Teacher explaining lesson in video call while girl taking notes. Rear view of university student understanding concepts online while making notes. Young woman studying on computer and writing on notebook sitting in college library.

October 22, 2020

Why online learning is so hard

By: Teresa de Onis

In the more than two decades Apogee has served higher ed, we’ve come to know that our most successful partnerships with colleges and universities are those closely aligned culturally, operationally, technologically, and financially. Mutual success and long-term value are so consistently predetermined by these attributes that we developed a framework around them (what we call The Four Fits) to help us and our partners judge whether a significant investment in time, energy, and resources is likely to yield the desired return.

It turns out The Four Fits framework is a valuable tool for cracking the problem of remote learning. Organizing your institution’s challenges into cultural, operational, technological, and financial buckets can help you more effectively get your arms around remote learning and simplify the process of finding real solutions.

In our debut blog, we’ll break down the challenges of remote learning, share an important resource to help you start strategizing your way through them, and, in follow-up blogs, show how blended learning can be deployed to reinvent your on-campus educational experience.

A massive cultural shift

The way we historically learn is heavily rooted in face-to-face relationships. Many small- and medium-sized colleges and universities set themselves apart from larger institutions by fostering a small, highly collaborative pedagogy.

Online learning feels incongruent with this experience. From a consumer perspective, streaming has become part of our daily lives. But it hasn’t migrated into education as elegantly as it has into, say, the entertainment or corporate workforce arenas. So it’s difficult to deliver a “white glove” experience online in a way that equals the benefit of attending a small or medium college in person.

As if all of this weren’t enough, parent and student expectations for value will only continue to rise. What can you do to deliver? One answer may be to stop thinking about replacing the on-campus experience and instead consider how online learning can improve it. More on that in a bit.

The operational challenges of curriculum development

Small and mid-sized colleges and universities deliver a lot of their value through classrooms of around ten students or less. Open discussion fuels the learning experience (e.g., an intimate discussion of a complex poem). Delivering the same dynamic online and creating the curriculum to support it is incredibly hard.

This is complicated by systematic traditions and routines. Much like conducting an orchestra, educators pull together the disparate tools – multiple chalkboards or whiteboards, electronic media, and demonstration materials – that maximize the teaching and learning experience in an intimate physical space.

How do you re-create this same environment teaching from home? How do you create an online system that is walk-in-and-teach and walk-in-and-learn? To find the right answers to these questions, it’s important to have a complete picture of the experience you want to replicate and improve.

The problem with reactionary technology

As the pandemic forced sudden campus closures in Spring 2020, schools across the country pieced together a combination of existing synchronous and asynchronous platforms (e.g., Zoom and Canvas) to get by. The bar for success was low (many schools celebrated simply having managed the transition), and the results reflected it.

Students and parents were mostly dissatisfied but accepting, given the circumstances. As online learning takes on a more prominent role, though, it’s impossible to see how current technology will keep pace with rising expectations.

Accessibility to the internet and reliability of the connection remain a huge hassle. In a synchronous learning environment, a momentary loss of a professor’s Wi-Fi connection leaves an entire class lost. Residence hall Wi-Fi is now even more important as students stream from their dorm rooms, and the dorm room becomes the classroom. But reliable classroom Wi-Fi also becomes critical as synchronous learning, pandemic or no, is here to stay. Technology and infrastructure will evolve. Institutions must be willing and ready to adopt them.

How do you afford all of this?

Smaller schools have historically faced problems driving enrollment relative to larger competitors, stifling access to profits that can then be reinvested into things like infrastructure and new technology.

Now your hand is being forced.

Upgrades to technology and infrastructure are a must. So are investments in new curriculum and ensuring students are properly equipped to participate online. None of this is simple. Many schools operate on a budgetary treadmill, funding traditional systems that are broken year over year.

Rightsizing can provide relief and help you do what needs to be done to succeed. This doesn’t mean cutting your way to survival. But it does mean disinvesting in traditions no longer valuable to your school so you can reinvest in areas that can help you differentiate and win.

Blended learning as a way forward

For small and medium schools, strategizing ways to address the cultural, operational, technological, and financial challenges of online learning begins with thinking about how you can use it to enhance the in-person educational experience rather than replace it. In our next blog, we’ll talk about how blended learning – the mixture of traditional, synchronous, and asynchronous pedagogies – can be leveraged to innovate and transform your offering.

In the meantime, check out our white paper, “Transform the Educational Experience Through Blended Learning”, to see how blending learning can help you tackle the challenges right in front of you.

About the Author

Teresa de Onis joined Apogee in 2019 and is a 25-year Austin marketing veteran with marketing expertise in distance learning systems, IT, and higher education. She combines strategy and storytelling to create and execute compelling and authentic value propositions, communication plans, brand architectures, sales enablement plans and tools, campaigns, and customer experience journeys. Teresa holds an MBA, BA, and certificate in change management, all from the University of Texas at Austin.

Teresa de Onis


Teresa de Onis

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