and University Educators launched a series of webinars about effective online instruction. Their  efforts included access to expert-facilitated discussion boards, demonstration videos, and related online teaching supports. ACUE also launched a #ResilientFaculty campaign video to highlight faculty, institutions, and higher education leaders who found creative ways to help students learn during the spring 2020 semester. 

College Pulse’s survey also indicates students want administrators to think beyond the lecture hall or classroom when it comes to improving higher education. In fact, helping students find a job and lowering the price of expensive textbooks (OpenStax’s mission) were some of the top priorities, especially among Black and Hispanic students. To help improve access and affordability, earlier this summer CKF announced its support for the Rivet School. The Rivet School pairs a job-focused, online degree program with real-world resources, a personal coach and coworking space to start, and enables students to graduate in two to three years for less than $10,000, total. 

These projects have the potential to spark movements that will improve post-secondary education for all individuals, but there is still a strong need for research and experimentation. CKF is committed to efforts that bring light into how education can empower students. We are supporting  initiatives like WGU Labs, Inc.’s College Innovation Network, which will bring together education innovators who want to massively scale education technology that works. WGU Labs announced the CIN’s founding members on August 4. The network now will begin sourcing relevant EdTech solutions and putting into place the design for rigorous evaluations of those solutions.

The coronavirus pandemic has created unique circumstances for students and educators, but the need for innovation has long been present. Rising costs and stagnating student outcomes have led to a growing perception that pursuing a post-secondary degree might not be a reliable way to improve one’s life. Instead of seeing higher education as a path that will unlock the potential of millions of learners, too many students and parents question whether obtaining a degree will help them lead a better, fulfilled future.

Indicators like the College Pulse survey and others, including Populace’s American Priorities for Higher Education, suggest there is a need for change, and they highlight the unprecedented opportunity to chart a different course by paying closer attention and adapting to student’s unique interests and potential. As we enter a new school year, we face a critical point in the evolution of post-secondary education. Educators and leaders must decide whether to embrace a new path, or hold onto the false assumption that everything was going well prior to the pandemic.

We are inspired and energized by the leaders, teachers, and educators who are challenging the status quo and discovering new ways to empower learners.  We believe — and we know — there is a better way.

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