COVID-19 Accelerated Online Learning, But Where Do We Go From Here?

Shifting Indiana’s higher education learning system to an online delivery model overnight would have seemed impossible at the beginning of 2020.

Yet here we are, reckoning with the impact of our campuses shut down for months on end with classes hastily pushed online and uncertainty about what will happen in the fall. The fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak has become a major disruption for countless lives across the nation and has—for multiple reasons—caused alarm and anxiety within higher education.

The pandemic has accelerated where we’ve been heading for some time in higher education, including the broader adoption of learning in a virtual environment. When we stop to consider, however, that each step along the way has been an opportunity to develop and improve our systems and processes, we see that the innovation and perseverance higher education are known for position us to play a key and unique role in where we go from here.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education has been focused on ensuring Hoosier students receive a quality education – no matter the modality. This is also one of many charges Indiana’s institutions have taken on as they transitioned to providing the bulk of education in a virtual setting this spring and summer.

The transition to online was not as dramatic for some of our institutions as it was for others. Regardless, all our colleges and universities have worked to provide academic rigor through quality online instruction so students are fully prepared to continue their education in the fall.

While ensuring quality is essential in transitioning to online instruction, there are other considerations the Commission has focused on throughout the past few months: issues around connectivity and access—particularly for underrepresented populations; alternative grading options; and professional development for online instruction. Indiana’s institutions have made innovative moves to address many of these challenges – including providing free laptops or Wi-Fi to students – all while fostering team collaboration in a virtual environment, focusing on faculty morale and the mental health of students and staff during what has been an unconventional time.

Now more than ever, Americans need the skills and education that provide good jobs in an evolving economy—which start with ensuring our students can access and utilize the online resources and supports needed to succeed. Indiana has been actively working to address these issues through creative grant programs, including focusing on “summer melt” with the graduating high school class of 2020 as they transition to postsecondary life.

In partnership with Indiana Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), the Commission created learning support grants, awarding over $135,000 to 11 college, university, and community partners for summer bridge boot-camp programs for incoming college students and tutoring stipends for current college-age students to tutor graduating high school seniors.

The state can now also provide more than $60 million of federal funds to help shore up resources and access issues facing students and schools. The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funding through the CARES Act allows K-12 and higher education institutions to apply for funding to support actions toward improving remote learning and quality. Eligible programs include focusing on device availability (particularly for underrepresented students), supporting connectivity and access to reliable internet and technology, and providing professional development opportunities for educators around best practices for teaching online.  

These are important measures to scale quality online learning. Yet, persistent challenges remain for higher education in Indiana and around the nation. As we move closer to the fall and understand more about student behavior, we will be able to continue innovating and building upon what COVID-19 has accelerated.