One Size Does Not Fit All: A Framework for Schools to Focus Their Online Learning Efforts for Fall 2020

by Swati Carr, Ph.D. | June 29, 2020

Estimated time to read: minutes

Schools are preparing to launch the Fall 2020 semester under a cloud of uncertainty over further COVID-related school closures. 13% of US higher ed institutions have announced that they will either be fully online (6%) or have proposed various hybrid models (7%). Students suffered through the hastily cobbled-together Zoom lectures when schools first closed but they will not want to continue college if the Fall semester was a repeat of the remote learning model of the second half of the Spring 2020 semester

When students pay for a traditional college experience, they are implicitly agreeing to pay for a combination of curriculum, extracurriculars, and social interactions at a physical location that feels like a place of higher education. However, even the best examples of online learning currently only deliver curriculum, or curriculum plus only those social experiences that enhance curricular learning. Spring 2020 has led students to grapple with placing a money value to the non-curricular experience that colleges traditionally give them. Students feel that if schools cannot deliver the full experience that they promised, they should not get to charge full price. 

As colleges rapidly transitioned to Zoom or similar technologies during college closures, virtual lectures looked similar from one school to the next, and from one discipline to another. Professors were learning how to teach remotely, how to stay in touch with their students, how to understand student needs, and how to assess their performances. Schools were doing emergency remote teaching focussed on giving students academic continuity, which is a far cry from intentionally designed digital/online education. Barring a handful of schools with extensive infrastructure and established digital education practices, all schools responded to COVID-related closures using very similar tools and technologies. In a way, the playing field was mostly level. 

The goal for each institution is the same: to offer all or most of what their university has to offer regardless of the modality by which students are experiencing their education. The problem lies in the fact that higher ed institutions are at varying starting points in their journey to creating that online learning experience that truly represents their mission, values, and brand and that meets stakeholder expectations. So how might a school, regardless of their starting point, get to a digital version of their Fall 2020 semester that their students will feel engaged by? 

In the absence of time to do everything an institution might want to accomplish in time for the Fall semester, schools will have to strategically prioritize their efforts and then establish a clear set of tactics to carry out your strategy and metrics to measure success. Missing either a clearly defined strategy, tactics, and metrics, institutions will find themselves entirely overwhelmed and taking aim at moving targets. 

Prioritizing your resources on a few key practices within each course or program that students respond well to and that align with your institution’s mission. Work hard to deliver those well virtually. For everything else, be organized and responsive: make sure students know where they can find the information they need, establish communication norms and stick to them, tell students how they can reach you when they need to, and then be responsive when they do reach out. 

Below, I present a case for how schools should establish their strategy for incorporating digital technologies beyond synchronous lesson delivery for the Fall 2020 semester. First and foremost, school administrators must honestly assess where they are on their journey of digital transformation.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) created a framework for categorizing where a school is in their journey of digital transformation: Digital newcomers are schools with less than 3% of its courses online and lacking infrastructure and any in-house expertise for delivering digital education. Emerging adopters have implemented digital education in isolated experiments and have some expertise and governance. Advanced institutions have a vast online course catalogue, staff and faculty that are trained and have experience designing and delivering digital learning. 

If your institution is a digital newcomer, your first task is setting the basic infrastructure up on your end (LMS, course shells, communication norms etc.) including tapping into library resources that can be used digitally. You will have to make tough decisions on where and how to allocate your resources. Your other main focus is to get faculty working with instructional designers to determine how to retain the essence of what makes your courses unique when delivered online. Your focus here is tactical prioritization meant to ensure quality and continuity for the Fall 2020 semester rather than a strategic effort set at differentiation. While strategically differentiating your program from your competitors is important, especially in a crowded market, now is not the time to focus on that. 

If you are an emerging adopter, your focus should be to provide support and structure to faculty to teach online quickly and leverage the faculty from your digital learning success stories to get buy in from more resistant faculty. You should also identify what barriers the emergency shift to remote teaching inadvertently created and explore how to break those. 

Advanced institutions should be focussing on building the capacity to scale their digital education initiatives up and to provide them continuing support. This is an opportunity for these institutions to really exercise their creativity and deliver more than just curriculum. These institutions should think about how to give students the full college experience online. 

Schools Should Focus their Online Learning Efforts for Fall 2020 Based On Their Starting Point

Digital Newcomers
  • Set up the basics (LMS, licenses, communication norms across all courses)
  • Get the help you need (instructional designers, strategic partners)
  • Prioritize (highest-value classes, willing faculty)
  • Leverage existing library resources
  • Find your differentiators
Emerging Adopters
  • Train more faculty in teaching online
  • Use your online learning success stories to get more faculty buy in
  • Work with instructional design staff to build dynamic online courses
Advanced Institutions
  • Focus on scaling up
  • Use creativity to push the boundaries of pedagogy online
  • Extend the online learning experience to beyond curriculum

Looking beyond the current pandemic, we must recognize online education for what it is: an additional tool-kit that gives us flexibility of geography and time, and allows us to teach in new ways. Most schools think of online and residential education as separate entities, but they should both be intertwined parts serving your school’s core mission. 

Post-COVID, digital education should serve your entire student population, which might include traditional and non-traditional college students, international students bound by travel restrictions, and students who are sick or may be caring for family members that are sick. The investment made now will not be a sunk cost to solve a single temporary problem. Schools that had already made investments in digital education should leverage these technologies to innovate pedagogy and create tangible value to their students. Instead of asking students to mould their lives around the college experience, they must find ways to fit a high-quality college experience into the constraints that their students must work around. Schools that are new to digital learning technology should work hard to change fixed mindsets of their administration, faculty, and even students about what online education is and can be. They should use their imagination to consider ways of using these technologies in ways beyond a delivery medium.

Keep Learning

Define and Act on Your Institution’s Strategy

Dr. Scott Moore has written a 15-part series on defining and acting on a higher education strategy to guide leaders during these difficult times. It is targeted at educational leaders who are participating in shaping their school's actions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


Swati Carr, Ph.D.

Swati Carr is a former Research Fellow at Extension Engine. She took an unusual route into education design coming from a 10+ year stint doing bioengineering research through her M.S. and then Ph.D. While at Extension Engine, she designed and created effective educational experiences on digital platforms, and evaluated existing educational content against defined learning outcomes to find ways to improve them, bringing the scientific method and evidence-based decision making to all her work. Prior to Extension Engine, Swati designed authentic assessments for blended and digital learning in biosciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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