5 Distance Learning Lessons for Higher Ed from the Business World

distance learning lessons from the business worldIn March, many college students were on spring break when they got an email from their schools: pack up your dorm rooms and go home. When classes resumed, they were digital. In-person classes were hastily converted to remote formats, policies were changed, and professors quickly learned to use whatever technology would let them complete their classes. It was a difficult digital reckoning for higher education; but one that’s been a long time coming.

As a writer who covers both higher education and corporate training, as well as a former adjunct professor, I’ve watched this year as universities and colleges have scrambled to adopt remote learning technologies. Remote classes have been a part of college for several years, but most institutions haven’t been able to put together a consistent, campus-wide remote learning strategy. The realities of Covid-19, however, have forced institutions to make campus-wide changes to distance learning in order to keep students, faculty, and staff safe.

This has been a struggle as faculty and students have adapted to the new normal. Fortunately, there’s a model for colleges to follow when it comes to distance learning: the private sector has been training learners remotely for years.

What can colleges learn from the corporate world?

1. Everyone needs to be on the same page

There’s always been technology in college, but when it comes to teaching online, the adoption of remote learning has been uneven at best. Some instructors — usually those who have been teaching the same syllabus for many years — are used to teaching in person. They’re also used to teaching their course the same way they’ve been doing for years.

Other professors are passionate early adopters. They try out new technology in class, are advocates for new digital ways of teaching, and educate themselves about cutting-edge technologies. They’re the instructors who are trying new apps as part of the class — even though sometimes those apps are buggy or unsecure.

Although it’s great to have both these extremes — professors using tried and true methods as well as those who love tech — it’s important for a college that’s going remote to employ a consistent distance learning strategy. That means everyone needs to be using the same tools; students shouldn’t have to learn on Chalkboard for one class, use Zoom and Slack for another class, and a learning management system (LMS) for a third class.

Students should have one system they’re logging into for classes — just like corporate learners do.

2. Employ instructional designers

Unlike certified K-12 teachers or the instructional designers who create online training materials, instructors in college don’t need to know how to teach to get a teaching job. They’re hired by a college because they know a lot about a certain subject, and they learn how to teach or organize a lesson in one of two ways:

  1. By trial and error in the classroom
  2. By using a tried and true syllabus handed to them by their department

I can tell you from my own experience that an inexperienced instructor can get away with muddling through a course in a classroom. You have the freedom to do anything from exercises to lectures to breakout groups. If a lecture or exercise isn’t working, you can read the room and change direction.

Online, this isn’t as easy. Online courses need structure and should be built by instructional designers who know how students learn best, understand the technology the course will be taught with, and work with professors to create a course. Not a lot of schools have the budget for that, and to be honest, higher ed has been saving money by sending adjuncts into the classroom with minimal pedagogical assistance or training.

Not so with corporate training. Training materials are usually developed by experts. Sometimes modules are built in-house and sometimes enterprises purchase off-the-shelf courses. In both cases, those modules are created by experts who know how to create effective, engaging remote learning.

3. Embrace the mobile phone

Cell phones have always been the adversary in college classrooms, and full disclosure: as an adjunct, I hated them. Corporate training, however, does not ignore the importance of learning via mobile devices. Some learners may require training in the field and others may be remote. Even people stationed at the HQ who prefer to sit at their desk or on the couch in the lobby with their mobile device in-hand to do training would be perfectly within the realm of normal.

In college, mobile learning may have an even more important use; many students are on the wrong side of a technology gap. They may not have a computer — some low-income students might share a device or have relied on communal devices to type papers. For those who don’t have a device or who are dealing with a computer that has broken down or moves slowly, classes that can be accessed via mobile devices are a must.

Most college students have a smartphone, however. A 2018 mobile learning study from the University of Central Florida (UCF) found that 99.8% of students own a smartphone and 82% of students use their phones for learning. In particular, students from marginalized backgrounds, who had lower GPAs, reported using their phones to complete assignments. In this way, having a course available via a mobile app can help level the playing field for students who might be working, living and sharing computers with relatives, or who simply need the flexibility that accessing class from a phone provides.

4. Invest in cybersecurity

Most institutions of higher learning are intensely aware of physical security. Colleges invest in locks, cameras, outdoor lighting, and often their own police forces. Now that the campus is going digital, it’s important to invest in cybersecurity.

The corporate world knows how important it is to protect its digital assets. According to a report from the Ponemon Institute, the average cost of a data breach is $3.86 million. Universities who are teaching remotely need to invest in security as well, because hackers aren’t sparing educators. The average cost of a data breach in the education industry is $3.9 million, and 48% of those attacks are malicious, rather than the result of an accident.

To prevent breaches and the loss of student information, colleges will need to find a teaching solution that’s secure, as well as train faculty and staff regarding good cyber hygiene — a necessary step when some faculty members may have been teaching using unsecured applications or other ways of connecting with students.

5. Train the professors

Both technology lovers and luddites alike are going to need training on a campus-wide teaching tool. Tech lovers will need to understand how they can use the tool to the utmost (and they may have to be convinced to abandon their own way of teaching online). Those who’ve avoided online classes altogether will need to learn the basics. This training will need to be offered to everyone from tenured professors to adjuncts.

Training may seem like a basic step, but many institutions of higher education often don’t offer mandatory training to the entire faculty. Part of the reason for that is that higher education relies on the work of adjunct professors who are not full time and are often busy with other jobs or heavy course loads.

In this case, the pandemic is an opportunity to offer remote training sessions and make them mandatory. Students and faculty are adjusting to many changes as it is — both groups should have as smooth an introduction to their new LMS as is possible.