The Future of Learning is Online. And It Isn’t

by Barry Waldman

Emerging from Covid has left the pedagogical community, particularly at the college and graduate school level, in a new place. Students and faculty recognize that there is no going back. If you’re returning to graduate school after some time away from the classroom, a new paradigm awaits you.

College and graduate school are still mostly a classroom experience, but no longer entirely one. Even many courses that are in-person make accommodations via video for those who can’t make a class. Other courses are hybrid, depending upon the lesson on a particular day, combine video classes with in-person

At College of Charleston, Mike Lee, director of graduate studies in communication, teaches all his master’s degree courses asynchronously online. Most students work in the communication field and complete their work at their own convenience.

Many other courses in that department, however, are taught in the classroom as they were prior to Covid, not because the professor is a Luddite but because personal interaction is critical to class dynamics and learning.

Several of The Citadel’s graduate programs in STEM-based disciplines are offered entirely online or in a hybrid arrangement. Students in the certificate and master’s degree program in software engineering attend classes in person, but they are all recorded and posted online for professionals already in the field for whom attending class would be a hardship.

Boston University instituted a Learn from Anywhere plan when Covid initially struck. Students were appreciative of the flexibility but mostly wanted to attend classes in person. “For me personally it’s even more awkward over Zoom,” undergraduate Daniel Daly told the school publication BU Today. “I feel like I’m learning more, and engaged more, when I’m in the classroom.”

Planning and Discipline

The main differences between a classroom setting and the online classroom, say those who have experienced it, involve the planning and discipline required to make it work. Many people find it difficult to remain fully engaged online, particularly when surrounded by things they might otherwise prefer to do.

“You have to control your external surroundings,” says Ian McCann, an Orlando, FL resident who completed his MBA from home, entirely online at Binghamton University. McCann says that included shooing his parents out of the room when he was studying or taking a test.

It also means setting aside a quiet place without distractions, says Holly Fisher, founder of Fisher Creative marketing firm in Charleston and Asheville, NC. Fisher has both attended and hosted virtual webinars and workshops.

“Consciously shut down everything else, turn off notifications and close your email inbox. That will help you stay focused on content,” she said.

Video On, Mic On, Total Engagement

Many professors learned the hard way following the initial move to video classrooms that the rules of engagement for synchronous online learning were different. Students learn better when the virtual experience is their sole commitment during class hours, attending class in a room where they are the sole occupant, with their video and microphones on, phones off or in another room, focused entirely on the lessons at hand.

Be Aware of Yourself and Your Surroundings

Being fully present physically is still important. The internet is chock full of horror stories about people not realizing they weren’t muted during profanity-laced phone arguments, scathing critiques of the class in session, or noises from bodily functions. But after six semesters of widespread video learning, most participants have figured out the etiquette and best practices.

Video Backup for In-Person Learning

Even courses that are totally back to the classroom are finding utility in video backup. For Charleston, hurricanes and floods are commonplace reasons to close school. But they no longer require the cancellation of classes. Classes continued at local colleges and universities during Hurricane Ian, albeit online.

“I have taught several students who need to be absent long term for what is sometimes called ‘home and hospital’ instruction. Where possible, Zoom offers a solution with a concurrent or hybrid instructional model,” wrote Miriam Plotinsky, a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

In short, Covid has bequeathed, or perhaps accelerated, a new set of pedagogical options that include in-person, synchronous online, asynchronous online, hybrid and mixed classes that can maximize the potential of students no longer tethered exclusively to a classroom.