Podcast Interview: Distance Learning in Higher Education

Mike Bergin and Amy Seeley host a podcast called Tests and the Rest which discusses “the latest issues in testing, admissions, learning, and education with leading experts.” I recently was interviewed on this podcast on the topic of Distance Learning in Higher Education. This was an interesting conversation for me since the audience and general discussion came from adjacent areas of education – not based on insider discussion of EdTech and online education. I love talking to insiders, but I also enjoy talking to people with more of a general interest in the topic.

You can listen to the podcast episode as embedded below or directly at the Tests and the Rest website. Or on your favorite podcast platform.

I have also include a lightly-edited transcript below.

Amy: [00:00:04] Welcome, everyone, I’m Amy Seeley, president of Seeley Test Pros, helping students to succeed on all kinds of tests from eighth grade to grad school in Cleveland, Ohio.

Mike: [00:00:12] And I’m Mike Bergin, president of Chariot Learning, helping students with test school in life based out of Rochester, New York.

Amy: [00:00:18] Between the two of us today, we have over 50 years of experience at the highest levels of the test preparation and supplemental education industries.

Mike: [00:00:25] We both love to talk and learn about the latest issues in education testing in college admissions. So let’s get down to Tests and the Rest. The fascinating topic we want to explore today is distance learning and higher education. But first, let’s meet our special guest.

Amy: [00:00:39] Phil Hill is publisher of the PhilOnEdTech blog and partner at MindWires. As a market analyst, Phil has analyzed the growth of technology enabled change for educational institutions, uncovering and describing the major trends and implications for the broader market. His unique graphics and visual presentations have been widely used in the industry. As an independent consultant, Phil helps educational institutions, technology and content vendors and investors as they consider and implement new initiatives. Bills clients have included Western Governors University, California Community College System, UCLA, Bournemouth University, Lumen Learning, Coursera, multiple investment firms and others. Welcome.

Phil: [00:01:23] I well, thank you, I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Mike: [00:01:26] Phil, we’re looking forward to the discussion, too. It’s a really interesting topic, but before we get into that, you have definitely explored a lot of areas as far as education and technology and even publishing and podcasting go. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Phil: [00:01:44] Sure. I’ll do the best I can, and I mentioned that because I guess my career is I have trouble fitting into any one place. I guess if I fit into a space, it’s in between media (from the blogging and occasionally breaking news), consulting, and market analysis. And so I’ve been working in higher education and educational technology for about two decades now, and early on I did it mostly where I was helping schools navigate what’s happening. What are these vendors doing and what should our strategy be? But more recently, I’ve also been advising vendors and investors in the space, but I sort of fit between them. One way to think about what I do is often a marriage counselor, helping one side understand the other and hopefully developing useful relationships.

Mike: [00:02:40] That’s great. It’s nice to frame. Anything we do is kind of like relationship. Ultimately, there’s always some kind of relationship that goes on. I think that Amy and I working with the teens that we do very often, we’re family counselors.

Phil: [00:02:53] Yes. Well, one of my favorite authors, and he was sort of a consultant’s consultant, was Jerry Weinberg, and he wrote a famous book, I think it was in 1971 called The Psychology of the Computer Programmer. He was one of the main people that introduced this idea that you could think of it – even in technology – however much you think it’s a technology problem you might be dealing with, it’s really a person problem. It’s about communication. It’s about understanding what you’re trying to solve. Quite often what I deal with are sort of proxy wars where one side is having an argument with another, but it’s not really on the immediate question we’re addressing. It’s based on some long simmering dispute that’s happened in the past. So yeah, relationships are critical in this field,

Mike: [00:03:44] And that’s great insight. Just because a lot of people, when they talk about education technology, they are thinking of a tool. But really, you’re thinking of a goal, you think of something you want to happen and it happens in a person, not in a software program.

