The Instructional Challenge of Higher Education


As the leader of a fully online institution of higher education that constantly looks to the future in an effort to anticipate how we should and will evolve in order to meet the needs of learners, I read with great interest articles that purport to inject fresh thinking into the heightened public discourse during the Covid-19 era on what is termed ‘distance education.’ Though I long for the day when we refer to it as ‘education’ with no qualifier in front of it, I am struck by the profound disconnect between higher education and K-12 education, when it comes to quality instruction, pandemic or no.

Inside Higher Ed, an (ostensibly) bellwether digital publication for the sector, has been featuring any number of articles during the past six months that attempt to identify how instruction has been happening, how it should happen, and what might happen to higher education as a result of the pandemic, which is serving as an accelerant on the conflagration that is the traditional higher education model, whether we consider its delivery, its experience, or its living-in-a-bubble business model.

“Meeting the Instructional Challenge of Distance Education” is a good example of an article that, in good faith, seeks to identify how best to increase student involvement during the current academic year in higher education. The author, founding director of the University of California at Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute, provides what he terms a partial list of pedagogical practices that have the potential “to enhance student involvement.” Included are courses that emphasize writing, narrative evaluations, independent study, participation in faculty research, and limited use of multiple-choice tests. Although I fail to see innovative thinking around pedagogy in this list, it does hold some promise.

Yet there are structural faults here. Most glaringly, the article, like most others, starts from a deficit model of distance education. “The most impactful undergraduate experiences appear to be effective because they increase student-faculty contact, student-student contact or both. With distance education, of course, the student typically has little opportunity to experience personal contact with either faculty members or fellow students, so the challenge for the online instructor who seeks to maximize student involvement is formidable.”

These two sentences may seem innocuous, but closer examination highlights two critical points of ignorance (from the Latin ignorantem, ‘not knowing’). First, “the most impactful undergraduate experiences seem to be effective […].” Seem to be effective? Conjecture, and no evidence, from a higher education research institute? Second, the continuation of the same sentence, “because they increase student-faculty contact, student-student contact or both.” Of course these contacts happen in a traditional higher education setting, but the next sentence is meant to underscore the ‘deficit model’ that is a nostrum around distance education: a student engaged in distance education has “little opportunity to experience personal contact with either faculty members or fellow students [etc.].”

The deficit model of distance education holds that, if only distance education could provide the exact same interactions as traditional face-to-face instruction, students would achieve. It is analogous to the deficit model of instruction, whereby one believes that, if students worked harder, they would achieve. What a deficit model avoids is challenging one’s self to raise expectations for students by raising one’s own expectations, such as scaffolding instruction, as well gathering feedback and any relevant data points to aid comprehension of one’s instructional effectiveness. One must mitigate one’s own fear of failure. To point the finger at distance education and say the equivalent of “it’s simply impossible to have meaningful interactions with distance education” is to show complete ignorance of what is possible.

At Moreland University, we know what is possible because we’ve been doing it since our very first cohort in March 2013. We designed our learning (for instructional effectiveness) around what research says works for teachers, when it comes to improving their practice. We are highly effective at student-faculty contact as well as student-student contact: in fact, our methodology is designed around relationships, among other elements. Are there distance education programs that simply push content without much thought to other experiential elements? Of course, just as there are instructors that persist with the ‘sage on the stage’ instructional model. It is a model. However, meaningful distance education exists: it can be done, and it can be done very well, with stratospheric levels of satisfaction, including contacts and relationships that carry on for years after the learning experience.

The debate really ought to be about what constitutes effective teaching and learning, not whether traditional or distance education is superior. In this matter, higher education has so much to learn from K-12 education, where there are vibrant discussions and practices around effective instruction. Just because those K-12 students graduate doesn’t mean that effective instruction goes out the window when they enter their university years; in fact, it continues. To return to the article in question, “Meeting the Instructional Challenge of Distance Education,” higher education would benefit from an increased understanding and application of effective instruction,  whether traditional or distance. With that as our guiding light, all will benefit.

Semper ad meliora

Additional Reading