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Higher Education

The Role of Digital Learning in the Post-Pandemic College Classroom

By Fernando Bleichmar
May 18, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed colleges and universities to digital learning platforms at a faster rate than anyone could have anticipated. This not only shifted the classroom environment, but also changed how students and educators engage in the learning experience. Our latest Digital Learning Pulse survey found that the majority of faculty surveyed (71 percent) said their fall 2020 teaching techniques were “very different” or reflected a “number of changes” from the pre-pandemic classroom.

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more readily available, colleges are now focused on reopening campuses, determining what the future classroom will look like and how new online teaching methods and technologies will fit in. What can these institutions take away from a year of remote learning and what benefits can online learning and digital tools offer for the post-pandemic classroom?

Online Learning Can Improve Accessibility and Flexibility in the Post-Pandemic Classroom

Higher education was already not attainable or affordable for many students, and the pandemic only exacerbated this with job loss and financial challenges contributing to enrollment declines. Students struggled with the cost of tuition and materials, but also struggled to balance coursework with other needs.

Most higher education students today are non-traditional (over age 25, working, or are parents), and education needs to flex to fit their lives. Digital learning creates opportunities for educators to move beyond the traditional course structure that limits accessibility for many of these students. With online learning tools, educators can create flexible learning experiences so students can learn asynchronously anywhere and anytime. Students juggling work or family can learn at their own pace, decreasing the need to drop out or pause their education. Hybrid learning also offers professors flexibility to teach from anywhere and connect with students outside of normal class hours.

In the post-pandemic classroom, institutions can use online learning and digital tools to offer more affordable and accessible learning paths, boost enrollment and reach a more diverse pool of students, including those who are first generation, low income or from underrepresented groups.

Digital Tools Can Help Unbundle and Scale Education Programs

Online learning and digital tools can help unbundle the college experience by allowing students to opt out of the traditional campus experience (and its associated costs) in favor of more flexible and affordable “online-only” courses. This allows institutions to personalize the learning experience based on financial and academic need, which broadens access to programs that were once too costly for some students.

Digital learning tools can also help institutions scale beyond their traditional degree offerings, and help colleges, especially community colleges, double back from last fall’s enrollment decline. By offering an extended course catalogue, including skills-based training and credential-focused courses, colleges can attract students looking for learning opportunities beyond the traditional degree.

This has never been more important as millions of adults lost jobs because of the pandemic, jobs that are not likely to come back. Many adults need to reskill to find sustainable employment. Colleges have an opportunity to explore shorter credential programs which is made easier with digital tools as content and assessments can be easily adjusted to fit the course.

Services and Support Are Key for Digital Learning Success

Digital learning tools not only provide needed flexibility, they enable the learning experience to be personalized to the individual needs of each student. Digital platforms can identify where a student might be struggling and where they need additional resources or practice. On a bigger scale, the analytics digital tools provide give institutions a better understanding of what’s “working,” and what is not. Analytics services allow institutions to scale practices that are more effective but also experiment with new techniques and gauge their effectiveness.

For digital and hybrid learning to be sustainable, however, services must expand to help educators leverage technology for teaching and learning success. Faculty already have enough on their plates and need help from digital learning partners with moving courses to online, hybrid or hyflex models, as well as help with understanding how best to leverage digital tools for learning. In our survey, more than 4 in 10 faculty and more than 7 in 10 administrators said they are not getting enough professional development from their institution when it comes to online teaching. Institutions will need to actively engage with partners for support at scale in this area.

As college campuses reopen and move to “get back to normal,” it’s important we take the time to reflect on what we’ve learned from the last year, understand what was a beneficial to learning and carry that into the “new normal.” Digital learning tools should play an important role in that new education experience.

Fernando Bleichmar is Cengage’s EVP and General Manager for U.S. Higher Education.

Featured Image: NeONBRAND, Unsplash.

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