Phil: [00:03:59] Yes. And especially you have to look at the long arc of technology. It’s embedded in everything that we do within education and within business. Really, it’s an enabling factor. So you have to understand it, but really, it always needs to be in the context of what problem are you trying to solve or, you know, in the field that we’re going to be getting into. It’s not really about online education or distance learning. It’s really about ‘I’m a working adult, and the only way I can get my degree is to work is to do it in the evenings and I can’t come into campus.’ So it’s really about what problem are you trying to solve?

Amy: [00:04:39] Yeah, it’s kind of an interface, right? It’s sort of like you’re saying figuring out what does it, what can it do for me and how to. How do I tap into that? What’s really interesting to I think about the pandemic as far as distance learning goes, is the fact that it’s existed for a long time. But I don’t often think most of us think so much about it. But with the pandemic, how immediately it was the question of, Well, I know I remember thinking, who’s been doing this the longest and what is their experience or expertise in delivering distance learning? So I guess the real question is the transition that’s happened from in-person to partially distance learning, how would you sort of frame or describe what’s been going on here these last couple of years?

Phil: [00:05:30] Well, one way to look at it for online, the online version of distance education has been going on for at least 25 years. The advent of the World Wide Web and browsers in the mid-nineties very quickly led to people trying to figure out by the mid to late 90s how could you deliver distance education through the web?

Amy: [00:05:51] And don’t you think of like for me, the University of Phoenix like that to me, was always right. You know, that was the online university like that I sort of associate that with.

Phil: [00:06:01] That’s right. Yeah. And that really it wasn’t the only way, but you have a sector in higher education that’s for profit. You have these group of schools, and the University of Phenix really embodied that sector, that really were – particularly in the 2000s up until around 2012 or 13, was the dominant force of online education. You had other schools: DeVry University, Capella, Strayer. You had some schools that have gone away like ITT, and yes, early on those were the dominant. You probably think that way, not just because they did a lot of online, but because they did so much marketing. So it was in the common vernacular. Are nonprofit schools Penn State World Campus, University of Central Florida, a lot of community colleges who have been doing online education just as long, but it’s not as commonly understood because they weren’t out there doing massive marketing. And truth be told, the University of Phenix got up over four hundred thousand students. I mean, it far and away dominated the higher education landscape in terms of the size of schools in North America. Back in the late 2000s and about 2011 or 12.

Mike: [00:07:22] It’s interesting now a lot of times when we talk about higher education, for profit is not a complimentary term. Yeah, a lot of a lot of the worst traits of trapping students in debt and not delivering on the promise of education can be attributed to a lot of for profit operators. Should we just assume going forward that distance learning is still a for profit is synonymous with for profit higher education?

Phil: [00:07:53] No. Well, I already mentioned the fact that you have a lot of non-profits that we’re doing online education just as long. Where a lot of the problems with the for-profits came in is there was too much of an incentive to get any student into the program, whether they were qualified to really complete the program or could afford it. And that also got tied up into federal financial aid, where the argument was very strong. ‘But hey, you don’t have to pay, you’re going to get a lot. We’ll help you get a loan.’ So that was a key part of the problems, and a lot of the criticisms were that the quality wasn’t there to really back it up. Now, in my experience, I’ve seen quite a few for profits put plenty of effort into educating students. So it’s really a matter of bad apples versus the rest of the bunch. But the arc has changed, and it’s changed significantly in the past decade, whereas in 2011, you would say online education was still dominated in a numbers game by the for-profits. But two things happened. One is a lot of the regulations and the reputational hit to for profits and they started dropping. The University of Phenix went from over 400,000 students, and it’s now well under 100,000 students, and it’s not even the largest school. The two largest schools are non-profits. They’re private schools: Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire.

Mike: [00:09:25] I know Western Governors as well.

