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Distance Learning Ramp-up: A Strategic View

When Arizona State University shifted the whole student body to online learning during its COVID-19 campus closure, it had an advantage: Lessons learned by EdPlus and ASU Online. In this interview, EdPlus CEO Phil Regier shares the pain and the promise of digital education at distance.

overhead view of student working on computer at home

For some institutions, scaling up digital education delivered online is nothing new. Arizona State University's EdPlus division has been at it for more than a decade in one form or another. The office was officially launched in 2014, as a central unit focused on designing and scaling digital teaching and learning models to increase student success and reduce barriers to achievement in higher education. However, many of those involved, including EdPlus CEO Phil Regier, who also serves as the university dean of educational initiatives, immersed themselves in the work for many years prior to that.

Success has come on a grand scale. Between fall 2012 and fall 2019, the number of students taking online programs through EdPlus' ASU Online grew more than 12-fold, from an estimated 3,565 students to 45,073, pushing total IPEDS enrollment in 2019 at the university to 119,951.

Recently, Campus Technology checked in with Regier to get his perspective on how ASU as a whole is adjusting to shifting all of its teaching to online, introduced when coronavirus closed the school's in-person classes on March 16, 2020.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Campus Technology: How are you doing? Are you working from home yourself?

Phil Regier

EdPlus CEO Phil Regier

Phil Regier: Oh, yes. Absolutely. Everybody in EdPlus — all the success coaches, all the enrollment counselors, videographers, everybody is now working from home — and probably working harder than we have ever worked before. But obviously EdPlus was built for distance, and so we're very comfortable doing it.

CT: Can you share the route that EdPlus as an organization itself has followed as this pandemic has unfolded?

Regier: It's intensified the organization's operations. There is a negative correlation between enrollment interest and COVID-19 attention. But as the arc of COVID begins to flatten out and go down, we expect not only a return to the normal interest in online, we actually expect a surge in interest in online education. And that's what we're really trying to prepare for — making sure that all our systems, all our processes, our tools within the university [and] within EdPlus are ready to go and handle what I anticipate to be an increased demand for online education from students going forward.

CT: Did ASU at large turn to your group and say, OK, how do we shift to remote education for everybody?

Regier: ASU was well positioned before this. Remember, EdPlus' ASU Online has always been an integral part of the university. We aren't something that was separated off. We didn't hire our own faculty. What I always say is, if you get a history degree from ASU Online you get a history degree from that unit at ASU. And what that meant was that when the university made a decision to teach at distance the 70,000 campus-based students, we had a large number of online classes already being delivered. Those are referred to as "iCourses." We had a third to a half of the faculty that had been trained in how to do quality digital instruction from a distance. And so our faculty weren't panicked. It wasn't something new. Teaching at distance wasn't something new.

Certainly, many, many, many of our classes were taught using Zoom. But the difference is, we were able to train the faculty in the weeks before sending students home. And if they had not taught at distance before, every one of them knew people in their unit who had taught for ASU Online. It wasn't something to fear; it was a new experience. But it was something that they had seen many of their colleagues master in the past, and I think that brought a certain degree of confidence.

CT: What kind of training was being provided to them?

Regier: We've always had a lot of webinars through ASU Online. The webinars occur several times a month. I think in April we have 11 webinars scheduled [compared to] five in March. We put 2,400 faculty through a two-week master class in online teaching and learning. We supplemented all of that within the weeks prior to [the COVID19 closure] with additional training in how to use Zoom at scale. We, like many other universities, had to adapt to Zoom very quickly; but our university technology office in particular did a fantastic job of putting together a set of webinars and videos, a site [where] faculty could go to learn the best practices for how to break students into groups [and] how to teach synchronously using Zoom at scale and at distance.

CT: Now every school in the country is playing in EdPlus' arena. What are you seeing that brightens your heart or makes you cringe?

Regier: What I'd say is they aren't playing in the arena yet. What they're doing is, they've made a move to a type of online education. The difference is we've been doing this for 10 years. Just with our Canvas platform, we have a 150 different tools and technologies and processes. We've built 2,500 very high-quality online courses. We've continued to adapt new technologies. We've assessed the efficacy. We know what works; we know what doesn't work. That's 10 years that you simply can't accelerate into three months.

It's not that COVID-19 is going to change the reality that we face. I think it's that COVID is going to accelerate the reality we face. There's going to be an acceleration toward high-quality online teaching and learning — and that's good. That's something that we've been advocating inside EdPlus and at ASU for a decade. We've had a hundred different institutions come through EdPlus over the past three or four years. And very few of them have made significant strides in online teaching and learning. But they're going to over the next six months. I don't think that's a negative. In terms of advancing the country and serving the country, I think that's a good thing overall.

