How COVID-19 will change online learning forever
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How COVID-19 will change online learning forever

Like a meteor plummeting from the sky, COVID-19 has unexpectedly disrupted the learning landscape on almost every level. While university campuses are forced to close, many without a solid timeline for reopening, e-learning has come to the forefront as the most likely replacement for in-person instruction. While some of these changes are surely temporary, the pandemic has also accelerated a larger shift toward online education.

This is both an opportunity and a challenge for educators, administrators, and instructional designers (IDs). Our current online education system simply isn’t built to support the sheer number of students and instructors who are all of a sudden depending on it. As we move forward, IDs will play a pivotal role in making e-learning more practical and effective for everyone.

But what will this look like in practice? How can instructional designers prepare themselves for these shifts? We talked to some experienced IDs to find out how they envision the future of online learning.

A Greater Need for Engagement

Even before COVID-19, it was clear that many online courses were pretty broken. Many instructor’s first impulse when being forced to pivot online was to simply digitize their classroom lectures, upload them and move on. But lectures are significantly less effective online, and students are likely to suffer from poor retention and poor course completion rates.

The imperative now is to make sure that students, who may not be emotionally or mentally prepared to transition to an online learning environment, feel supported and mentally engaged. Kyle Hickman, an expert in the field of learning and development, believes that learning professionals need to find innovative ways to keep students engaged remotely. Instead of just mailing out packets of supplemental work for students to complete by themselves, Hickman says:

there is a real opportunity to create more dynamic, engaging environments for students to participate in.


Kevin Kelly, an e-learning consultant, agrees that it’s not enough to “just set it and forget it.” Instead, he says “we need to construct engaging online learning experiences that foster student interaction and success”

The answer to engaging students lies in creating opportunities for collaborative learning through discussions, group work, and peer review. We know that collaborative learning leads to enhanced information retention and higher social motivation. The challenge is finding ways to create opportunity for interaction and collaborative learning in both the short and long term. Hickman says:

Currently, we have to be scrappy and do whatever we can to get students connected to their coursework, but longer-term I hope to see instructors and online learning professionals alike come together to craft more permanent collaborative solutions that can be used, global pandemic or not.


We know that learning in a silo is simply not as effective as collaborative, engaged learning. Now, we have to figure out how to support collaborative learning on a massive scale.

Greater Investment in New Technologies

Administrators have been hesitant to spend money on online learning tech. But as online learning becomes a de facto teaching medium and universities need to prove their value without the help of campus facilities, we expect to see a rise in interest and investment in experimental technology. We will likely see big tech companies partner with universities to bring new advances to students.

Virtual-reality and augmented-reality tools have become far more affordable and available over the past few years. While they have already been embraced by the entertainment industry, there are a lot of practical learning applications for the hardware as well. Simulated trainings, remote interpersonal interactions, and virtual competitions are just some of the possibilities.

Doug Marlowe, president of teachITnow, predicts that as remote learning becomes the norm, we may see more “simulations that mimic real life, and the lives we once lived in classrooms and offices.”

Marlowe also predicts that artificial intelligence will become more important in our new landscape. "We’ll see access to foundational knowledge through AI (“Siri, Tell me about the Battle of Waterloo and its impact on geopolitics in the early 19th century”)." In addition to helping teach students directly, AI has the potential to automatically grade assignments, auto-translate course materials for foreign students, and personalize course content.

All of this sounds great, but it’s important to remember that just because we can do these things doesn’t mean we need to, or even should. User errors, unconscious bias, and lack of access are all unintended side effects of integrating new technology into the learning space. It will be up to IDs to balance the advantages of this new technology with the practical considerations of implementation. We need to harness this tech in a way that enhances learning and doesn’t distract from it.

More Job Opportunities for IDs in Higher Ed

While lots of job markets are suffering right now, the future is potentially bright for IDs interested in a career in academia. As online course offerings continue to grow, universities will need more IDs to help build out the curriculum.

