Here is the next wave of online learning for higher education

By Lark Park, Special to CalMatters

The unprecedented shuttering of physical campuses amid the COVID-19 pandemic has forced California colleges and universities into triage mode, scrambling for quick solutions to host classes online. 

California’s public higher education system, made up of the University of California, the California State University, and California Community College campuses, has heroically stepped up to get remote instruction up and running for faculty and students. Even as institutions continue to triage, we must seize the opportunity to reflect on what we’re learning from this crisis when it comes to remote higher education, and what lessons we can take into the post-COVID-19 world.

The pressure of COVID-19 has undeniably exacerbated core challenges to learning that were already part of our higher education system, including significant student equity issues. 

Remote learning has left many students stranded without ready access to wi-fi, laptops, or safe and quiet workspaces. The pandemic also exposes students and faculty alike to isolation as they miss out on on-campus interactions with peers, mentors and colleagues. 

A new frontier of online learning means redoubling efforts to address inequities. It means addressing the challenges not only posed by traditional classes, but by hands-on components like labs or education paths such as nursing or career tech. And it means finding ways for faculty to meaningfully connect online with students and each other in these difficult, isolating times. 

Remote learning is of course not new. The program I run, the California Education Learning Lab at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, supports faculty teams to develop models for best-in-class, equity-focused online and hybrid classes. Whether it’s creating network improvement communities for interactive online statistics and data science, incorporating humanizing practices into any online class, or promoting student-generated videos for explaining coding, our projects are experimenting to find what works for both faculty and students, and what approaches can be scaled.

As the world grapples with how to provide remote learning in a way that’s accessible and equitable, and meets the learning requirements of the modern economy, now is the time to embrace new ways of reaching students. The work we do now will help us build a more resilient higher education future, one in which learning thrives even amid health-related disruptions like COVID-19, or climate-related disasters like wildfires or floods. 

Remote learning is a certain part of the solution. Here’s what our Learning Lab teams are doing to create a more equitable and successful online learning model for higher education: 

Authentic, caring and robust engagement. Students need to know that faculty care how they are doing. Creating warm, welcoming messages and feedback, and understanding the strengths, career goals and backgrounds students bring with them — these are just some of the ways that Learning Lab’s projects seek to enhance students’ sense of belonging and retention in difficult classes or circumstances.

Creating community and promoting active learning. Several teams are experimenting with allowing students to take part in the instructional development process in order to promote student agency, confidence and community. Projects also build faculty communities of practice across disciplines and institutions, emphasizing a “growth mindset” to expand faculty learning throughout the process.

Gathering data. Using technology tools that can continually track performance will be key in monitoring student progress and reaching out to students who are falling behind or disappearing. Many Learning Lab projects use or build on adaptive learning systems that can help with frequent assessment and provide a basis for making changes to a class in real time that can increase student success. 

Sharing and scaling. Sharing — and using — effective curricula and practices are more necessary than ever, as many faculty struggles with the transition to remote instruction. Learning Lab’s projects are all designed with sharing and scaling in mind, within and beyond their campus borders, with plans for how to disseminate curriculum, practices or findings to a broader audience.

The current COVID-19 pandemic can catalyze public higher ed to make advances like never before: to reimagine how faculty use technology and collaborate with each other and engage students; to invigorate institutional collaborations between UC, CSU and community colleges for the benefit of students; to make significant gains in the use of open, online educational resources — the kind that come at little or no cost to students as they manage the economic consequences of this pandemic.  

None of these changes will come easily, nor will they look the same at all campuses. But the advances public higher education makes now will pay off no matter what the mode of instruction or what the next disruption is. Given the likelihood that our educational systems will increasingly rely on remote learning, we need to act boldly and strategically. We can’t afford to lose students to the chaos of COVID-19 — their future, and ours, depends on it.


Lark Park is the director of the California Education Learning Lab at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, and she is a Regent of the University of California, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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