Advancing Higher Education Through a Crisis

Over the past few months, due to COVID-19, instructors and professors were required to abruptly move their courses to an online environment. Many students who did not sign up for learning online were being taught by faculty who did not sign up to teach online. While accolades should be given to all involved for adapting at rapid speed, as the academic year comes to a close, it is time to take a breath and analyze how this change impacted education and what consequences lie ahead.

Online learning continues to evolve for the technologically savvy student; nevertheless, this new situation has created innovation, adaptation, and creativity to morph online education even further. Online learning environments (also known as virtual learning environments), collaborative learning software, and learning management systems have been utilized to support hybrid, fully online, and traditional classes for many years. However, as more and more students, by force, have become more familiar with online learning, will these students gravitate to online education more so than before?

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, many educational online providers and publishers have offered free resources to assist students and teaching professionals with transitioning from traditional face-to-face to online courses. Chat groups have been established to share best practices, innovative ideas, and gain feedback on virtual teaching and environments. Colleges and universities are preparing for the possible continuation of online course offerings, and in some cases, have moved programs online permanently. Some universities have offered free online courses or certifications. In “Will the Coronavirus Forever Alter the College Experience?” Marcus (2020) mentions there are predictions that this recent movement to online learning will prompt a permanent departure from the traditional face-to-face environments. However, he believes this will not transpire. While there will be some lasting, evolutionary effects of this unprecedented event, the result will likely require raising the expectations of how we are using resources within the classroom.

Is online learning the future of our education system? Recent predictions and analysis are telling us that while most will probably not return to a fully online environment by choice, there are benefits to be embraced by these virtual environments. According to Segaren’s (2020) article, 5 Major Benefits of Online Learning, online environments offer more flexibility for students. The flexibility allows students to develop further necessary work-life skills, such as self-motivation, self-discipline, and communication. Also, online learning allows each student to create (in an ideal circumstance) their best (unique to them) learning environment.

Many colleges and universities have already embraced online education as an option for students. Some programs, previously offered face-to-face, are thriving in the online environment. Columbia College, South Carolina, for example, has moved its hybrid MBA program to a fully online environment, which is going to be a permanent change. “Since announcing this move, we have seen an increase in applications for this program, and this positive response prompted a permanent change”, stated Dr. Ezaz Ahmed, Dean of the Division of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology. “For working professionals, especially, the move to an online environment offers more flexibility for our students.”

Although the online learning environment is very attractive for many individuals, online learning continues to create hardships for some students. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, publishers offered free trials for the final part of the Spring 2020 term to reduce the financial stress on students. The closure of colleges and universities caused students to lose the opportunity to remain on campus and use the technological resources provided by colleges and universities. While the majority of students have access to the internet, some students did not have access to this technology at home. So regardless of publishers allowing free online access to the textbooks and online resources, a number of students were still unable to easily complete coursework electronically unless they were able to locate the use of the internet elsewhere. During this crisis stores, restaurants, campuses, libraries, etc. were mandated to remain closed. We can see how transitioning seamlessly from a face-to-face environment to 100% remote is almost impossible. Therefore, educators were encouraged to be compassionate, empathic, and supportive to all students during these difficult times.

We are learning, and will continue to do so, from the COVID-19 pandemic. The consequences of this situation are many and they are still unfolding. Will one of the consequences be that higher education has been changed for good? Probably, but many are predicting the changes to be positive and innovative for all involved.

Carole Sox, PhD, is the Chair of the Undergraduate Business program at Columbia College in South Carolina. She has also taught online at Florida International University within the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management for five years, and at the University of South Carolina within the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management as an adjunct professor for nine years. Her research focus highlights technology use, meetings and events, and generational marketing. Before her academic experience, Carole worked for almost 20 years in the corporate and non-profit arenas focusing on sales and marketing, meetings and events, and management.

Kristin Burke Martin, DBA, is the MBA Director at Columbia College in South Carolina. She also taught online graduate finance and international business courses with Park University for three years, and undergraduate finance courses with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) for five years as an adjunct professor. Her research focuses on international financial and economic stability, foreign monetary policies and regulations, emerging markets, business sustainability, and economic theories. Before teaching, Dr. Martin held various positions within the Financial Industry for 25 years, including ten years with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

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