In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, many companies have rapidly shifted to a remote workforce, but this new paradigm has had a massive impact on universities as well. In fact, Bloomberg revealed that the $600 billion-plus higher education industry is suddenly online, yet 70% of America’s 1.5 million faculty members have never taught classes online before.

With this in mind, we’ve asked several university professors how higher education is shifting to distance learning, the primary challenges involved, and their predictions for the future.

How Higher Education Is Embracing Distance Learning

Dr. Mansur Khamitov, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behavior at Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University, says higher education has been experimenting with distance learning for a while, but adoption has been slow. “However, COVID-19 has certainly been a major disruptor wherein a vast majority of leading universities worldwide made a rather abrupt shift,” Khamitov added, “transitioning to a full-scale remote and distance learning.” That doesn’t mean it has been easy for university faculty though.

“Distance-learning is leaning heavily on IT departments and the purchased packaged software platforms for the transition to online-only instruction,” stated David Jon Walker, Assistant Professor of Art in Graphic Design at Clarksville, Tenn.-based Austin Peay State University. He says for some universities, the preferred platform for learning management and blended classroom learning is Brightspace. This allows professors and teachers to share files, communicate with students, conduct tests, and manage grades.

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The Major Challenges Universities Face

“The biggest challenge facing higher education is adapting whole curricula for online learning,” Walker said. There are many fields such as medical, engineering, and other hands-on trades where distance learning is difficult or even impossible. “The challenges of teaching these discipline-specific examples,” Walker continued, “require so much more than a book and some online quizzes and assignments.” Students need equipment and spaces to gain practical experience that prepares them for apprenticeships and real-world scenarios. Universities will need to get creative to adapt the curriculum for these fields to distance learning.

Learning Opportunities

“From a cultural standpoint,” Khamitov revealed, “many of the students and faculty I talk to still view this sudden widespread move as a ‘necessary evil’ and once the pandemic is over, they can’t wait to resume the face-to-face format they are all so familiar with.” Many universities and educators have been using the same pedagogy for decades, and that means some professors are resistant to change. But Khamitov also believes that both faculty and students are starting to appreciate the flexibility and convenience that distance learning offers.

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Will Universities Overcome The Challenges?

For now, universities, colleges, schools, and even pre-schools are using the technologies available to reach their students. “I’ve spoken with teachers and lecturers on the front lines of this challenge and they’re using all the tools at their disposal. Some school districts are better prepared than others to transition to online learning through Blackboard, Zoom, or even Facebook groups,” said Stephanie Dua, co-founder and president of Homer Learning

After the global pandemic calms down, Walker believes higher education should make some adjustments based on what it has learned. “With this new landscape,” he suggested, “institutions should transition their physical spaces from lecture halls to learning labs and spaces for collaborative learning.” Lectures can more easily be replaced with distance learning technologies than hands-on learning environments. Either way, universities will likely need to find newer ways to provide value as students realize that there are many benefits to distance learning.

“Many educators and students alike share the opinion that it is virtually impossible to truly and meaningfully replace a series of face-to-face classes with distance-learning,” Khamitov stated. Even so, he says many of his colleagues are leveraging online discussion forums, virtual guest speakers, remote certification programs, and other learning formats that weren’t frequently used in the past. Educators need ways to keep learners engaged, and if they’re successful, remote classrooms may be here to stay.