World against COVID-19. Our colleagues' thoughts about the situation: Valentina Okaru-Bisant

April 13, 2020
Okaru Bisant

What is the impact of COVID-19 on the delivery of online higher education services in the United States of America and how can we turn any challenges into opportunities?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, online distance learning and teaching existed in higher education. Val Okaru-Bisant, the author of this article, taught online and face-to-face teaching for several years. The global education technology sector, including online learning, was growing at a fast pace of 15.4% a year with heavy investments from many companies like Google and Microsoft1. However, only 3% of all educational expenditure is spent on digital programs2 and proponents of online learning are pushing for universities to increase digital expenditures beyond 3%, including using it to solve problems, create educational partnerships and expand global outreach3.

But some opponents of online learning questioned the efficacy and quality of online learning and claimed that it widens the gap in educational success4. Effectiveness of student learning was also challenged when on July 19, 2013, San Jose State University suspended Udacity’s online classes due to failure of more than half of its online students5. However, older and working students have benefited from online learning as it provides opportunities for quality and affordable education, convenience, flexibility and asynchronous learning. Online teaching can be time-consuming, but it is also has advantages of flexibility and asynchronicity.

But despite varied opinions, social distancing measures of COVID-19 have catapulted an explosive global and universal shift from face-to-face learning to online learning in higher education. Jennifer Mathes, interim CEO of the Online Learning Consortium, a non-profit company that provides virtual learning in higher education, admits that “people were caught off guard at the college and elementary levels”6. The shift involves a transformation of the educational system from a predominantly face-to-face style learning to a dynamic universally practiced virtual learning systems. It has also created an opportunity for universities to consider increasing digital expenditures in education sector beyond 3% and to reinforce faculty/student training programs that turn any online learning challenges into opportunities for student centeredness and quality education. Fortunately, some universities are either implementing or have implemented appropriate measures to address possible online learning challenges, including those concerning privacy and confidentiality, copyright laws, motivating students, and plagiarism.

They (some universities) have provided their professors with a virtual private network (VPN) that allows them to access restricted university services from off-campus locations (at home)7. The network also enables a professor to protect private and confidential communications when he/she connects to the university network from home.

Some universities have also equipped their professors and students with knowledge of how to apply fair use of third party copyrighted materials online in accordance with the Fair Use and Copyright laws.8 The Fair Use doctrine of the Copyright Act (Section 107) is a vital tool for professors. “The Fair Use doctrine is a copyright exception that protects unauthorized uses of a copyrightable work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.”9

Unlike face-to-face teaching, online teaching increases the risk of less motivated students falling through the cracks and it does not facilitate instantaneous request and response to student feedback. Professors cannot instantaneously detect the level of student understanding and, therefore, cannot give and receive instantaneous student feedback. However, some professors have addressed the student motivation challenge by using mandatory discussion board participation and other tools (e.g., Zoom and Google Meet) to goad and encourage student engagement. In this respect, they make student participation on the discussion board to comprise at least 20% of final grades. Online teaching also creates a greater opportunity for student engagement and learning because it requires all students to interact on the discussion board, where there is higher opportunity for broader student engagement and learning. Through mandatory discussion board requirements, professors can monitor, detect and assist any students that are at risk of lagging behind in learning.

Some professors are also using internet plagiarism tools to detect any possible student plagiarism practices10.

All these measures signal that some universities are taking and should continue to take positive measures in responding to COVID-19 pressure on the educational system. It is too early to determine how much of an impact COVID-19 will have on the cost, duration and expansion of online and digital learning programs. The jury is still out on whether high demand for online learning services will increase the cost of such services and whether most universities will expand their online programs after the COVID 19 pandemic is resolved. Time will tell!

Professor Val Okaru-Bisant is an adjunct professor of business trade and corporations at the Catholic University of America. She is also the CEO and founder of Afrocosmo Development Impact, LLC, and a company that provides due diligence, training and other advisory services to transboundary small medium enterprises and governments. The views expressed should not be attributed to her company or affiliated university.

1 Kenneth Research, US News and World Today, Countries Face an Online Education Learning Curve, by Sara Toth Stub, April 2,2020.
2 Rob Hutter, founder and managing partner at Learn Capital, a company that invests in online and other educational technologies.
3 Leah Belsky, Where Online Learning Goes Next, Harvard Business Review, Oct. 4, 2019.
4 Spiros Protopsaltis and Sandy Baum, Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise? A Look at the Evidence and Implications For Federal Policy, January 2019.
5 University Suspends Online Classes After More than Half of the Students Fail, Slate, July 19, 2013.
6 US News and World Today, Countries Face an Online Education Learning Curve, by Sara Toth Stub, April 2,2020.
7 VPN (Virtual Private Network) Remotely access restricted services through Stanford’ (2020).
8 Fair Use and Copyright for Online Education: Copyright, University Libraries, 2020.
9 Dunner Law, Your IP Anchor, (April 29, 2015).
10 Christopher Pappas, The 10 Free Plagiarism Detection Tools for E-Learning Professionals, (2017 Update).