A Review of Online Learning in 2021

Has blended learning finally arrived in 2021?

2021: still bad but better

In my review for 2020 I wrote “Goodbye – and don’t come back”, a reaction to the terrible year caused by Covid-19. Well, Covid-19 is still with us and it doesn’t look like it will ever go away entirely. My new word for 2021 is now more “endemic” than “pandemic”. It’s a depressing thought, on top of the disasters suffered here in British Columbia from climate change.

But at least we now have effective vaccines, and life here, at least in BC where almost 80% are fully vaccinated, is returning to normal. I saw my two sons for the first time in two years and my wife and I managed to take two short trips to the provinces. If you’re stuck somewhere, British Columbia has incredible scenery and places to visit if you can manage to avoid wildfires, floods, and landslides (and we even have scorpions in the Okanagan; locusts likely next year).

Considerable progress has been made in online learning. We learned a lot about online learning during Covid-19, and while not all of those lessons were good, the landscape of teaching and learning in general has changed for the best. I would like to go into these developments in my review of the year.

I will be relying heavily on my summary of the research reports on Covid-19 and Emergency Distance / Online Learning.

Lessons learned

Like 2020

Most of the emergency distance learning lessons for 2021 are the same as in 2020. In my review for 2020, I identified 10 lessons:

  1. Online and blended learning will increase significantly after Covid-19 (or maybe “into the future” is more accurate now.)
  2. Lecturer support is essential for quality online learning
  3. We know how to do quality online and blended learning, but we can also learn from emergency online learning
  4. COVID-19 has shown the need for more flexible assessment methods
  5. COVID-19 has led to innovative teaching, but will it persist?
  6. We are beginning to see the benefits of media and open educational resources for teaching and learning
  7. More attention needs to be paid to online access and cheapness
  8. We need more flexible learning spaces
  9. Administrators need to allow for flexibility and resilience in delivering lessons
  10. We need more (and better) data.

Nothing that happened in 2021 changed my views on these 10 lessons, but there have been some new developments worth mentioning.

An increase in blended learning

The growth of blended learning appears to have increased significantly in 2021 (although unfortunately the evidence for this is mostly anecdotal – we don’t have good data on this radical change in education, even though the CDLRA is doing its best).

Even before Covid-19, students integrated online learning into their campus studies. Now even those faculty who disliked emergency distance learning or who used to be openly hostile to online learning seem to be accepting some of the elements of blended learning, such as pupil in sync (sometimes referred to as the “bi-model”). However, this is a relatively small change in teaching methods.

More importantly, some faculty (still a small minority anecdotally) are rethinking their teaching to combine the best of online learning with the best of face-to-face teaching, e.g. working and using online learning for student research and study. This really is the future of blended learning, but it requires an awareness and respect for the relative advantages of both online and face-to-face teaching that we are still learning.

There are all sorts of new terms for these steps towards blended learning like flipped, hyflex, hybrid, and these terms will evolve and confuse as there is no dominant pedagogical model or theory for blended learning. Everyone learns after they sit down in their pants, and that may not be bad, at least at first. It is important that these developments are promoted, recorded and evaluated so that best practices can emerge in the end.

The big question is whether there will be a move away from large face-to-face events in the long term. The University of Manchester in the UK has promised to end “non-interactive” lectures as part of a permanent and comprehensive move to blended learning, and Ryerson University’s School of Continuing Education is mixing all of its classes into a fully online mode of deliberately designed asynchronous online courses and previously face-to-face courses that switch to synchronous online learning, at least until the school has the time and money to redesign such courses. Are these just bubbles that will burst quickly, or the beginning of a major shift in program execution?

Given that Covid-19, like influenza, is endemic, will universities and colleges be willing to take the risk of large lectures in the future? I am waiting for the first student (probably in the US) to complain if they get sick.

Manchester University Lecture Hall: will this be banned if it is not interactive?

Extensive faculty development – but more is needed

What we saw in 2020 and 2021 was perhaps the greatest effort ever in professional development for faculty. In 2020 and 2021, most of the staff at the Centers for Teaching and Learning worked hard to provide individual support to instructors and to develop online courses and faculty development resources as instructors need to improve their emergency distance learning. It will take several years to see the consequences, but it should translate into an overall improvement in teaching and some specific benefits for online and blended learning.

However, they also identified a new challenge: expanding classroom design and media support. When only 10 percent of the courses were online, individual support for the lecturers was possible. However, as everyone is working towards a version of blended learning, the challenge of quality control and agile course design, especially for blended learning, has become more pressing. How do we increase teacher support to ensure high quality blended learning? The challenge of blended learning means moving from an ad hoc model of faculty development based on faculty who are often reluctant to choose to a more systematic model of faculty development that ensures that everyone is familiar with best practices in blended learning .

We need to look to institutions like the University of Central Florida, which has been using a blended learning model for nearly 20 years, for guidance and assistance. For example, you have an open access blended learning toolkit that teachers should use before starting their first blended learning course.

Access equity is still an issue

This was also highlighted in my 2020 Annual Review, but the theme is a little clearer. In the k-12 system in particular, there is a significant number of students who do not have adequate internet access or suitable equipment for online learning. For these children, access to school is vital. Online learning only expands access if there is an alternative on-campus experience for those without digital access. Binary thinking (either on campus OR online learning) is not helpful. We need both.

Second, at the post-secondary level, the numbers without adequate access are relatively lower than in the k-12 system, but still significant. More importantly, research on emergency distance learning has shown that many students do not have adequate home study space. It is all the more important for the campus to provide enough private study places with computers and internet access so that students can also work online on campus.

Also in 2021 there was some interesting research on diversity issues in emergency distance learning. Some students with special educational needs have suffered while others, such as autistic children, appeared to benefit, although more and better research is needed on this. Certainly more needs to be done to provide housing for students with special needs studying online. More worryingly, in the US, many black children (and parents) preferred online learning because it avoids systemic racism in schools.

More robust technologies

An important development over the past two years has been to improve the robustness of commonly used technologies in online learning, especially video conferencing tools like Zoom, which had a security issue in 2020 that has now been fixed. However, learning management systems have not disappeared, and increasingly, teachers and institutions seem to be integrating these two tools. Again, we need to examine the relative advantages of video conferencing and learning management systems in order to make the most of each of them.

Although MOOCs continue to grow and grow – 200 million students in 2021 – and we saw EdX being swallowed up by a commercial platform, 2U, there wasn’t a big new technology making a breakthrough in online learning in 2021.

Virtual reality and serious games are growing slowly, but are still relatively niche applications. AI is still floating on the edge of education, waiting for a radically new approach that can draw on the masses of data that students generate online. Facebook is disappearing into the metaverse, and I’m fucking making sure I’m not following it (when I can control what I’m increasingly doubting about). Blockchain has yet to be used for educational purposes, but it holds great promise in terms of micro-credentials and offers a more learner-centric way to manage credentials. But in 2021, LMS and video conferencing prevailed.

What have I missed?

I am sure there were other important developments that have come under the microscope. Please use the comments box below for your views on what changed – or should have done but didn’t – in 2021.

Prepare for 2022

I still have a blog post that summarizes my activities in 2021, then I look forward to online learning after the holidays in 2022. Charge your batteries: you will need all your energies for 2022.


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