How Online Learning Kept Higher Ed Open During the Coronavirus Crisis

But pandemic pedagogy is not the same as quality online learning

6 min read
A teacher at New York University teaches his class remotely from home after the university shut down regular classes out of concern for the spreading COVID-19 on March 13, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York.
A teacher at New York University teaches his class remotely from home after the university shut down regular classes out of concern for COVID-19 on 13 March 2020 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

This spring, under the threat of mass infection and with little or no preparation or planning, millions of professors and instructors around the world shifted their lectures, seminars, discussion sessions, and other in-person classes to online learning platforms. Millions of college students made the shift with them. Steering the giant lifeboat of academia from on-campus to online in just a few weeks has to count as one of the most unimaginable and exceptional feats ever achieved in higher education. Before the pandemic, only a third of U.S. college students were enrolled in online classes. Now, essentially all of them are. 

Take a look at this graph created by noted edtech trend-spotter Phil Hill, illustrating the magical crossing in which U.S. higher education leaped almost entirely online.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced U.S. colleges and universities to move courses online in a matter of weeks.The COVID-19 pandemic forced U.S. colleges and universities to move courses online in a matter of weeks.Image: Phil Hill/MindWires

As the rapidly climbing yellow line in the graph shows, by the time U.S. campuses closed their gates on or about 30 March, nearly all undergraduate and graduate courses had switched to online. Nothing in the history of higher education prepared our academic institutions to act with such uncanny speed. Similar moves occurred in Europe and Asia, but only in advanced economies was the transformation as swift as in the United States. For faculty and students in less developed countries, where Internet service is poor or lacking and many people don’t have digital devices, shifting online has not been nearly as swift or as easy.

In nonpandemic times, even the most modest change at a college or university can take months, if not years. Think of the committees, reports, reviews, and approvals needed to introduce even a timid curriculum revision. That millions of faculty moved hundreds of thousands of courses online in a matter of weeks reveals the surprising resilience of academia in crisis. But with colleges and universities still shuttered and no clear indication of when they might reopen, don’t expect smooth sailing from now on.

2 Key Technologies Made the Shift to Online Learning Possible

Anju Sharma, an associate teaching professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., had never taught online. Then, on Monday, 9 March, she was notified that her freshman general chemistry course would go virtual. Two days later, her class of about 30 students was meeting online.

Sharma says she teaches her online course almost exactly as she taught on campus, except that instead of lecturing at the front of the classroom and displaying PowerPoint slides, she now lectures by videoconferencing and shares her slides with students who are working on laptops at home.

“Students didn’t have to suffer. Their lives were not put on hold,” Sharma says of the decision to move courses online. “They seem to have grown up overnight.”

One thing that made the transition for Sharma and her students easier was that, like nearly all of us, they already participate in informal online learning every day, simply by shopping online, posting on social media, and streaming movies. Whenever we do email or chat with friends on FaceTime, we learn online. So even if faculty and students had never formally enrolled in or taught an online class before, most were already quite familiar with the digital experience.

Beyond that, two key technologies really made a difference—a learning management system (LMS) and videoconferencing. Having served as Stevens’s dean of online learning 20 years ago and then as online dean at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering more recently, I know that nearly every U.S. college and university already had these two technologies in place. Without them, schools could never have been up and running online so quickly.

Most of us are by now very familiar with videoconferencing services like Google Meet, Zoom, and Webex. Even before the pandemic, you may have joined webinars or participated in a videoconference at work. An LMS, on the other hand, is a far more structured platform. Specifically designed for teaching, it enables instructors to create course materials, assess student progress, and generate custom exams. Through the LMS, students can communicate with their peers and instructors through text, voice, and video; they can also enroll in courses seamlessly, with attendance and grades recorded automatically. Many online courses employ both an LMS and some sort of videoconferencing service.

Emergency Online Learning Isn’t the Same as a Well-Planned Virtual Course

Last fall, I led a Zoom class at The New School as part of a four-course online certificate, “Designing Online Learning Programs.” Despite the fact that I had been engaged in digital instruction for more than two decades, I’m embarrassed to say it was the first time I’d actually taught online.

