Turning challenges
with remote learning
in higher education
into advantages

Author: Megan Williams

COVID-19 helped turn the traditional face-to-face classroom or lecture hall style of education on its head, but the key to a more certain future might be in taking a deeper look at the problems with remote learning.

Cash flow problems, falling foreign student enrollment and difficult scenario planning are major challenges for today's higher education leaders. Community colleges have possibly been hit the hardest, with 9.5% fewer students starting the spring 2021 semester than the previous year. Trends like these point to an overall dampening in higher education, possibly rooted in pandemic-fueled distance from the traditionally vibrant and spontaneous interactions of in-person education. But by embracing the challenges of online learning and looking for solutions that can be implemented as quickly as possible, higher education leaders can construct a remote higher education experience that meets students' needs.

Understanding the challenges of online learning

The challenges of online learning are not new. The need for mass remote education has simply highlighted a few of the long-standing problems with remote learning.

Data, online access and devices

As of 2021, 22.5% of U.S. households didn't have internet and over a quarter million were using dial-up. Additionally, access varies by location—while states like California and Utah are highly connected, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama still struggle to provide access.

Students also need reliable access to computers sophisticated enough to handle their educational needs. If they're sharing access with a parent who's working remotely or younger siblings who are also learning remotely, their access could be spotty and unreliable, tainting their higher education experience. If they're fortunate enough to have their own device to use for remote learning, home internet bandwidth may become another potential bottleneck, with parents and siblings also using the internet for their needs. Pew Research Center reported a 12-point increase between 2021 and 2020 in the number of Americans who believe schools should provide digital technology to all students.

The need for interaction in class

The benefits of going to college include self-development and networking. One of the problems with remote learning is that students may have fewer opportunities to interact with other students without in-person office hours or informal conversations after class. These learning situations might have come naturally in in-person learning environments.

Acknowledging long-term pros and cons of distance learning

Even in light of these challenges of online learning, we should be wary of only evaluating problems with remote learning within the limited and short-term scope of the pandemic. Distance learning existed before the pandemic and will outlast it, meaning leaders in higher education can benefit from looking at the pros and cons of distance learning through a future-focused lens.

Benefits of online learning

Most obviously, remote learning offers ongoing safety during a pandemic. This is especially important as the long-term effects of COVID-19 on younger people are becoming better understood. Online learning can also improve information retention by 25% to 60% and shorten learning times by 40% to 60%. These efficiencies can streamline the time tomorrow's students spend on educational endeavors.

Some evidence suggests greater support for online learning among students of color. According to a Sallie Mae report, 70% of Black students and 54% of Hispanic students say they were equally able to learn new material online and in person, compared with 46% of white students. Both K-12 and college students of color, and their parents, have reported online learning has helped them avoid racism and microaggressions in the classroom.

Distance learning can also:

Problems with remote learning

But challenges of online learning also exist. Montana State University research on graduate students' mental health found that an increase in child care responsibilities and growing concerns around housing and food insecurity were impacting learning and, in turn, delaying degree completion and changes in career plans. These issues could deepen problems around the quantity and diversity of STEM professionals since families with easier access to remote learning have a better chance to maintain full commitment to STEM education programs.

Other challenges include:

Solving the problems with remote learning

It's possible to alleviate problems with remote learning—and to potentially discover an even more efficient form of higher education. By addressing the challenges of online learning above, leaders in education can set educational institutions and students up for a future where online learning is a part of a robust and modern educational experience.

Start with systems and support all your students

As a starting point for overcoming problems with remote learning, higher education leaders will need to invest in robust systems and platforms that will help ensure their programs are supported online. Even organizations that have strong existing platforms will need to make sure both students and instructors are supported over the long term.

Solutions like digital campuses can leverage software-defined networking and network function virtualization to help automate and simplify your network and provide better digital learning experiences. This can help replicate some of the spontaneous interactions that might have been missing during pandemic online learning.

Additionally, students of specific backgrounds, including students of color, students learning English, students experiencing housing challenges, students from low-income backgrounds and students in rural or tribal communities may require additional support with access to broadband internet and digital devices.

Refresh your cybersecurity and rethink communication

One of the most critical problems with remote learning is that between 2019 and 2020, ransomware attacks on colleges doubled, with cyber criminals turning the tactics they use on corporations, cities and governments on schools.

Because of increased cybersecurity risks as your online learning environment expands, your institution will likely need to invest in online security solutions for higher education as its digital footprint expands to include more students, devices and locations.

Lastly—and maybe most importantly—work to develop and adjust communication and marketing plans for current and future students. One of the common problems with remote learning is that students may have different expectations for what their education looks like. Your online learning platform will evolve based on what you learn over the coming years, shaping the experience of tomorrow's students. Students will need to know the experience they're signing up for, and instructors will need to be equipped to support them as best possible.

As you work to build an educational experience that meets modern students' needs, know that the solutions you need are available to you today. Explore how you can transform your online education at your institution to provide a robust, agile learning experience.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.