Phil: [00:09:27] Yeah, so that’s the other movement is nonprofit schools really started upping their game, saying, ‘We need to take distance learning seriously. We need to develop something that can scale and be sustainable.’ And so those have grown tremendously over the past decade in particular. If you look at it now, the vast majority of students who are taking online courses are doing it at public universities, at private nonprofit universities. But I also have to say the quality across the board has changed pretty significantly in all sectors. We’re learning better how to do quality online education. And by that, I don’t just mean in terms of the course design or the technology, but I also mean in terms of how do you support students? How do you actually help them and not get in their way of getting whatever degree or credential they’re trying to get.

Mike: [00:10:25] Be engaged, have them not to start a course, but finish a course?

Amy: [00:10:28] And of course, the students themselves, I mean, probably in the past, distance learning would have been associated more so with like a nontraditional student. Whereas now I would say that traditional students are taking advantage of of distance learning as much as a nontraditional student. Would you agree,

Phil: [00:10:46] It’s a trend. So I guess I would say the field is still somewhat targeted or more heavily biased toward …

Amy: [00:10:55] Do you think the pandemic has accelerated this trend?

Phil: [00:11:00] Absolutely. And so the rise of everybody getting involved. It’s a technology adoption. You have the early adopters and you have the mainstream. And now almost all faculty and students have some experience with distance learning, so it absolutely has accelerated the trend. And we’re going to come, you know, as we come out of the pandemic, we’re not going back to the old normal. We’re going to be entering into a new normal that’s much higher level of online and hybrid education. And what you’re referring to a much higher level of the mainstream students, including the traditional students having a heavy online or hybrid presence. It might be that they’re taking it face to face program, but they have several online courses within that program. Or it might be that they’re doing it truly at a distance

Amy: [00:11:55] Or even some universities having those satellite campuses right? We saw that in like, you know, probably the last 10 years where the main campus wasn’t in that area, but yet satellites. I’m wondering, too, if distance learning what impact that will have on actual satellite campuses, will that reduce their need with more students than be online doing classes as opposed to remote campuses?

Phil: [00:12:18] I haven’t really seen them going away. One argument is that with the rise or the increase in distance learning is that it’s going to make it more effective to work with satellite campuses. And part of the argument for that is there’s another term it’s not just for profit that has a bad name. Another one is Zoom University. There’s a lot of criticism that what we did during the pandemic is just take what we’re already doing face to face, but throw it on Zoom and then don’t think about, ‘Oh, I should be teaching in a different manner, a different pedagogy.’ And there was plenty of that that happened. So it’s a real issue. But we’re also learning that there are some things such as human interaction, the ability to feel like I could talk to somebody and get an answer. I’m connected with them. That is increased during the pandemic. And if you don’t mind, I’ll take a step back. There’s really asynchronous and synchronous components to education. Synchronous is when you’re sitting in a classroom live and you’re doing most of your learning that way, then asynchronous, you go off and you do your homework separately with online. Part of what you do is like the whole activity. You can record a lecture or it might not even be a lecture. Before the pandemic, the dominant form of distance learning was asynchronous where we would design courses and students sort of worked on their own. They didn’t have a live presence. But part of what that meant is you couldn’t rely on just talking to somebody, to your instructor or to your peers from an engagement perspective. And we had discussion threads which are pretty poor substitute. We had different ways of engaging, but it was a weakness. One thing about Zoom University or Microsoft Teams and the other tools that do it is people are realizing, ‘Oh, we can do both asynchronous and synchronous. We can let students work on their own, but still give them a way to talk naturally and get input and feedback from instructors and students.’

Mike: [00:14:30] Yeah, that’s fantastic, and you know, what you’re talking about makes me think of the old days, not that old, but people are talking about flipped classrooms and trying to come with all different models. And what we’re seeing not just in higher education but also in K-12 education, is that desire to move on from just taking what you were doing in the classroom and pretending that it works perfectly online start to take advantage of the benefits of the modality.

