Dear Online Students

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Please do not equate emergency distance education with online learning at its best. As the world shifted to remote instruction, many of us suddenly lurched into a virtual space that we had feared to tread, so few had the bandwidth to support, and almost no one knew how to do well. The pivot to virtual crushed treasured myths about productivity.

Jobs we were told had to be conducted from the confines of our cubicles could effortlessly be completed in our living rooms. All distance education has to be rethought because we were duped by traditional assessments about how real knowledge transfer occurs.

Learning left the the ground a long time ago for those of us in online higher education, way before the pandemic. I have been teaching online since 2008, working with adult students. My college had long ago forced the hand of accreditation agencies to acknowledge concepts like prior learning and competency based distance delivery.

Carnegie credit hour isn’t the only way to measure skill acquisition, and the amount of time a student spends in a physical seat doesn’t mean adults learned a thing during that credit hour. Most people do not discover their own skill gaps until they are asked to perform. And fail at the task. Experiential learning is how so many of us fail forward in degree programs.

If more companies and schools had valued the interpersonal time and physical safety (not to mention the environment) of employees before the pandemic forced the issue, more of us would have been able to live, work, think together, organize, and solve problems in our community online in a scalable manner. Distance learning was optimal for adults long before a cough could kill you.

Emergency distance education forced more of us to engage in online learning, and the potential has yet to be fully unlocked. Distance education is a frontier that so many classrooms from preschool to doctoral level have been loath to explore, yet now must. If learning leaves the confines of zip code and enters a flexible more human-centered stage of innovative exchange, traditional institutions will suffer, and that is wonderful news.

Think back to all the things we used to say could only be done in person, from chemistry labs, poetry, or auto mechanical tasks, and I can point to an example of how it could be performed or experienced at a distance, so that more people can be included in the academic exchanges that are literally all around us.

Dearest online students, it wasn’t supposed to be like this, yet rest assured, credentialing will look different soon. If we invest a fraction of our energy towards enhancing virtual schools as we do forcing students back into physical buildings, change is possible. The future of learning will be a hybrid space, so let’s prepare together for an educational ecosystem that always involves quality remote learning options for equity and inclusion of all.


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