US ‘risks missing out’ on long-term benefits of online learning

Virtual tools have unprecedented power to bend teaching towards research-proven ideals, yet opportunity of lockdown getting squandered, MIT experts tell colleagues

May 11, 2022
Introduction days for the exchange students of Maastricht University. The students are being welcomed and informed about the university, studies and temporary hometown.
Source: iStock

US universities appear to be losing an irreplaceable moment to make critically important shifts towards online learning by hesitating to seize the opening created by the Covid pandemic, some pioneers in the field are warning.

As the US seeks normality after what is hopefully the worst of the pandemic, many universities and their faculty are instinctively embracing the revival and primacy of traditional in-person methods, said Anant Agarwal, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of the edX platform.

But that is a mistake given the clear advantages of virtual formats for generating transformational teaching approaches, Professor Agarwal told Times Higher Education’s Digital Universities Week US in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“If you wait too long,” said Professor Agarwal, now chief open education officer at the online education provider 2U, which bought edX last year, “I think this moment in history will never come back again.”

Professor Agarwal was among a series of industry leaders at the conference brandishing data suggesting that online education options must be far more than an emergency measure, or even just an occasional option for busy professionals or classroom-shy undergraduates.

Others included Sanjay Sarma, a professor of mechanical engineering and vice-president for open learning at MIT, who gave examples of how online tools could open pathways to widespread use of techniques that have been shown by research to align with how people’s brains process and retain information.

Those examples, Professor Sarma said, include repeating information at specifically calibrated intervals that maximise the formation of dendrites that create long-term memories in the brain. Commercial language-learning software routinely takes advantage of that understanding as a basic element of their design, but university instructors typically do not, he told the conference, organised by THE and MIT.

That same basic insight helps to explain the urgency of convincing university leaders to make a major push now to create lasting online options, before faculty forget about it, Professor Agarwal said. The pandemic immediately pushed all instructors into online modes. “Professors who had said “not over my dead body” were doing it routinely,” he said. But “if you don’t make them repeat it, they get rusty”, he continued, and they will not go back.

Others joining the event included Christopher Rush, the senior adviser for innovation and educational technology at the US Department of Education, who promised that the Biden administration did recognise the value of online innovation in education but conceded that the pace of its encouragement and implementation activities might be greatly affected by the as-yet unknown willingness of Congress to fund major initiatives.

Mr Rush also acknowledged, in response to questions, the risks of rushing too quickly into the online educational arena, given high-profile concerns about the behaviours of technology companies overall, in areas that include the exploitation of personal data and the reliance on computer algorithms that can perpetuate and magnify human biases.

Yet, he said, “Every useful tool that’s ever emerged out there is a double-edged sword.”

“The truth is, it’s going to be a little bit like a stock – it’s going to go up and down – and we can’t just get scared every time it goes down, as long as it’s net going in the right direction,” Mr Rush said. “And that’s just part of the innovation process.”

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