As the COVID-19 pandemic forces universities across the nation to quickly transition from in-person to online instruction, faculty members are focusing on how to make this change while continuing to maintain quality academic experiences and assess learning outcomes.

Sharing insights on creating well-developed online learning experiences that are meaningfully different from mirroring face-to-face instruction in a virtual classroom was the goal of two Virginia Tech faculty members in an article published recently by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association that helps higher education elevate the impact of information technology.

Barbara Lockee, a professor of instructional design and technology in the School of Education and Provost Faculty Fellow, and Aaron Bond, senior director for the Professional Development Network and interim senior director for instructional design, innovation, and outreach, co-authored “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning” with lead author Charles B. Hodges, professor of instructional technology at Georgia Southern University; Stephanie Moore, assistant professor of instructional design and technology at the University of Virginia; and Torrey Trust, associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The article seeks to help faculty who have been thrust into the online instruction arena better understand the concepts, similarities, and differences in the design of effective online learning and emergency remote teaching.

“Each member of the team involved in developing this article has worked in the area of distance and online education at our own universities for many years,” said Lockee. “We felt that it was important to convey some key points related to the typical design and development of online learning experiences and how these systematic processes differ from crisis response.”

According to the article, effective online education requires an investment in an ecosystem of learner supports, which take time to identify and build. It will be impossible for every faculty member to suddenly become an expert in online teaching and learning in this current situation, in which lead times range from a single day to a few weeks. In contrast to online experiences that are planned and designed from the beginning to be online, the COVID-19 pandemic forced institutions into what is known as “emergency remote teaching” (ERT), which is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances. It involves the use of fully remote teaching solutions that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face or as blended or hybrid courses.

Lockee, Bond, and their colleagues share the concern that challenges related to ERT could create a false impression of the effectiveness, academic strengths, and engagement opportunities of systematically developed online teaching and learning.

“Unfortunately, our current quick shift to immediate online delivery didn't come with the luxury of time to engage in the kind of informed decision-making afforded by standard instructional design processes, as we are trying to address an immediate, pressing need,” Lockee said. “As online learning is commonly perceived to be ‘second best’ or of lesser quality, we fear that challenges incurred in such a quick transition to an unfamiliar platform and instructional approaches may intensify that perception among some faculty and administrators.”

Bond said the quick transition to virtual instruction is a significant challenge in that a full online course development project can take months when done properly. “The need to just get courses online is in direct contradiction to the time and effort normally dedicated to developing a quality course,” Bond said. “Online courses created in this way should not be mistaken for long-term solutions, but accepted as a temporary solution to an immediate problem. It’s important to recognize that online courses that incorporate comprehensive course design processes also typically have more time to evaluate tools and pedagogical strategies.”

Advancing Virginia Tech’s commitment to creating experiential learning opportunities for students is another area that has required creative solutions during the online transition. Lockee said that in some cases such a transition is not possible if the experiences require specialized resources, equipment, or access to specific locations. However, in many cases, transition is possible through innovative application of technology and communication strategies.

Alicia Johnson, a visiting assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s instructional design and technology program, is using creative experiential learning strategies to involve her graduate students in new ways to communicate, manage projects, and create in a fully digitally mediated environment. In one class, students are creating open educational resources specifically for online instructors. In another class, she is helping students work with a client referred to her by the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs at Virginia Tech. Students in her class are creating digital instruction for the client’s virtual reality learning product for World Language classrooms.

Johnson’s students are using multiple online platforms to solve instructional and training problems for others, as well as gaining experience in the instructional design process and remote project management. They are creating digital design documents, process books, scripts, storyboards, and prototypes using a variety of digital content creation tools that help them design instructional products to share with their stakeholders. They will be showcasing their experiences soon at Virginia Tech’s Virtual ICAT Day.   

As universities continue to use online platforms to teach, Lockee and Bond say that flexibility and familiarity will be key in how effective faculty are in actually educating and engaging students in a virtual environment. “I would encourage faculty to stick with technology and tools that they are familiar with and to consider the same for students,” said Bond. “They should consider the most important components of course content remaining and teach those components. Trying to get everything in with the time remaining will cause stress for students and faculty alike.”

Lockee adds that flexibility will be equally important in terms of how faculty create effective online educational experiences for students and also in strategizing how to wrap up the remainder of the semester.

“It's a good time to reconsider our original plans and decide which activities and assessments are essential and which may possibly be adapted or eliminated due to time limitations. In some sense, this quick transition to online teaching also requires flexibility in our own expectations of ourselves and our students as well,” said Lockee.

Written by Dave Guerin