Colleges must adapt or be left behind

Why haven’t universities, especially during a world crisis, better solved the challenge of effectively using video-based online learning to educate? Here are five reasons higher education should be welcoming the increased adoption of video and online learning.

The relatively recent transition to online learning is evidenced by the growth of online education providers (predicted $133B in 2023) in addition to existing universities expanding their online education efforts. Adding a world-wide pandemic and the declining numbers of high school graduates to the growth of online learning, many traditional universities are at a breaking point.

Jeff Doyle, Baylor University
Jeff Doyle, Baylor University

Experts in higher education are predicting the collapse of hundreds of institutions in the coming years (mostly small private colleges). In April, Richard Vedder, a distinguished professor, wrote an article in Forbes titled “Why the Coronovirus will Kill 500-1,000 Universities.” “Dawn of the Dead” was another piece, from November 2019, based on data analyzing “balance sheet strength and operational soundness, plus other indicators of a college’s financial condition, including admission yield, percentage of freshmen receiving institutional grants and instruction expenses per student.” The result, pre-COVID, was 61% of colleges grading out at a “D” (and 53% at a C).

The coronavirus-caused move to online learning has taught the college-going public much about what actually happens in the classroom. Once the aura of college was stripped down to the 15 credit hours students typically spend in class each week, the reality of some aspects of college teaching emerged. Many students realized that their faculty members were not synchronously interacting with them, but instead operating like correspondence courses of old—sending out readings, assignments and tests. Although this asynchronous learning is a more equitable approach with regards to students in multiple time zones and without high-speed internet, this equity comes at the cost of meaningful faculty-student interaction.

Why haven’t universities, especially during a world crisis, better solved the challenge of effectively using video-based online learning to educate? Here are five reasons higher education should be welcoming the increased adoption of video and online learning.

  • Learning from video has shown to be just as effective as reading. I am not stating that learning by video is better than reading; just that the existing research has not come to a clear conclusion on one format being better than another. It often depends on the quality of the instruction in the video and the writing of the author. What this means, therefore, is that watching a video on course content is often just as effective for learning as reading outside of class. The current generation of students has a clear preference for video over reading. If learning from video is equally effective as reading, and students prefer video, why not allow students to watch video of course content, in addition to reading, to prepare for class? Furthermore, thankfully, we no longer need to allocate time in class to show videos. We can quickly transition into questions, discussion and reflection.
  • Student-faculty interaction, the factor students identify as one of the most essential to a quality college experience, is actually going to increase with the use of video in online learning. Faculty will still lead classes, but their focus will be on implementing more high impact practices for learning – discussion, practice by doing, teaching others, etc. The focus should shift from presenting lectures that try to keep everyone listening to engaging with the students and increasing their exploration of the content. In addition to emphasizing students’ learning (vs. teaching), this shift should also allow faculty to more meaningfully engage with course content and result in more scholarship (e.g. research, presentations, etc.)
  • Higher education has been and will continue to constantly adapt. The first 150 years of higher education in America was centered around learning Greek, Latin, the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Students used to start college in their early teens. Before the late 1800s few colleges taught the applied professions (e.g. nursing, business, agriculture, engineering, technology). In the 1900s, higher education integrated genders, races, ages, ability-levels, nationalities and much more. Even in recent generations, asking parents or grandparents what college was like in their time will result in widely different descriptions. In short, higher education has been adapting to the needs of students and society for centuries.
  • Instructors are already teaching using online video—they just need to acknowledge and welcome it. A 2019 report revealed that 99% of colleges had faculty who are regularly incorporating video into their courses. Eight out of ten classes were using video in the classroom and two-thirds were integrating video for student assignments and flipped classrooms. It leads one to wonder if there is a fear that universities that promote the use of video in learning lessens the quality of the learning experience when in fact it can improve it.
  • Using video of renowned teachers is more effective than using existing faculty to teach the material. The current assumption is that in-person teaching is just as good, if not better, than a video of one of the best teachers on the topic. The reality is that this is rarely true. Unfortunately, this is what many students and parents discovered March through May 2020. The fact is, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of professors elsewhere better at using video to teach.

If faculty are not going to create more active in-class learning experiences, why do students have to sit in classrooms and lecture halls to listen to talks they could just as easily watch on the treadmill or in bed? Let’s briefly study the topic of adoption of video in learning using an analogy. Assuming you like college football, answer this question: Would you rather watch one of the best college football teams in the nation on television or attend a game of lower-division football team trying to maintain a .500 record? With the former, you can eat, relax and takes breaks when desired. With the latter, students often mentally check out and start to check in with friends and focus on their post-game plans.

The answer to this question for today’s college students is clear. In a March 2020 article in CBS Sports, data indicated that “in 2019, college football attendance hit a 24-year low according to the NCAA’s official numbers. The average was the lowest since 1996.” In describing a meeting of experts to discuss the issue, it was noted that “none of them have been able to figure out what has become a chronic problem in college football.”

The answer seems somewhat simple to me (and some others). This generation of students would prefer to watch the game in the comfort of their temperature regulated home, with a 70-inch television, high-speed wireless, a refrigerator nearby and no lines at the bathroom. They don’t have to spend time dressing up, traveling and finding parking either.

Students seek the same thing in the classroom. Why should they have to set an alarm, get cleaned up, travel to class and sit in an uncomfortable chair to listen to someone talk at them for 50 minutes? It is time for professors to learn how to create more active learning experiences in the classroom and use video to deliver engaging content outside of class.

It is an anomaly that Baylor University has maintained one of the highest percentages of student attendance at college football games. The root of the solution began in 1970 – all new students are given a Baylor football jersey and on the back is their expected graduation year and their personally selected nickname above it. They wear this jersey to the game where, a few minutes before kick-off, they run across the field in front of the fans and to great fanfare. Next, they transition to their front row seats in the middle of the stadium where their own cheerleaders regularly engage them in a variety of yells and songs they learned during orientation. In short, students are incentivized to attend, celebrated in front of thousands, and given an engaging environment to maintain their interest.

While it would be hard to replicate this experience when attending class, the use of quality online video and active learning experiences are becoming the future of successful college learning. Unfortunately, most universities will likely continue to study and copy the colleges several places above them in the college rankings. However, there comes a point where universities must step out of their comfort zones and make informed and independent decisions about their college’s approach to education.

A generation ago the use of video and online learning was considered universally substandard. Now it has been shown to be at least as equally effective as in-person lectures and clearly preferred by this generation of students. If colleges do not start making proactive decisions about the future of teaching and learning, students will use their college choices to make those decisions for them.

Since stepping down from his role as Dean at Baylor University in Texas in 2019, Jeff Doyle has worked in Institutional Effectiveness (IE) at Baylor. In that role, he assists all the administrative and student support departments (>30)  in their efforts to strategically plan, assess progress and take action. Doyle also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on organizational behavior, leadership and higher education management. His blog is Deep Thoughts on Higher Education.

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