Headshot of John Opper, Jr.
John Opper, Jr., Ph.D.,
Executive Director, Distance Learning and Student Services
A Post-COVID 19 Higher Education Renaissance

When thinking about a prediction for the next year given all that has been happening in higher education in terms of the fiscal struggles, affordability concerns, the state of public confidence and a changing education marketplace, I find it a bit difficult to focus on one. Certainly, the COVID 19 crisis has only exacerbated the many challenges we faced going into 2020. Given where things stand now, I think I would say that this next year will be one for the relaunch of online learning that will be in some ways similar to the initial ramp up almost 20 years ago. After a tremendous success story in early 2020 where colleges and universities converted thousands of face-to-face courses to online delivery in only a few weeks because of the pandemic, many of those institutions also adapted their policies and procedures to further benefit students impacted by the pandemic.

The Florida Legislature provided crucial funding over the course of the past 25 years that provided the infrastructure institutions needed to pull off the emergency conversion of thousands of courses this past spring. Clearly, the massive shift to online instruction that took place almost one year ago was by most accounts a tremendous success in that students were able to continue and complete their classes. Most professionals involved in online learning would caution that the big shift to online, while successful, is not complete. That is to say that quality online instruction begins with the design of the course and the professional development of the faculty to operate online with all the technological tools, challenges and advantages this mode of delivery brings. That design and professional development takes time and effort which we could not completely accomplish at the level we would have liked in the emergency period of Spring 2020 for all courses. Are the courses good? Absolutely! They would not be offered if they were not. Can they be better in terms of design and delivery? Most everyone thinks so. As a result, colleges and universities have become incredibly focused on the continuous, rapid improvement of those "shifted" courses.

We have learned a lot from our experiences during the pandemic. Colleges and universities have improved their training for faculty and made it easier for both students and instructors to work from home. Certain testing requirements and other policies have been waived to help keep students on the path to admissions or graduation. Colleges and universities have increased student outreach, online support and developed new ways to assess student learning when online. Further, faculty and staff have developed and implemented creative approaches for teaching and supporting students. As a result, I think we will see a different kind of higher education after COVID-19. Some of the procedures that required students to come to campus to complete may go away in favor of other methods. I think that there will be increased efforts to accommodate students more broadly. We have all learned a lot and I don’t believe that the future is a complete return to business as usual.

At the Florida Virtual Campus, our mission is about helping students succeed and provide the best information we can possibly give them so they can stay on track and keep making progress to finish their degree and to get into a job. Where we really help students is in those transition spaces when they are trying to make the jump from high school into a postsecondary institution or when they are trying to go from a two-year to a four-year program, a four-year to a graduate program, or even graduate and go into the workforce. The information in the FloridaShines catalog and in our institutional profiles can help students get the information they need to make those decisions about transitions. During the pandemic, the FloridaShines course catalog has also been a useful accessibility tool for students in the transition to online delivery. We have added information about campus virtual tours and other COVID 19 related announcements to help inform students. With the cooperation of Florida’s colleges and universities, the number of online courses available to students in the online catalog during the 2020-21 academic year doubled those offered in previous years to more than 125,000 sections.

Post COVID 19, I think this next year will be one for the relaunch of online learning. I believe that we will see what I would categorize as a 3R’s approach over the next year or two. I believe that colleges and universities will reassess in light of what they have learned during COVID 19 about the need and value in a new approach. There will be some retooling in the areas of administrative structure, analytics, student support systems, academic policies, and procedures and perhaps the credentials offered. And once done, we will see a relaunch of online learning operations that have more depth in the academic and student services operations of the institution, more streamlined policies and procedures and a more aggressive student-centered approach than pre-COVID 19. With the popularity and effectiveness of blended delivery courses, we may also see a further blurring of the lines between online and face to face delivery. So, in a nutshell, I think we will see the beginnings of a renaissance for higher education with online learning and support services playing a major role in the shape of things to come.