College faculty see increased value in digital learning

Will a full return for students mean a more traditional campus or a 'post-pandemic version of normalcy'.
By: | March 26, 2021
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Russ Poulin, executive director of the nonprofit WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), says colleges and universities have reached an inflection point” when it comes to digital learning.

Although institutions and the many courses they offer likely will return to near normal this fall, some options and tools implemented during the pandemic are likely here to stay. Faculty and students both believe elements of online learning possess value.

“Now, the challenge is scaling faculty development and student support systems to make best use of the technologies,” Poulin said.

WCET is one of several organizations – including the Online Learning Consortium, University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), Canadian Digital Learning Research Association and Cengage – that led the most recent Digital Learning Pulse Survey on the impacts of the COVID-19 on higher education learning and engagement.

The survey, which polled more than 1,700 faculty and administrators at nearly 1,000 colleges and universities, showed that 51% of faculty members are “more positive” about remote learning than they were last March. Nearly the same number say that their “very different” instruction methods and models are likely to continue.

“The Fall 2020 term showed higher education faculty and administrators to be extremely agile and adaptable as their preparation over the summer allowed them to support a massive transition to online learning,” said Jeff Seaman, lead researcher and director of Bay View Analytics, which conducted the survey. “The change forced faculty to implement new teaching styles, many of which they intend to continue post-pandemic.”

In fact, when asked about the likelihood that they will maintain or boost the use of digital materials, an overwhelming 81% of colleges and universities said yes. That number prior to the pandemic hovered around 25%.

Embracing digital learning

For students desiring more flexibility as well as being able to use technology tools to enhance their learning, the online component is often critical in helping them achieve balance between their studies, their jobs and in some cases, caring for family members.

“Researching the faculty and student experience of COVID-19 is critically important in helping us understand near-term faculty and student support opportunities,” said Angela Gunder, Chief Academic Officer of the Online Learning Consortium. “Study upon study have shown that students prefer blended teaching modalities and the ways they leverage the best of what online and face-to-face courses have to offer.”

While just over 50% of faculty are more hopeful about digital learning, that number is even higher for digital materials (57%). About half of faculty members say they are pleased with the support they are receiving from their colleagues and universities.

“More faculty have become more comfortable with digital technologies, which is exciting because it means they are perhaps perfectly positioned to leverage more blended learning approaches in addition to existing online portfolios as we return to a post-pandemic version of normalcy,” Gunder said.

The numbers highlight that success: 76% of faculty said they were satisfied with how they communicated with students, 78% said they were satisfied with how efficiently the technology worked and 68% said they were satisfied with how well students learned. If there’s one area to improve, it might be engagement: only half said they were satisfied.

Added Fernando Bleichmar, Executive Vice President and General Manager for U.S. Higher Education at Cengage: “Even under pressure to quickly move to these new models, faculty are finding value in digital learning, and it is encouraging to see many plan to keep new formats in place post-pandemic.”

Institutions are getting on board too. Less than a quarter of them surveyed said they utilized online homework systems before the pandemic. That number has dramatically shifted – with nearly 60% implementing widespread use and 74% saying that will either continue or rise as the fall semester opens.

“It’s clear that leaders in higher ed have taken away key lessons brought on by the pandemic and have a renewed appreciation for the value of online learning,” said Robert Hansen, Chief Executive Officer of UPCEA. “Developing methodologies and processes to institutionalize these lessons into sustainable digital initiatives will benefit students, faculty and the institution immeasurably.”

One area that could be improved, according to survey responses, is professional development for administrators, who overwhelmingly say support is inadequate. That support, too, must continue for all those involved in the digital learning space.

“Quality online learning provides a needed, flexible option for students, but services and support for students and faculty along the way is critical for a successful learning experience,” Bleichmar said.