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Online Learning

Moving Online Learning from Challenge to Opportunity

The future of higher education means breaking down classroom walls, embracing digital tools and engaging students with creativity and innovation.

online learning

Necessity is the mother of invention. And within the context of a global pandemic, necessity was the mother of wholesale transformation. The monumental challenges educators overcame in 2020 is astounding. From preschool to grad school, the race to adopt and adapt online learning platforms hit a pace and scale previously unimagined.

Even at Maryville University, where we first launched online degree programs nearly a decade ago and where more than 90 percent of our on-campus students had taken at least one online class before the pandemic, the impact was still felt. We leaned on our faculty and their learning design partners to ensure no student was left behind or lost in the digital shuffle.

Now, as we consider the post-pandemic academic landscape, one thing is sure: Online learning isn't going anywhere. To think otherwise is a massive failure of imagination.

Consider three ramifications of what we've all just experienced:

  • Faculty and students everywhere and at every level have been immersed in digital learning practices.
  • Learning tools and apps are being designed, improved and deployed at unprecedented speeds.
  • Businesses in all sectors are under tremendous pressure to reskill and upskill their workforce to meet the demands of a technology-enabled future.

Viewing online learning through the narrow iris of challenge is detrimental to the future of higher education. Instead, let's open the aperture to opportunity. Let's harness every digital learning tool at our disposal and aggressively build pathways to connect students, faculty, staff and employers in new and profound ways.

We can fundamentally rethink the future of higher education and what it means to earn a degree if we are brave enough to do so.

The Classroom Without Walls

Prior to the pandemic, the classroom-without-walls concept was often viewed from the outside in. We harnessed digital tools like virtual reality to bring experiences from the outside world into the classroom. We extended the boundaries of the curriculum, but we were still tied to a physical classroom.

With no classrooms, all the walls fall away. The learning environment becomes any environment. At Maryville, two of our undergrads, brothers Bailey and Logan Roehr, spent their 2020 fall semester learning on the road. They packed up the family car and visited 13 national parks in 15 states, logging a total of 9,000 miles, all while actively participating and thriving in their online coursework remotely.

Extrapolate the possibilities from the ingenuity and experience of these online trailblazers. What if students could choose to learn in environments that are fully immersive, deeply enriching and profoundly meaningful to their courses of study? We encourage our students to explore the world beyond the campus, but what happens when the world is your campus?

When learning can happen anywhere, learning happens everywhere. The university evolves to become a true service, opening an entirely new universe — and university — of possibilities.

Immersed in Digital Learning

If we can break down walls, we can build new experiences that fuse the real and digital worlds together. Digital teaching and learning tools, coupled with imagination and creativity, drive our learning designers and faculty to create new ways to teach and engage students. Technology allows us to assess and embrace different learning styles and tune digital curricula to meet students where they are. And, perhaps most importantly, this integrated, immersive approach is an important leap toward bridging the digital divide and gives everyone access and opportunity to learn and excel.

The pandemic proved the value of technology to create rich, immersive, personalized learning experiences that engage students. Actively engaged students are active learners who persist and ultimately succeed.

Dr. Dustin York, associate professor of communication at Maryville, reimagined the synchronous virtual classroom as a live media broadcast. He peppers his broadcasts with trailers, animation, multiple cameras, music, polls and surveys. He fuses media tools with learning strategies to grab students' attention and keep them engaged.

Similarly, Maryville criminology professor Geri Brandt, working in concert with our learning designers and on-site production studio, used 360-degree camera technology to stage a virtual, explorable, interactive crime scene. Extending this online experience further, the criminology department created a "choose your own adventure" virtual experience, where each student response or choice in an investigation leads to a different outcome.

Creativity and innovation on this scale are only possible when faculty work with a talented team of learning design professionals who can translate a vision of interactive and immersive learning into a new student experience. Designing and delivering this active learning ecosystem integrated in online and on-ground learning takes a team of committed professionals and the courage to make it happen.

Fostering Lifetime Learners

Our online undergraduate and graduate degree programs have grown consistently over the past decade. In 2020, Maryville was named the second-fastest-growing private university in the nation by the Chronicle of Higher Education, jumping two spots from its previous ranking. The boost was fueled in large part by Maryville's ever-expanding online programs.

As we prepare for the post-pandemic economy, the massive need for upskilled and reskilled workers is paramount. Rural and urban communities alike desperately need skilled healthcare professionals. The massive shift online for businesses of all types requires new technologists, cybersecurity experts, digital marketers and analysts.

At the same time, millions of service sector workers remain unemployed or underemployed. These capable, dedicated, driven workers simply need the opportunity to learn and grow.

Our online platform is evolving to match high-demand skills with new ways to learn, including digital certificates, credential programs and boot camps. Four-year-degree and graduate programs will always be staples of higher education, but online learning allows us to provide continuous industry-relevant skills development to keep pace with rapid shifts in technology and workforce needs.

The pandemic forced higher education to evolve more rapidly than ever before. Necessity opened the door to new technologies and learning pathways. Now we have a choice: to follow these new pathways to a more open, inclusive and equitable future, or to turn back. The hard part is over; we've faced the biggest challenge. It is time to embrace a bright, bold, virtual future.

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