Online courses, remote pivot alter higher ed landscape

Nina Huntemann, the Vice President of Learning for edX, shares insight on the push to digital in the past year as well as the future of online learning and degrees.
By: | January 7, 2021
Olivier Le Moal/Getty Images

Many higher education institutions that have found success through remote learning have done so with the help of edX, the popular massive open online course provider.

Over the past year and spurred by need through the COVID-19 pandemic, the company that was co-founded by MIT and Harvard has served 400,000 learners per day with 3,000 courses, 2 million certificates and 149 credit pathways.

edX has become a go-to resource not only for students looking to gain a career edge and add credentials, but also a vital piece in helping aid virtual learning for 160 colleges and universities, including Cal Berkeley, the University of Texas, Georgetown and many schools abroad. Institutions and companies across the globe have relied on its courses and 39 million hours of video to meet the need of students during this critical time.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly accelerated the digital transformation of education,” says Nina Huntemann, edX Vice President of Learning. “The traditional higher education experience of residential-only learning has been permanently altered. Going forward, online learning must be a core competency and strategy of every university. In this new normal, however, no school has to do everything on its own.”

The launch of edX’s Online Campus to its members last March and then a free access pass for all accredited institutions worldwide has provided a helping hand during the pandemic. As a result, there were 110 million enrollments last year. Huntemann, a former professor at Suffolk University in Boston, sat down with University Business to discuss that growing catalog of courses, the past year in higher ed and the future of degrees and online learning.

When the pandemic hit, the need for online learning was immediate and widespread. And here was edX … been around since 2012 but almost made for this moment. Tell us about what the past year has been like.

Nina Huntemann

Made for the moment … in many ways that’s how we feel, despite the circumstances being certainly not desirable. For us and our partners, we were well set up to respond. We understood that delivering learning in-person synchronously was a very different scenario than delivering it online. Knowing that we had a lot of experience, we were compelled to share it. Early on, I did webinars, we put out a lot of materials about how to transition from on campus and residential to online. It felt like a triage moment. Tons of learners were looking to supplement things that were disappearing for them on campus, and lots of institutions were looking for help to figure out how to make the transition.

How well did institutions and instructors respond in the initial stages of the pandemic and how have they fared since?

At first, it was just, how do we finish out the semester – using synchronous tools like Zoom to put the camera in front of the teacher. No judgment, we all had to do something. What was incredible during June, July, and August, people kept asking us, how do you make learning engaging? There was a recognition that just turning on a camera and talking to students for 50 or 75 minutes wasn’t working. It can be awkward if you’re not familiar with creating a discussion-like environment in a Zoom or Teams space. How do I do more than just turn the camera on? When I am synchronous with my students? What am I doing during that time? Given that we can’t be together, am I doing what is most valuable?

What lessons were being learned right away by institutions and instructors?

If what you do during that time is just lecture at your students, it’s not a good use of time. Record that and put that up for students to engage with later. So, there was this realization happening: if what we need is to create engaging interaction – and all of the passive moments of learning (reading, watching and listening) needs to be asynchronous – that means we have to create all that stuff. Unfortunately, for many institutions that maybe hadn’t really dove into online very much, it requires a ton of resources you may not have. So, if you’re going to have video recording, does every faculty member have some sort of software they can record themselves in? Do they know how to use it? Do they know how to do editing? We saw a ton of faculty development happening through seminars and webinars. We said OK, now you’ve gotten through the emergency, let’s figure out how we’re going to set up for fall.

Have faculty adjusted to the changes, even those who have traditional mindsets?

It’s been mixed. As soon as you say, faculty have been doing this forever and they’re not willing to change, I can show you faculty who are 30 years into their career and have discovered that teaching online has actually opened up the practice of teaching. Similarly, you would think that the younger scholar fresh out of grad school would be all about technology, and he is totally ill-equipped. So, no assumptions about previous experience.

The first mindset shift is what do you do when you’re together in the same space. The other is that teaching online is a team sport. It’s not just up to the faculty member. That’s just too much to expect. Faculty are recognizing that instructional designers can help them understand how to better organize, and educational technologists can help them discover tools – whereas before, it was a very isolating experience. You’re the sole author of the learning experience. People are realizing now it takes so much more.

How has the support for students changed during remote learning?

What was in many ways invisible, if a student was struggling, they would take their challenges to mental health services or to their resident assistant. But now, the sole point of contact is the faculty member. Teachers were seeing things that they may have never seen before, and realizing I need to get this student mental health services, student support services and tutoring. What universities do is not just about instruction. There’s so much more support that learners need. As I talk to my colleagues around the world who are teachers, I hear all kinds of stories like: I know the number of our mental health services like the back of my hand. It is a horrible circumstance. But I think it helps people to see that students are a whole person. They’re not just the learning part. They’re trying to accomplish a lot and do it under incredible duress.

Are college students more inclined to want to learn remotely or in person?