Phil: [00:15:02] Yeah, exactly. And that’s where, if you ignore the time frame and you just look at a broad arc, I guess I’m presenting a positive picture that we’re going the right direction, but it’s also frustrating in how slow it is. That it’s taking us years and years across the board to get to what you’re saying. Oh, we need to rethink how we teach with given these tools, what’s more effective, how do we let students work at their own pace yet allow them to engage? So that whole course design, that pedagogy is critical and it happens in higher ED and it happens in K-12 K-12 in some ways, particularly with Mastery Learning, is further ahead than higher education. You know, it’s actually done a better job of saying, ‘Hey, keep taking the assessment until you’ve mastered it and then move on.’ So yes, I would consider an even bigger shift overall is learning how to teach more effectively over time.

Mike: [00:16:05] Now, really focusing on the the pedagogical side, we’re focusing on what the instructors and the institutions are doing. And yet what Amy and I encounter a lot is that there is still a bias against online instruction. A lot of people consider paying for a class online or attending a class online worse than in person. They put a priority for some reason on breathing the same air as an instructor, which wasn’t so great during the pandemic. But now that we’re back, I mean, so look, you dug through the iPed’s data. You wrote a great article. More than 50 percent of U.S. higher ED students took at least one online course in 2019 2020. That’s not going away. But. Is there any suggestion that people are considering these online offerings? At colleges and universities in the K-12 space to be on par with in person or is in person a premium?

Phil: [00:17:09] Well, there’s two ways to answer it. Let me start with the perception, there absolutely is a perception issue where online education is inferior. Some of that got wrapped up into the issues with the for profit sector, but a lot of it was accurate. It was just there’s a lot of poorly designed online courses and has been. I think they’re improving, but there is a reality of that. And then you add in the whole experience of being face to face, the breathing the air is a big part of it. But so there’s been a long term perception against online learning. And a lot of it, however, is coming from, for example, faculty students, people who have never experienced it. And that’s one of the things I find so fascinating about the pandemic and how it’s going to change things. We had already been increasing, and as you referenced, at least 50 percent of U.S. higher education students were taking at least an online course, but that was a slow two and a half decade change. Now, all of a sudden, the numbers you’re really talking 90, 90 percent or more. So now so many people who used to talk about it but hadn’t really experienced it. Now they’re experiencing it. And I think they’re starting to see what a lot of online learning advocates have been saying for years, which is this can be as good or even better than face to face if you do it correctly.

Phil: [00:18:45] And part of what that means is, for example, freeing up students who aren’t, they’re not extroverts, and they don’t they don’t do well if you’re relying on somebody to raise their hand in a classroom and ask a question. But online, there’s more of a security that I can type in my answer. Or you get into the element of a teacher is breaking students into different groups and they but they want to be able to see what’s happening in each group. In a face to face setting, you have to walk around the room and see one group at a time. With online tools, you’re seeing a lot of the fascinating designs where you can see all of the groups and you can monitor them in parallel. And then you can figure out, ‘Oh, I should jump into this group and help them out.’ So there’s a lot of elements that have been demonstrated that online can be as good or even better than face to face. But if you take the broad average, it’s still is something that’s getting closer, but it’s still has realistic issues that people need to be aware of. You need to pick a somebody with real experience in doing this. If you’re going to expect a good educational outcome for yourself

Amy: [00:20:00] And really with what you’re saying, it’s it’s all about engagement. Now, on the one hand, it can be what is the kind of engagement that student wants, right? Like some students don’t want. They want to be a little more passive. They they they don’t want to interject themselves. And so sometimes online can facilitate that. But at the same time, engagement can be on the other side. Like you’re saying, I think from the instructional side point. What kind of engagement is the instructor trying to monitor or facilitate? So it’s I think it’s sort of trying to figure out on both sides what how you match that engagement. And that’s sometimes maybe how you go about choosing or selecting what it is you want to do online versus what you might not like for me. I don’t know that I would want to take a math class that way, but there are a lot of other classes that I would be very happy, you know, being able to take and listen and learn. So I think that kind of it varies like with what’s your expectations of your engagement in the class would be?