For those new to virtual teaching, Zoom and its many competitors are very seductive. The videoconferencing platforms are easy to master, and the on-screen, real-time experience replicates a sense of being in a classroom, face-to-face with your students. Of course, they’re not actually seated before you; their images are arrayed in rows on your screen as in a stamp album. Instructors can easily adopt exactly the same conventional pedagogical approaches they followed on campus. Given how easy videoconferencing is to master, it’s unsurprising that its use at U.S. colleges leaped ahead of LMS usage during the current crisis.

One crucial difference between my course and the current semester of pandemic videoconferencing is that my Zoom sessions weren’t the entirety of my students’ educational experience. Rather, each was the culmination of a week of other academic engagement that included watching brief video lectures I’d recorded, reading excerpts from scholarly articles, and participating in a text-based, peer-to-peer discussion. My hour-long Zoom sessions were real-time discussions, wrapping up what my students had learned throughout the week.

Contrast that with the pandemic pedagogy going on now. Most faculty had no time to thoughtfully prepare a virtual course that drew on valuable pedagogical methods like active learning, project-based inquiry, and peer-to-peer instruction. Such methods were championed early in the last century by progressive education giants such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Freire. The benefits of active learning—whether on screen or on campus—are also supported by recent research in cognitive science and neuroscience.

“What we did [this semester] is not exactly online learning,” admits Duke University’s Shawn Miller. Miller is director of Duke Learning Innovation, the school’s teaching and learning center, which led Duke’s online transition this spring. “It’s a first-aid approach. In well-designed online courses, faculty have time to prepare, to think about designing a course with prerecorded and other off-line materials. Without planning, faculty just take their face-to-face lectures and put them online.”

Students and Faculty Still Prefer In-Person Classes to Pandemic Pedagogy

How much did students actually gain from this semester’s rush to online learning? Most students were able to hop on their laptops and continue to study, even as campus classrooms, labs, and libraries went dark. Still, as a just-released survey of students reveals, many weren’t happy with the experience. Seven out of ten said that digital learning was not as good as in-person instruction, with most finding their online classes less engaging.

Now compare that to the experience of students enrolled in well-designed digital courses. In numerous studies, most online students come away with positive feelings. In one classic study, 94 percent said they learned as much or more in their digital course as they did on campus.

Heading home in the pandemic didn’t provide shelter from the storm for all. Many students’ homes have no computer or Internet access; others have limited bandwidth.

Even if colleges and universities reopen in a few months, it’s anyone’s guess as to how many students will actually show up. Some will stay away out of fear of the continued threat of the disease or out of a desire to stay close to home. With people now out of work, many students will be unable to pay tuition.

Colleges and universities have also been hit hard. Collectively, they stand to lose billions of dollars, with enrollments expected to plummet, sports events canceled, and non-pandemic-related research on hold. The University of Michigan, for example, expects a shortfall of US $400 million to $1 billion. Some schools that were struggling before COVID-19 may simply close their doors for good.

How will faculty adjust to the new normal? Before the pandemic, more than a third of faculty at U.S. colleges said that online learning isn’t as good as face-to-face instruction. No doubt many of those now teaching online still hold that view. In a recent Nature survey of faculty in the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union who are teaching online during the pandemic, many reported being unprepared, unsupported, and fearful of the forced culture change. They worried that virtual instruction will result in faculty obsolescence and ultimately unemployment.

“It’s the end of the ‘traditional learning space’ as we know it,” one respondent wrote.

And so when colleges and universities around the world eventually reopen, expect the millions of instructors and their students to have conflicting reactions to this great experiment in pandemic pedagogy.

“Some faculty may come out of this experience not at all happy. They’ll be glad to return to face-to-face teaching when they go back to campus,” says Duke’s Miller. “Others may be surprised at how good the technology is. The stigma of online learning will be softened a bit.”

The astonishing lesson is that online education, so long derided by traditional academics, came to the rescue of conventional higher education.

About the Author

Robert Ubell is Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A collection of his essays on digital education, Going Online, is published by Routledge. He can be reached at

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