Really interesting, in the early days [of the pandemic], students were saying the Zoom experience was horrible. I’m not paying for that. Students who have experienced learning online this fall actually have rated their experience quite high. So, you have to segment the students a bit. Students who are taking care of families, who need more flexible schedules are finding online really great, assuming that their instructor has made it more flexible. Because there’s also stories, of faculty saying my class lecture is at 9 am. I don’t care if you live on the West Coast, it’s still 9 am. But I would say that the reaction of students who have learned online before or gotten some kind of flexibility, are giving very positive reviews. What is coming through and is fascinating is there is an absolute craving for the campus. If you’re the kind of college student who does go away for school, and has had a college experience and not a lot of family responsibilities, that group is really missing campus.

How much has the role of the faculty member changed since the start of the pandemic?

The role of the faculty is shifting in a good direction, but it’s not going to be without pain. They need to think about designing a course experience or learning experience that is flexible for what the reality of most learners today are: They’re working professionals; they have demands in their lives. That probably requires collaborating with others. Knowing what options your students have to get help where needed. What it means to be a university professor is shifting to be more learner-centric.

How much has the online learning experience improved over the past year.

There’s so much great digital content out there, it almost seems ridiculous to recreate it. I’ve often heard people say, why do we have 1,000 different versions of Econ 101 when the basics of Econ 101 are the same? I take that with a grain of salt because it’s about how you teach it to individual learners. But if the same textbook is used across the country to teach a subject, the same can be done [for digital content]. If we can share an ecosystem of digital content where learners can learn the basic concepts, then faculty can focus on teaching their specific students with what their career objectives are. If digital content can be shared [edX is doing that with courses it provides to universities] – it can take the burden off recreating all of that digital content.

How prevalent is the concept of sharing digital content? Are authors/instructors protective of it?

Educational institutions are far more willing to share than maybe people believe. There are a lot of open resources out there. With our partners, we said there’s huge demand around the world from educational institutions that are unable to create the digital content they need for their learners. Our universities said ‘no problem, let’s contribute our courses to edX Online Campus Essentials.’ There is a lot more impetus to share, and I think that’s another silver lining to come out of this. In terms of ownership of the individual instructor, that’s where the shift really needs to happen. What I should own and what I can bring to this course may not be the concept itself or what video I show, but how I connect it to the student who’s right in front of me. How do I personalize it? Nobody knows your students better than the faculty member who’s showing up three times a week. That’s where the ownership should be.

Tell us more about about Online Campus Essentials.

Along with university partners that provide content, we’ve come up with a curated catalog of courses that educational institutions can access for their learners for free. So, if you’re a university in Iceland looking for courses to deliver to students, you can explore our courses and integrate it into whatever your course offerings are. Some institutions have provided learners with an alternative to the internship they were going to have [but can’t because of the pandemic]. So they’re enrolling students into courses on edX through that. Institutions that don’t have the time and resources to create courses are using edX’s catalog.

With the popularity of microcredentials and certfications on the rise, what are the future of degrees?

Degrees will continue to matter for a lot of learners and a lot of employers. But they are certainly starting to matter less, and in some cases not at all. In the past, you either had a degree or you didn’t, and there was no in between. You were either a college dropout or a “never college”, or you had a degree. What we’re participating with in microcredentials is, what if you had part of a degree, the part of the learning you need to be able to do this job or this role? Why should you be locked out from that opportunity just because you don’t have that four-year piece of paper degree? That’s really resonating, not just with learners, but with employers who can’t wait for years to go by. The labor market is pushing us all in this direction. There aren’t enough students graduating with college degrees in these fields fast enough and so portions of degrees, microcredentials, certificate programs are starting to fill that gap.

What role do employers play in helping facilitate these paths for prospective students? Many say they want tailored skills but some are unwilling to help them with time or financial assistance.

Employers have to play a greater role. We have had wonderful experience working with employers that do get it. We have certainly lots of corporations that are recognizing that this could help train their internal employees, if they do set aside the time to help those employees learn. A lot of institutions are providing tuition remission, not just for college tuition, but for certificate programs. It’s happening, but it has to happen on a greater scale. Everybody has a part to play. Universities need to recognize that the degree is not one size fits all. They’ve got to start breaking their curriculum into more micro modular credentials. Employers need to recognize that they have to support this by giving time and money to be able to pay for it. And frankly, there’s a role for governments too, recognizing the credentials in the ways that they do. When federal and state employees are encouraged to get this credential, that can be a significant tipping point in the marketplace.

Is online learning here to stay in higher education?

A huge disappointment would be if we went back to the way it was. It really would be in my mind, a loss for learners who are finding more flexible ways and more efficacious ways to learn. I think it would be huge loss for universities because the agility and flexible, the flexibility that they’ve demonstrated over the past, nine months, is actually a testament to like, you can move faster, you can do things faster. So grab hold of that innovative spirit, and do it even when times are not as they are.