The COVID Diaries: Intentional Online Education vs. Emergency Remote Instruction

young dad working and homeschoolingOlga LaPlante and Amy Wright, members of the CGPS Instructional Design Services (IDS) team, discuss some of the benefits of intentional online education and the collaborative processes IDS uses to create engaging online courses:

2020 was a school year unlike any other since 1918 and now that it’s summer and school is out, many K-12 schools and colleges are reflecting on the spring 2020 term as they plan for the next school year. COVID-19 forced educators across the country to rapidly switch to emergency remote learning to maintain instructional continuity at the onset of the pandemic, whether via the Internet, photocopied packets, or some combination of these strategies.

In early June, as seniors across the country received their diplomas in virtual ceremonies and teachers returned to empty classrooms they hadn’t seen since March, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled The results are in for remote learning: It didn’t work.

Providing high-quality remote instruction can be challenging. However, it’s important to note that there are significant differences between intentional online education, like that offered by UNE’s College of Graduate and Professional Studies (CGPS), and the emergency remote learning that the pandemic forced upon colleges and K-12 education nationwide.

Intentional online education

Q: Remote learning across colleges and K-12 schools this past spring was in response to an unprecedented public health threat. However, CGPS has for years offered thoughtfully-designed, exclusively online instruction for our graduate and professional studies students, year-round. How does this type of online learning differ from Spring 2020’s sudden pivot from face-to-face programs to remote instruction?

A: First, quality online education is intentional. At CGPS, we use a team-based approach, with multiple “sets of eyes” and perspectives informing the design and development of every course. This means we have a Subject Matter Expert (SME) who works in the field, such as a practitioner who applies the concepts discussed in the course, partnered with an Instructional Designer (ID) who brings knowledge of best practices for teaching adults and who builds and maintains the courses in our Learning Management System (LMS).

A well-designed online course does not simply gather existing content from face-to-face classes and deliver it in an LMS. Our learning modules are carefully considered and organized in a way to help guide students toward mastery of the learning objectives. Part of our process involves actively thinking about, and discussing with SMEs, what course content to include, as well as what challenges exist in a digital space.

For example, if an instructor can’t read a student’s body language for engagement and comprehension, how else might those attributes be measured? How do students in online programs prepare for and gain practice in clinical settings? How do we assess the mastery and application of the course material?

By setting out clearly defined outcomes from the start, instructional designers (in collaboration with SMEs) determine assessment strategies for students to demonstrate their mastery in a context approximating real-world, professional settings, such as leading a hiring committee or facilitating an educational webinar. We also consider what opportunities exist by intentionally working online.

Our Instructional Design Services team brings expertise in both technology tools and online learning strategies.

Access to learning opportunities

Q: During Spring 2020, students and instructors struggled with the sudden change to remote learning. Some challenges were technical, such as internet access, the availability of computing devices, and physical space. How does CGPS ensure that students have access to learning opportunities at a distance?

A: Distance education has always been about expanding opportunities. While COVID-19-related closures made it impossible to attend school in person for almost anyone in the US, existing high-quality accredited online programs continued largely unaffected.

One of the most important benefits of online education, especially for anyone needing the flexibility of learning at a distance, is that it is designed to provide educational opportunities to people who may not have the time or ability to attend traditional classes on a physical campus. Online learning has been viewed as an equalizer, providing educational opportunities to students of diverse backgrounds and needs.

In higher education, intentional online programs and courses have a transparent set of requirements, including technology tools and an internet connection sufficient for successful participation and completion of learning experiences. Our enrollment and student support teams share these requirements with prospective and new students to ensure a disruption-free, quality learning experience.

Our instructional designers incorporate universal design strategies to increase accessibility for all learners. When technical issues do arise, we have many built-in systems for assistance, including student support, the Instructional Design team, and our 24/7 ITS helpdesk.

User experience and intentional online education

Q: Some students and instructors have reported feeling lost or disconnected during this spring’s sudden transition to remote instruction. How does CGPS support students and faculty in building community within online courses?

A: First, our learning experience design is student-focused, thus empowering students to pursue learning and expertise as well as connecting with peers and faculty within each course. Our concept of student-centered design extends throughout the entire process, from SMEs and IDs from the IDS team collaborating with the student in mind, to opportunities for discussion, peer review, and working together on group projects.

Our courses are designed to be asynchronous, so the Instructional Design team strives to incorporate innovative ways for students to interact with each other and engage with the content, even though they might never meet face-to-face. We use tools such as branching scenarios that present choices and consequences, video discussion posts, and simulations of real-world clinical settings to increase engagement and personalize the online learning experience.

The IDS team also provides tutorials and technology guides for faculty and students alike, to help them navigate what may be new technologies and pedagogical strategies for them. Our instructors are well-versed in online teaching strategies, and the IDS team provides them with support and ongoing professional development for new approaches and technologies.

Student support specialists and instructional faculty are proactive and available for questions and assistance, and we deliberately build into our courses a variety of ways to access these resources and supports. Additional resources such as the UNE Library, study skills and writing assistance from the Student Academic Success Center (SASC), as well as professional skills and field placement support, are not only available but incorporated right into the design of our online courses.

CGPS 2016 graduation

Photo courtesy Elizabeth Benz, Director of Online Student Support

Our course design and maintenance are high-touch, which means that courses are regularly revisited in response to both external events (e.g., a change in industry practices or standards, out-of-date learning resources, etc.) and to feedback from our teaching faculty and students themselves.

As a result of our student-centered approach, CGPS students form genuine and long-lasting relationships with their classmates, while building community and friendships across their courses.

Each year, hundreds of UNE Online students travel from around the country and all over the world to Maine, to celebrate their Commencement in person, in recognition of the relationships they have built and their academic achievements in a 100% online program.

Interested in learning more about intentional online education?

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