Monday, September 6, 2021

Bob Ubell’s “Staying Online”


Many colleges and universities moved online over the past year in response to the COVID pandemic.  This year, many of those same institutions are considering the ongoing role of online learning in their overall teaching and learning environment as they seek to establish a new normal that better integrates virtual and face-to-face learning for the long run.

            Robert Ubell’s new book, Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education is a powerful resource for administrators and faculty who are working to help their institutions make the most of an aspect of education that is moving quickly into the mainstream.  Many chapters in the book are adapted from essays that Ubell has published over the past few years, updated to best fit the new environment that online learning is helping to create today.  As he says in his introduction, “the aim of these extended essays is to explore which virtual practices are likely to be best for students, increasingly tossed unwittingly into unfamiliar digital academic environments. All have been updated and include more recent material to give shape and substance to earlier pieces requiring broader current perspectives.”  For readers, it provides the opportunity to have a veteran pioneer at your side as you plan your own innovations as we continue to respond to the emergency and, at the same time, build the basis for the post-pandemic environment.

            Ubell organized the chapters around four broad themes: (1) moving to online learning as an emergency resource during the pandemic, (2) theory and practice issues, (3) scaling up, and (4) problems and considerations facing institutions as they scale up.  A final chapter explores areas where has changed his mind about a topic since the essays were originally written.

            In many ways, Ubell suggests, the use of virtual education during the pandemic has provided a point of comparison with a properly designed online course.  Most faculty had no time to prepare a virtual course that drew thoughtfully on valuable pedagogical methods, like active learning, project-based inquiry, and peer-to-peer instruction . . .Without planning faculty just take their face-to-face lectures and put them online.”  That experience has spurred new thinking about the design of online learning—the new normal that faculty and institutions are working to find while they manage the pandemic emergency.  The effect of the rapid pandemic-spurred conversion has been to give many faculty and their institutions a first experience with online learning at scale and an opportunity to consider what it takes to make the transition to this new environment.  The lesson he learned was that:

Teaching online demands that instructors find new ways of captivating students they often can neither see nor hear, a radical departure from centuries of conventional instruction. Virtual instruction does not depend on one’s expressive face, spirited movements, or an affecting speaking voice, but on altogether new pedagogies introduced in the last century and practiced by inventive early adopters in this century. To recover from the stumbling emergency semester, surely the first item on the higher ed agenda was to guide faculty in digital instruction best practices. 

In the “Theory and Practice” section, Ubell recounts his personal experience as a first-time online instructor, the obstacles he encountered, and the importance of instructional design and media development support in helping him find way in a new environment that encourages multiple kinds of engagement among faculty, students, and content.  He goes on to examine how innovation over the past quarter century has led to standards—endorsed by a variety of professional associations—that institutions can use to guide their own development and to address concerns about how ensure that the environment is truly serving the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

A chapter on the “digital economy” explores the changing academic environment—the increase in adult learners, the decrease in traditional-aged students, the increasing need for continuing study as students move into the workplace, etc.—and changes in the faculty itself as higher education responds to sometimes dramatic economic and social changes—and how online learning itself is evolving as institutions use it to address the new environment.

            In the 1990s, when we were creating the World Campus, Penn State’s online campus, a friend and associate dean for outreach in one of Penn State’s colleges, gave me some very helpful advice.  “If you want to successfully lead innovation in a university,” she told me, “you have to become a scholar of that field.  You have to become the source of knowledge about the field you are leading.”  Staying Online helps today’s new leaders achieve that goal.  By sharing the experience and perspective of a successful elearning innovator, Staying Online allows innovators to better help their institutions scale up online learning in this rapidly evolving field. 

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