Hickman predicts that online-course departments expanding, better staffing, and a more competitive professional landscape will all lead to a long-term ID boom. He added, “Instructional design is definitely a great career to be in right now! ”

There will be more demand but also bigger challenges for IDs working in higher ed. Previously, online learning specialists worked primarily with a self-selecting group of faculty: those who were open to teaching online or had background experience. Now, they will have to work with faculty with many different experience levels, technological aptitudes, and attitudes toward online learning.

Kelly believes IDs will have to expand their tool kits and work harder than ever to support faculty:

IDs have to avoid assumptions about what faculty know and revise their trainings, support materials, and coaching strategies to serve anyone who asks for help.


While the work will be more challenging, it’s also a great opportunity for IDs to shape attitudes and administrative policies based on best practices.

Inclusivity and Accessibility Will Matter More than Ever

Previously, the online learning population was largely self-selecting: people chose to take courses online based on their situation and abilities. That meant universities could get away with not accommodating courses for every population.

IDs need to understand how stress and anxiety should be balanced with reward in order to motivate learners.


Now that online learning is  — at least temporarily — the de facto learning medium, educators will need to make sure courses are accessible to everyone, regardless of their physical abilities. “IDs need to fully understand the need for inclusivity for sight-, mobility-, and hearing-challenged folks,” Marlowe says. Mental health and cognitive differences must be taken into account too. IDs need to “understand how stress and anxiety should be balanced with reward in order to motivate learners.”

Kelly reminds us that not all learners, even in high-priced institutions, are on the same social and economic footing:

We have to remember that those are people at the other end of the Internet connection. We need to support students who are essential workers, who are sharing devices with working adults and other learners (K-12, college, or both), or who are taking care of family members.


IDs have a role to play in helping students — all students — adapt to their new learning environment with minimal disruption. That may mean structuring courses so that they can be more equally accessed by differently abled learners or are ADA-compliant. It could also mean creating learning content that can be accessed via phone, not just by computer, or encouraging professors to allow flexible due dates for assignments.

A Backlash to Online Learning

E-learning was steadily gaining ground before COVID-19, but now it has been thrust into center stage as the dominant learning trend of 2020 by sheer necessity. Students, professors, and administrators are being forced to embrace online learning whether they are ready to or not.

We have to prepare for the inevitable backlash. Despite minimal prep time, IDs will have to work to create positive online learning experiences so that students and teachers are not left with a bad taste in their mouths.

Part of the problem is a classic resistance to change. Administrative lack of vision and an aversion to risk-taking could hobble larger online learning initiatives before they have a chance to reach their full potential. IDs should steel themselves for “entrenched ideas about the ‘proper way’ to educate adolescents and adults,” Marlowe says, “as well as rebellious discontent as we are unable to return to the ‘good old days.’” There’s also the danger of “a serious politicizing of the issues, causing an US vs THEM feud that just might disintegrate into chaos.”

Hastily set up and poorly executed short-term distance-learning setups could sour stakeholders’ attitudes toward online learning as a whole. Renata Chiaradia, Instructional Design Specialist, says:

Online learning will be mistaken for what's happening right now. Many instructors did not get training, therefore the impression students and instructors might have is that online learning is not good or efficient, which is untrue.


It will be up to IDs and other learning administrators to help shape positive attitudes toward online learning by drawing a clear distinction between temporary distance-learning measures, and the full potential of an established online learning program. We will need to emphasize the long-term advantages of online learning long past the end of this pandemic. Hickman says:

There is this enormous pressure for us to nail it, to provide the best learning experience possible. If we do that, we ensure students will want to take online courses in the future – even when it is not mandatory to do so.


Rising to Meet the Challenges

2020 is undoubtedly a year of massive change. Taken together, all of these challenges can seem daunting. It’s true that IDs working in higher education are going to have to work harder than ever, in a potentially volatile environment, and with potentially resistant educators. We’re going into a future that is largely unknown in a lot of ways. But it’s also a great opportunity for IDs to act as leaders and help universities and corporates create better learning experiences for students.

At Eduflow, we want to help you by providing content on instructional design and online learning to keep you informed as we enter what could potentially become 'a golden age' of online learning. Join our newsletter to receive our latest updates.

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