Here we go again: Back to online learning in Fall 2020

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As many colleges and universities make the decision to offer online instruction in fall 2020 due to COVID-19, we’re quickly reminded of the Saturday Night Live (SNL) episode that aired during the spring commencement season. “Congratulations Class of 2020! You will now pay full price for your college experience at a University of Phoenix Online without the tech support,” joked Kate McKinnon. She was portraying the principal at a COVID-19 graduation at St. Mary Magdalene by the Expressway High School. Unfortunately, this skit from SNL wasn’t only humorous, it also reflected the reality for some. These people have been thrust into a version of remote teaching that, while developed with the best intentions of faculty and administrators, was more emergency triage than true online learning.

All of education quickly pivoted “online” in March due to COVID-19. There is no doubt that there were varying levels of technical abilities and required adjustments associated with the quick move online. The pandemic may have accelerated this transition, but there are already some very distinguished online programs that are comparable to traditional face-to-face programs, and some with evidence of superior outcomes. Quality online learning is already a staple in many disciplines in higher education due to its flexibility and accessibility, and it’s here to stay.

Duquesne University School of Nursing is one of those high quality online programs. Now in partnership with Pearson, the university is applying best practices in teaching and learning and is continually updating those practices to reflect the latest learning science research. Duquesne was the first online nursing program in the United States, offering its online PhD program in 1997, and has since made the conscious decision to offer all graduate nursing programs online.

Online education expands access to those who would otherwise be unable to further their learning. In the case of Duquesne, many students are working nurses, often juggling shift work, family responsibilities, and caregiving. Currently, even if campuses were fully open, the demands of this virus would make it nearly impossible for nurses to access on-campus programs in many parts of the country.

Duquesne’s PhD graduates are deans, faculty, and Chief Nursing Officers — most of whom wouldn’t have been able to follow their dreams and earn their PhD in a traditional, on-campus program. This is true for me, Mary Ellen Smith Glasgow. I graduated from Duquesne with my PhD in 2002, transferring after I broke my ankle and was unable to complete my coursework on my personal timeline.

I found the faculty to be knowledgeable, supportive, skilled teachers with their own bodies of research and much to offer students. I attended a doctoral immersion residency and achieved all the other milestones of doctoral students. After graduation, I continued to work and succeed in academe. I achieved tenure and promotion to full professor at a university with very high research activity, always feeling well-prepared and comparable in knowledge and productivity to my faculty colleagues.

Good online learning is more than providing technology infrastructure to enable remote teaching. Online learning requires purposefully designed, and often increased, interactions with students. Professors hold one-on-one virtual office hours and many check-ins outside of regular hours. Clinical disciplines benefit from real-time virtual patient rounds, clinical case studies, and recitations. In addition, those who are new to teaching online may need to evolve how they approach assessment, technology, and time management. Duquesne and other high-quality online programs utilize research-based strategies like these to help train faculty to effectively prepare for teaching in a virtual environment.

The pandemic isn’t the first event to influence public perceptions that quality changes when we move from a lecture hall to a virtual classroom. The introduction of large, often free, online courses created an image of an impersonal, dehumanized experience that lacked the support students need to succeed. Also, the early surge of several for-profit universities created a negative impression that has been hard to overcome. As a result, well before COVID- 19 and the global rush online, virtual learning programs were often viewed as second class citizens.

The negative press and the poor reviews of online programs in the media are far removed from the quality and student success we’ve seen at Duquesne. Universities with quality, successful programs consider the development of students and the discovery of knowledge as integral to their mission, and that doesn’t change if education is offered online. In many instances, due to the use of various technologies, virtual simulations, virtual proctors, and other exam security measures, online learning is no less costly than face-to-face programs, as sometimes reported. The same highly qualified faculty are in the virtual classroom.

The abrupt transition to remote teaching in March 2020 due to COVID-19 was disruptive for many students and faculty. It’s my hope that thoughtfully planned online learning isn’t mistakenly cast out alongside it. Instead, I’m optimistic that this once-in-a-lifetime wake-up call means that quality online programs will become commonplace going forward, because online learning has much to offer our society at this time of crisis and beyond.

About the author

Dr. Mary Ellen Smith Glasgow

Dr. Mary Ellen Smith Glasgow joined the School of Nursing as Dean and Professor in August 2012. Dr. Glasgow previously served as Associate Dean for Nursing, Undergraduate Health Professions, and Continuing Education and Chair of Undergraduate Programs at Drexel University. She completed a fellowship at Bryn Mawr College and HERS, Mid-America Summer Institute for Women in Higher Education Administration. Dr. Glasgow was a Trustee of Princeton HealthCare System and was selected as a 2009 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellow.

As dean, under her leadership, enrollment and NCLEX-RN scores increased, and research and scholarship has significantly expanded. The School is recognized as a national leader in nursing education, emphasizing social justice, digital technologies, and graduates with strong ethical reasoning skills. Recently, she led the development of the first dual undergraduate Biomedical Engineering and Nursing Program in the country, and a PhD in Nursing Ethics.