What's new is Zoom. I think it's a very useful tool, and I think ASU has deployed it really intelligently. And I think it can be used increasingly for asynchronous coursework. In ASU Online, 99.9 percent is delivered asynchronously, because of the nature of the learners we serve. The learners can't easily line up for a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class at 9:30 and a Tuesday-Thursday class at 2:15. They work. They are non-traditional students. They have sons and daughters and parents and spouses. They're often working part- or full-time. And so the flexibility of an asynchronous schedule is something that's really important to them. Having said that, the ability to incorporate Zoom, even for students who wish to work asynchronously, and to be able to provide office hours, meetups [and] chat rooms for the students — I think that's going to be a real benefit to ASU Online students going forward.

CT: Many folks talk about getting to the point of Zoom fatigue. How can you use what has become an essential tool in ways that minimize that?

Regier: Seven or eight years ago we were testing products that offered the ability to do group work with video, similar to Google Hangouts — with [small groups of] people. And the bandwidth just wasn't there. We tested probably half a dozen tools and used them very sporadically. Students would do synchronous audio group work; but the bandwidth just wasn't there. And it's only in the past two or three years and especially at universities that Zoom became possible for 20 people instead of four or five.

I think it works incredibly well for groups of up to 20. Once you get beyond that, it's a different environment. You kind of lose control of chat, things are coming at whoever is leading it pretty quickly. And so my view going forward is that you can do an incredible amount with Zoom. It's a great tool. But it's not a substitute for full-blown, well-constructed online courses. It is a tool in the quiver, the arsenal of tools, that intelligent instructional designers could use going forward.

CT: What's next for the faculty?

Regier: It's not as though when you roll out [tools], faculty suddenly become confident and efficacious users of those tools. At the end of the day what's interesting about digital delivery is that everything is capable of being recorded and everything is capable of being improved. We're going to learn a whole lot about how to use them.

Right now there are no efficacy studies that I know of around these Zoom classrooms. Do they work as well as a face-to-face classroom? Or more probably more to the point, what types of students are advantaged and what types of students are disadvantaged? In any form of delivery like this, you have to be very careful — and I know at ASU we are being extremely careful — about what goes on, particularly with low socioeconomic students, because they're the ones who are probably going to be disadvantaged the most. So we're providing hotspots; we're making sure they have phones and connectivity. All of those little things that you don't think about when you're in a face-to-face class become really important when you're in the digital environment. Right now, there's a lot that we still don't know about Zoom. We're figuring it out really quickly. But there are fundamental issues around efficacy, around who's disadvantaged and who's advantaged, that are still pretty much open questions.

CT: Who at the institution is handling that work of making sure the digital equity is maintained?

Regier: We have a team of people in the Provost's Office who are meeting daily for 45 minutes and discussing all of these issues. As soon as there are signals from one quarter or somebody notes something, we make sure that we're rolling out solutions to students as quickly as we can.

CT: How can instructors help students stay social and collaborative in their courses being delivered remotely? Any guidance there?

Regier: What we always say inside ASU Online as we're building courses is, you have to focus on student engagement. And engagement can occur with content, it can occur with other students, and it can occur with faculty.

When I started this 10 years ago, we really focused on the student engaging with content. And the next field was how do we make instructor presence more available in the class? The final thing that we've been really successful in over the past three or four years as bandwidth increased and we understood our student population better is focusing on student-to-student engagement. Whether those are peer-to-peer assessment mechanisms, chat rooms, discussion boards, we really focus a lot more on student-to-student interaction than we did 10 years ago.

It's at the point where the tools for online are generating student outcomes that are as good or better than what we'll get in the face-to-face classroom. And the hybridization of the classroom is only going to accelerate that going forward. A hybrid class going forward may be that some stuff is done synchronously [through Zoom] and some stuff is done asynchronously.

CT: What do you think the impact of coronavirus is going to be on higher education in the long term?

Regier: I think it's going to accelerate realization of individuals who have not received undergraduate degrees that they need to go back to school. I think it's going to accelerate the trajectory of employer-based credentials either in short-course certifications or stackable master's programs, where you maybe take two or three courses and get a certificate in something that makes you more employable, and over time you might seek a master's degree.

A lot of people are going to be returning to work in a bad economy. When that happens, everyone is thinking, how can I get the tools necessary so that the next time this happens I'm not going to be shown the door, I'm not going to be out of work?

The overall short-term implication is, there is going to be an increased demand for higher education. I think that is going to have to be capable of being delivered flexibly and at a distance because a whole lot of people are going to be really hesitant to go back to a face-to-face university until there's a vaccine.

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