In summary

Getting online education right at our public universities will require infrastructure and human resource investment.

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By Jennifer L. Brown

Jennifer Brown is the vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Education at the University of California, Riverside, and a professor in the School of Public Policy,

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Christopher S. Lynch, Special to CalMatters

Christopher S. Lynch is the dean of the Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside,

We have glimpsed in this past year the flexibility online learning offers. Rather than retrench into the familiarity of in-person instruction in fall 2021, this is the moment to recognize and move forward the broader role online courses can play in higher education, and the public investment that it will require.

First, a distinction should be drawn between what resulted from the heroic call to action instructors and facilitators answered in April 2020, and the ideal future model of online instruction. When coronavirus ravaged the world, universities shifted overnight from in-person classes to “emergency remote education,” largely via Zoom.

It came at a cost. Students were cut off from their networks of peers who work together to discuss and more deeply understand course material. They were minus the nuances of learning, such as reading body language. In the online environment, students can feel isolated. 

And so it’s a mistake to believe that, because teaching continuity was sustained during the pandemic, we are now well positioned to provide large-scale online programming to students. At our university, the University of California, Riverside, one of the first messages broadly shared with the faculty was that emergency remote teaching was not the same as quality online education. Unfortunately, most public universities still lack the classroom infrastructure and support staff to produce quality online courses.

Online instruction opens access to those who need flexibility in classes for childcare, for scheduling conflicts and because of socio-economic pressure. The pandemic has only increased the reasons remote access is needed, with many families having faced a dual pandemic of COVID-19 and economic loss. Many of our student parents no longer have childcare, or face other circumstances preventing them from immediately returning to campus.

Online coursework must not be considered an inferior or cheaper option. Getting online right requires a significant investment in course development guided by professional course designers who focus on achieving and assessing learning outcomes. Best practices show that developing a quality online course takes about 10 weeks to build with the faculty member working closely alongside an instructional/course designer, and research has shown that in-person instruction improves after working with instructional designers.

What works in the classroom does not necessarily work well over Zoom: Online courses require planning to drive interactions. An online lecture requires more lecture preparation, continuous monitoring of student progress, increased use of assessment tools, extensive electronic interaction with the students and online office hours.  

Additional instructor and teaching assistant support is also needed, as well as technical support. Quizzes and interactive content, such as real-time chats, are needed for each lecture so that students can interact regardless of modality, with student responses captured by a learning management system. Without this, many online undergraduates fall behind and never catch up. Meeting these needs requires a long-term investment in support staff. 

Remote learning and information technology departments require additional staffing to support online education. Offering courses simultaneously to on-campus and online students requires infrastructure investment that converts the classroom into a recording studio with a live audience. The needs increase based on the number of students. There are dedicated hardware/software systems that can be installed in each classroom ranging in cost from $30,000 to $150,000, and time is needed for installation.  

This is our moment to embrace online course delivery in higher education, to make a long-term investment in online infrastructure and support for those students who were disadvantaged in pre-pandemic higher education, and for those who may be left behind in post-pandemic higher education. But getting online education right at our public universities will require infrastructure and human resource investment from our state and federal governments.

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