The closure of university and college campuses and the shift to online learning due to COVID-19 in March 2020 was a massive global educational experience.
Many students were severely disadvantaged and strained during this experience. Others have faced. Some have thrived. Educators are divided on its impacts.
With international colleagues who are experts in geography, I have studied the lessons learned during the pandemic. Together, these lessons could form the basis of what post-pandemic post-secondary education might look like in decades to come. Improved educational practices could be one of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic.
The large-scale result is more choice for students in how they are taught with greater access for more students. But realistically, the lessons will be applied in different ways by faculty, academic departments, and institutions to create a patchwork of unique approaches.
New forms of online learning
Online education specialists distanced themselves from emergency online education at the start of the pandemic.
However, improvisation by untrained online educators produced a surprise. Our research documented how some students who had previously taken and hated online courses with polished presentations and high production values found that they enjoyed a course with professors who could communicate well with online students.
In these cases, bad news jokes and a peek at the professor’s home office more than made up for the grainy video and poor sound. Some proven online courses continue to be offered by some professors, even though colleges and universities are now fully open. Students can enjoy the convenience of an online course and connect with their teacher.
Students also quickly learned that online courses do not need to be taken from home.
My anecdotal impression from colleagues in the United States and Canada, including some colleagues from British Columbia at meetings hosted by the British Columbia Council on Admissions and Transfer—an organization that oversees credit transfers between post-secondary institutions—is that online sections fill up faster than face-to-face sections of the same course at some universities and colleges.
More online components
The online experience has also informed face-to-face classes with more thought from faculty on how to engage students during a lecture.
During e-learning, course leaders achieved this engagement through online discussion forums and other collaborative tools. This experience has continued for some teachers, and online learning management systems like Moodle and Canvas are now widely used in some face-to-face courses.
Teaching and learning accommodation
Prior to the pandemic, students with learning, mental or physical disabilities had access to “accessibility services” or similar office at universities and colleges.
The process involved professional evaluation of accommodations needed for students to pass a course, such as extended time for tests or permission to record lectures. The offices communicated these adjustments to the teachers who were then required to implement the adjustments.
Campus closures meant that on-campus support services were less readily available. As a result, some students spoke directly to their professors about the challenges they faced.
These challenges were well known to specialist counselors and counselors within universities, but confidentiality prevented faculty from understanding student challenges.
Learning about the specifics of the complex nature of barriers to learning for some students has led some faculty to think more about courses and course delivery for all students.
For example, before the pandemic, live recorded lectures were available for some students as accommodation.
During the online pivot, lecture recordings were popular and proved to be useful for many students. A professor’s understanding of the importance of accommodation for one or two students can be beneficial for all.
Some professors continue to record lectures now, even while offering an in-person class.
Reduce student stress
Student mental health became an issue during the pandemic, but there were also increasing numbers of students with mental health issues before the pandemic. Media conversations also made it easier for students to talk about their challenges.
The causes of mental health issues are diverse, but student workload has increased in recent years and has increased during the pandemic.
The transition from face-to-face classes to an online environment has encouraged the addition of new assignments to classes, often in addition to old ones. Some professors are beginning to rethink not only the way they teach, but also their curriculum.
Patchwork of answers
While university and college administrators are still grappling with post-pandemic responses, many decisions have already been made by individual professors.
Some attend classes, demand that assignments be handed in on paper, and refuse to record their lectures or provide copies of their slides. Others are more accommodating. There has never been a more flexible time to be a student.