How Colleges are Breaking Down the Barriers to Distance Education

With the forced closure of campuses around the world in 2020, higher education has undergone one of its most significant transformations in history. The accelerated uptake of online learning has raised unique challenges and is prompting universities to rethink how best to deliver courses online.

The typical four-year college degree is steeped in ivy-clad tradition. Until this year, aspiring college students would eagerly await the day they could relocate to their chosen campus for an immersive, face-to-face university experience. In 2020, these dreams came crashing down for millions of students. Now, many are questioning whether the traditional model will ever be the same again.

In the U.S. alone, 3,278 higher education institutions and 22.3 million students have been impacted by the pandemic. The question is, will this year’s disruption irrevocably change higher education as we know it? Will the traditional four-year, on-campus model survive, or will remote learning thrive? Either way, one thing is clear: universities need to adapt, fast.

Distance learning is not new

Higher education institutions have been charting a gradual shift towards distance learning for decades. Washington State University has been doing it for 30 years. In fact, while overall college enrollment dropped from 2016 to 2017, the number of students enrolled in distance education courses grew in the same period by more than 4%.

The steady growth in online learning has been made possible by the increased availability of the Internet from the 1990s onwards; and the more recent rise of new technologies like virtual reality, which pave the way for more experiential learning outside of the classroom. For many students, online learning makes the impossible possible – they can enroll in classes that were previously beyond their reach, whether financially or physically.

Indeed, students cite a range of benefits with distance learning. Those who have chosen to study remotely enjoy everything from the flexibility which comes with being able to study when and where it suits them, to the way online learning facilitates the development of soft skills like critical thinking, time management and attention to detail. Then there are more tangible benefits, such as the fact that online courses can be more affordable and they offer a quicker path to a degree compared to traditional courses.

This year has brought unique challenges

Even though distance learning has been around for decades – and higher education institutions have had plenty of time to refine their online offerings – this year has served up some extraordinary challenges.

During 2020, 97% of college students switched to online instruction and, of these, 63% said the online instruction was worse than in-person instruction. While somewhat sobering, this statistic does not come as a surprise. Having been so used to attending lectures and engaging in face-to-face tutorials alongside their peers, many students struggle to make the transition to online learning. Some students face other barriers – they may not have computer access at home, their Internet may be slow, or they may live in a crowded home environment.

Teachers and faculty are also finding it hard. In 2019, only 46% of faculty members taught an online course for credit – now, virtually everyone is. The majority of teachers have had to re-learn how to teach, using technologies they may not be familiar with. No wonder the delivery of online learning has been top of mind for college and university presidents this year.

Easing the transition and enabling long-term success

While it’s inevitable that some students will return to campus eventually, it’s also clear that distance education has become an indelible part of college life.

To best prepare for long-term success in the delivery of distance education, educators should be prioritizing the implementation of learning platforms and tools that break down barriers and provide a great learning experience for students – while simplifying and enhancing course setup and delivery for teachers. They need access to platforms which deliver content at cloud scale, to anyone, anywhere.

VMware Learning Platform is the ideal fit for online learning. Within its end-to-end digital learning environment, teachers can quickly and easily set up everything from on-demand labs to instructor-led classrooms. Via these online environments, teachers can connect to students wherever they are learning. They can also track and monitor student participation, with easy access to real-time statistics, historical data and detailed reports about learners’ progress.

For students, VMware Learning Platform breaks down barriers to online learning. They can access feature-rich, on-demand lab classes – no installers or plugins needed – and they can easily interact with peers and teachers within the virtual classroom.

With the issues of distance education solved using tools like VMware Learning Platform, higher education institutions can continue their tradition of shaping future graduates – who will go on to solve the problems of tomorrow.

Learn how VMware Learning Platform can help you deliver distance education to all your students, at cloud scale.

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