March 24, 2021

A Year into the Pandemic and the Great Online Learning Experiment – Will Edtech Stick?

By: Fernando Bleichmar, Executive Vice President and General Manager for U.S. Higher Education, Cengage

It was just over a year ago when campuses closed their doors to in-person learning and our staff quickly jumped in to help instructors and students continue teaching and learning online….while simultaneously exploring our own mass remote work transition. While we always supported customers with online teaching – last spring was at a new scale and speed. 

And the same for students, educators and administrators who spent the last year working hard to sustain their missions while experimenting with new tools, technologies, teaching methods and modalities. In fact, our research shows the majority of faculty (71 percent) said their fall 2020 teaching techniques were “very different” or reflected a “number of changes” from the pre-pandemic classroom.  

The Post-Pandemic Classroom

Now, a year later, we’re planning for another likely major change in higher education - the reopening or complete opening up of campuses for in-person learning this coming fall.

Will new teaching methods and increased use of technology from the great digital learning experiment extend into a post-pandemic higher ed world?

Yes. At least that’s what almost half of faculty and administrators told us in the latest Digital Learning Pulse survey. Forty seven percent expect their post pandemic teaching will look very different than pre-pandemic, and just 8 percent expect their teaching to revert to pre-pandemic ways.

Improving Perception of Online Learning and Digital Tools

More than 1,700 faculty and administrators from 962 institutions participated in the latest survey conducted in December by Bay View Analytics on behalf of Cengage, the Online Learning Consortium and several online learning organizations.

Administrators also expect their institution’s use of digital learning materials will persist, with 81 percent expecting to maintain or increase use of digital materials post-pandemic. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) expect online homework and courseware use to remain the same or increase post-pandemic.

Plans to stick with new teaching techniques and tools is not surprising when you hear faculty and administrators are more positive about online learning today than they were pre-pandemic. According to the survey, half of faculty (51 percent) are more positive about online learning than pre-pandemic, and (57 percent) are more positive about digital learning materials than pre-pandemic.  

Creating a Flexible, Sustainable Model for the Future

Support continues to be a key enabler for instructors and administrators. The quick uptake of new tools isn’t sustainable if the scalable support isn’t there along the way. From the tactical needs of having to change an assignment due date in a courseware platform at 10pm on a Sunday, to more in-depth issues such as how to keep reluctant students engaged in an online course, if technology is going to propel learning; support is just as important as the tool itself. We’ve found this to be true through our customer services, be it local “virtual office hours” to help students troubleshoot issues or professional development for administrators on digital transformation at scale.

While it’s interesting to compare opinions on pre-pandemic and pandemic teaching and to see just how much things have changed in the past year (more here: www.cengage.com/digital-learning-pulse-survey), the future of learning will not be about returning to the pre-pandemic classroom - it will be about using what we’ve learned to create a flexible education experience that brings together the best of both worlds. And research shows that faculty and students want the flexibility to choose modalities, especially non-traditional students who make up the majority of the student population, but who are also juggling work and family and may prefer online learning.

What specific aspects of online teaching and learning do you think will stick – and what won’t? What technology tools have been most helpful?