Phil: [00:21:01] Sure. My youngest daughter, who’s now a grad student, I don’t know if she does this to rebel against what I work on, but she ended up going to a small Jesuit school, all face to face small class activities. She does not like online, so there’s a whole wide variety of where students tend to either perform best, or it’s what they can do because of their working or family situation. This is what I have available to me, and it sort of gets to that whole personalization idea that we’re getting where there are more options targeted at different students with different preferences over time. But it’s definitely on both sides. It’s definitely on the instructor and institutional side, but it’s also on the student side figuring out what makes sense for them.

Mike: [00:21:51] Absolutely. So, listen, I don’t know if we’ve upgraded the technology for looking into the future, so I won’t say look into your crystal ball, but you do focus on educational technology and you’ve been charting the growth of distance learning innovation. What should future students expect as far as online classes go? If you have thoughts about different trajectories in K-12 and higher education, we’d be interested in hearing them.

Phil: [00:22:22] Well, I’ll mention one that I actually think is somewhat problematic because too many schools have latched on to it during the pandemic and think that it can be a long term solution, but they haven’t fully thought it through or supported them. And that’s what’s called HyFlex. Some people call it hybrid. There are different forms of the nomenclature, but the idea being let’s teach in the same course, some students are in class face to face, some are online, and it’s up to the instructor to be able to deliver to work with both in parallel at the exact same time. Now that approach has worked. It came out of San Francisco State University and a graduate program, so there are places where it works, but there’s a lot of attempts or assumptions that we can do this at scale in places that haven’t been supported. So here’s my negative message. Part of what to expect in the future is we’re trying a lot of things that are just going to be, we’re going to have to learn from, and people are figuring out what’s going to work longer term and some of it’s going to go away. But I mentioned another one. I think there’s going to be a lot more of a blend of this asynchronous working on your own, watching video lectures or doing activities on your own in parallel with having synchronous video based sessions.

Phil: [00:23:46] Now, it might not be a lecture. It could be office hours, such as I’m watching the lecture, but I can use these tools to talk to somebody in a live face to face manner. So I think that’s going to be one of the biggest changes is sort of that combination of asynchronous and synchronous. And I’d say the other thing, the obvious one is there’s going to be a lot more options. So many schools, most schools that were face to face, they want to go back to face to face. But in the large number of cases, that doesn’t mean they want to cut out all online options. So there’s going to be a much stronger mix of online courses, along with face to face courses and student options on how to move forward. Ideally in the long term. I think we’ll do a better job at some of the pedagogical improvements, such as mastery learning. So over time, I think that’s going to have a very big impact and hopefully the quality because so many instructors and institutions are getting real world experience with it. I think they’re going to be learning over time, so it’ll be slow and frustrating. But I think that in general, the field is improving.

Mike: [00:25:06] Fantastic. Well, listen, Phil, obviously we can talk about distance learning, higher education, educational technology with you all day. Unfortunately, we’re out of time. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Phil: [00:25:18] Oh well, thank you and really enjoyed the conversation, so I’m glad we had it.

Mike: [00:25:22] If listeners would like to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Phil: [00:25:26] Well, we mentioned the PhilOnEdTech blog, so PhilOnEdTech.com. It’s a blog where you can see a lot of my writing on these subjects in more depth and as was mentioned with a lot more graphics than you get on a podcast. So if you just want to read more, that’s what I would do. If you’d like to talk to me directly, just send an email to Phil at MindWires. And that’s Phil with one Phil at MindWires dot com.

Amy: [00:25:54] Awesome. We hope you enjoy this discussion as much as we did. Be sure to join us for another fascinating topic and guest on the next test and the rest. Did you enjoy this episode? As much as we did

Mike: [00:26:06] Find expanded links and more for this and all of our episodes at our show page IT Tests and the rescan. While you’re there, be sure to explore everything the larger test bright side has to offer, including real expert, unbiased answers. The toughest admissions testing questions. Of course, we’d love for you to rate review and subscribe to tests and the rest on your favorite podcast platform. If there’s a topic or guest you’d like us to feature, just let us know and spread the word.