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Online Learning

3 Ways to Serve Students in a Completely Virtual Environment

For colleges and universities that have pivoted to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, the evolution is not over. In order to better meet student needs both today and in the future, here are three key considerations.

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If this year has shown us anything, it is that our personal and professional lives can be altered at a moment's notice. While online learning isn't a new concept, the need for e-learning skyrocketed when stay-at-home orders were implemented due to ongoing concerns with the global pandemic. In fact, 97 percent of students who were already enrolled in college before March 1, 2020 have switched to some version of online instruction, according to

From day one, Western Governors University, a completely online university, has recognized the need for personalized and adaptive learning pathways for adult learners, especially those who work full- or part-time while pursuing a degree. To truly succeed in a virtual environment, higher ed institutions will need to evolve in 2021 and the years to follow. Here are three key ways colleges and universities can better serve their students online.

1) Embrace Emerging Tech

I'm inspired by fellow higher ed institutions that are doing what is needed to pivot in an educational environment that's continuously changing. With the lack of clarity regarding the longevity or long-term impact of COVID-19, I'm seeing more and more institutions adapting to a growing population of remote learners.

What we do know is that technology is continuously evolving and students are expected to adjust quickly. The positive aspect of all of this is that every change is allowing educators to provide even more personalized learning experiences. While artificial intelligence has already begun making its mark and remains one of the biggest of the tech trends we are witnessing, I envision AI to impact us even more this coming year as more and more individuals see online learning as a viable option for their education. Artificial intelligence has the potential to fill learning gaps, streamline content and create individualized learning.

With advancements in technology, WGU remains steadfast in providing effective, high-quality education. It's our job as an online learning community to set the bar for how adult learners can successfully reach their educational goals. Even aside from e-learning, our lives are becoming increasingly virtual. We're doing ourselves a disservice if we're not staying up-to-date with the latest research and advancements in ed tech.

2) Combat the Digital Divide

Our nation, now more than ever, relies heavily on internet access for jobs, schooling and personal needs. But unfortunately, and unfairly, 21 million Americans live without access to broadband internet services. If equitable internet access isn't addressed, higher education institutions, including WGU, are limited in their ability to expand access to education to individuals who would benefit.

And while the unemployment rate declined to 6.9 percent in October, giving us hope that our economy is on the upswing, there are still 11.1 million unemployed persons in the United States. It's critical to point out that between 2016 and 2026, the number of jobs requiring a bachelor's degree is expected to increase by 10 percent. In order for individuals to enter into the workforce effectively, online access is needed. Many of those who are currently unemployed are looking to either finish a degree or pursue a new degree to support themselves and their families. Increasing reliable internet access, both in urban and rural settings, is a necessary step toward modernization and workforce development.

As a response to this nationwide issue, WGU has launched the Online Access Scholarship program, which covers the cost of internet installation and access and a refurbished laptop for qualifying students who might not otherwise have the resources. I truly believe that there needs to be a baseline level of access for all and I encourage education leaders to connect with their local legislators so that they can address this crisis. The lack of broadband services is a barrier to reaching one's full potential when it comes to both personal and professional goals.

3) Prioritize Student Needs

Through the lens of the ongoing health crisis, online learning will continue to remain one of the safest ways to pursue education while we're navigating the impacts of the pandemic. Online learning ensures the safety of both students and staff while not compromising the effectiveness of the learning process. And taking a stance to prioritize health is the best course of action for any educator right now. While each state is addressing online learning requirements differently, without online learning in place many schools would be forced to cease their programs altogether. Online learning makes it possible to not interrupt the flow of an education while also keeping our health a top concern.

It's important to note that not all online learning is created equal and that some universities are still in the midst of making needed adjustments to serve their students effectively online. All students have different needs and many don't perform at their best with traditional learning models in place — especially when said learning models are retrofitted into online learning formats. At WGU, we orient our learning experiences around the student and offer learner-centered support by providing faculty mentors to each enrolled student. Some students function best with the support of a dedicated adviser and learning model that allows them to thrive in a more connected virtual community. Ultimately, every learner achieves his or her goals a little differently from the next, and by embracing online learning, education institutions will be able to serve students in a more personalized way.

It's our continued mission at WGU to help cultivate an environment for students to succeed through higher education. I envision this next year to be one filled with innovations that will support learner's educational advancements now and in the future.

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