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The Top Distance Learning Challenges of Higher Education

Distance learning was gaining momentum even before the pandemic, yet the worldwide school closures certainly increased this teaching trend. At the rate distance and online learning is being adopted, the industry is projected to be worth more than $370 billion by 2026.

At the start of 2020, only 21 percent of all students in America had taken an online class. Yet most schools had to pivot and make their services available to students through digital channels. But due to the rapid transition – almost overnight – schools have had to face many challenges, including the following:

Keeping students motivated

Throughout the pandemic, 42 percent of students reported difficulty in staying motivated. This would often lead to them not finishing their coursework and not engaging with online classes. Because they’re not in traditional education environments, students find it difficult to get into the learning headspace.

Dawn Coder, director of academic advising at the online Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, urges educators to create schedules and set expectations for students. This helps them focus on achieving specific goals and reinforces the sense of purpose in education. And by reaching out to students personally, the academic staff helps them stay on track and motivated.

Lack of in-person interaction

The transition to distance learning is particularly challenging for classes that are conventionally structured for the face-to-face format. Courses that usually have lab components or demonstrations have become harder to conduct.

Fortunately, there are now multiple tools and technologies to bridge the gap. In fact, having interactions in the digital space may actually be beneficial in the new normal. These days, more and more jobs are done online. Through training students to interact and work online, virtual spaces have become an essential part of preparing them for the workforce.

This is evident in Maryville University’s online cybersecurity program where students interact in a Virtual Lab that serves as an online training ground. Cybersecurity students can develop technical, hacking, and analytical skills in a safe, protected, and monitored environment. These are all necessary skills for any of the fields that students may choose to pursue. The Maryville Virtual Lab is available on mobile, so instructors and students can access the platform conveniently; the initiative was even distinguished by Apple for mobile innovation. Digital tools like virtual labs, one-on-one demonstrations, and live conferences can address the need for interactive learning.

Digital illiteracy plagues higher ed

There are still a number of people – both students and staff – who have trouble with the new medium. The devices and the internet itself do present a few challenges. In the past year, there have been several cybersecurity threats and misinformation online, straining the integrity of the learning process.

Colleges are now at the frontlines when it comes to improving digital literacy. For example, as part of the University of South Florida and New America’s push for digital literacy, they’re currently developing a website that houses comprehensive and free resources for educators. They aim to give students literacy skills to improve their internet use, by teaching them how to properly process and analyze information online. Students and educators alike gain more confidence when they’re more internet-savvy, and they are more likely to engage in distance learning activities.

Uncertainty about the future

The sudden shift to online learning has caused anxiety and feelings of uncertainty for the future for both colleges and their students. On top of academic uncertainty, there’s also the general anxiety caused by the health crisis. Some students have even considered deferring enrolments.

School counselor Phyllis Fagell recommends that teachers and counselors take time to do non-academic activities with their students online. Things like book clubs or lunch groups may provide participants with moments of joy and relief. Moreover, Fagell suggests that educators and counselors also take an active interest in students’ home life to get a better picture of how best to help them.

While distance learning may not be able to replace face-to-face learning completely, it’s proven to be an effective alternative. Moving forward, it’s not hard to imagine how colleges could incorporate the best components of distance learning into their curriculums. The future of education may very well lie in hybrid learning.

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