As universities navigate these uncertain times, they have an opportunity to rethink and improve the student experience through online learning. In this article, Todd Zipper, President of Wiley University Services, explores ways to transform higher education while expanding the impact of your university’s mission.

The COVID-19 pandemic led higher education into uncertain territory. University leadership and faculty helped students navigate unprecedented times by quickly establishing virtual classrooms, and I found their commitment inspiring. But it’s important to recognize that online learning is capable of much more than what students experienced during spring 2020.

With the fall semester looming and the timing of a coronavirus vaccine uncertain, a significant amount of learning will take place outside the classroom for the near future. This pivot to distance learning may accelerate the evolution of higher education, and our industry must continue to band together to shape that evolution to the benefit of students.

Where Is Higher Education Headed as a Result of COVID-19?

It’s clear that online education will be central to learning as long as COVID-19 causes disruptions. Social distancing and wearing masks on campus promote safety, but many students—and their parents—will likely feel more comfortable with remote instruction. In a survey of six universities, Wiley University Services found 16 percent of current, on-campus students would not commit to taking classes on campus this fall. Data also indicates that segments of learners are skeptical about online courses. As some institutions explore only offering remote classes, estimates show that enrollments at many regional universities are lagging (but not as much as the 20 percent losses predicted in April).

Given the mixed results of virtual instruction at the high school level, it’s understandable that first-year college students may wonder about the value of remote learning. That said, the virtual courses that schools pieced together at the precipice of a pandemic have little in common with online programs that learning designers craft based on best practices. As such, universities that switch to a fully remote model this fall will need to elevate their virtual courses—or risk diminished student satisfaction.

Many universities are working to provide students with campus experiences for at least a portion of their studies. Hybrid or blended programs will let students engage in a mix of in-person and online learning. These programs will work best if students can toggle between formats when infection rates spike. This approach requires universities to develop online components that foster high-quality learning experiences. Therefore, it’s crucial to plan for how online elements will function if campuses must close abruptly.

Placing Quality Above Modality

I look forward to identifying additional ways to improve outcomes as universities adopt hybrid models this fall. Students and faculty will likely find that online instruction can accentuate what they can achieve on campus. I envision a future where we retire the idea of online vs. classroom learning, replacing these dueling models with a unified format that prioritizes quality.

My experience as a student bolsters this vision. As I worked through my bachelor’s and master’s programs during the 1990s, most of my development occurred outside the classroom. I cultivated my knowledge as I reflected on lectures, studied at home, collaborated in groups, and worked in internships. In the next iteration of higher education, the time spent with professors—be it on campus or through a device—would continue providing the cognitive nourishment for knowledge to blossom. However, the format of those interactions would be secondary.

The critical point is for universities to provide high-impact learning experiences across modalities. While there are endless ways to achieve this objective, an institution may struggle if online or hybrid learning isn’t their strong suit. That’s where education partners enter the picture.

Leveraging a Partnership for Success

With the right education partner, universities can do more than keep pace with trends—they get the support to evolve in ways that advance their mission. Education partners also fill resource gaps as once-reliable funding sources wane. Add to that the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, and industry partners are essential for many universities.

Wiley University Services is uniquely positioned to support a rapid transition to online or hybrid learning. We manage the most extensive portfolio of online programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Through this work, we have developed best practices and expertise for building courses on an accelerated schedule. Our support scales with each university’s needs, as we can help launch a single program or take an enterprise approach to bring complete academic portfolios online.

Many of Wiley’s partners follow an enterprise approach to online courses. Their foresight to build multidimensional online courses enables them to offer reliable degree pathways to working professionals and recent high school graduates. If disruptions occur, these universities have the agility to pivot to distance learning formats that maintain high engagement and achieve superior outcomes.

Universities must do more than offer high-quality online courses—they must educate students about how impactful this format can be. This work is especially vital in an environment where 33 percent of first-year students may hit pause instead of joining an online college program. Backed by an education partner’s enrollment team, universities can share data-driven stories with first-year students, helping them see what makes thoughtfully constructed online programs so empowering.

Students may feel like they’re living through a defining moment, but it doesn’t have to define what they achieve in life. By working together, universities and education partners can reshape academic programs to increase their long-term impact and reach—and create new possibilities in higher education.

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