The Digital Imperative: Planning for the Fall Term and Beyond


Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, Online Learning Consortium

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For many primary, secondary and higher ed institutions across the country and around the world, an unpredictable and turbulent semester is coming to an end in the next few weeks. After cobbling together a variety of resources and methods to deliver content to students, we have seen different levels of success with remote learning. What we know, and has been repeatedly reinforced, is that this was not online learning. It has not been perfect, but no one was prepared for the scale of this crisis. Still, these emergency response measures did help educators accomplish what was intended, providing institutions the ability to continue instruction in an unprecedented time of disruption and uncertainty. 

There are those in education who believed they would never need to use technology in their teaching practice. It pains me to say this, but I understand that not everyone likes digital learning. This pandemic has forcefully pushed us into a new era of education. One where technology has to become the norm and not just an option.

We have all heard predictions related to how long we can expect to be under the specter of this pandemic…possibly through the end of 2021, depending on when a vaccine becomes available. That means that now is the time to think about what’s next. Even if this ends up being a short-term pandemic and things can return to normal in the fall, being prepared for the next emergency or crisis needs to become a priority for those in education. 

With considerations now underway regarding options for reopening in the fall, here are several recommendations to consider that will help higher ed better prepare to pivot quickly.

    1. Institutional strategy. One of the reasons K-12 schools and institutions of higher education were caught off guard by the pandemic was that they had not made online or any form of digital education a priority. This happened for various reasons that I won’t get into now (I’ll cover in a future post), but suffice it to say, the current situation has made us realize this is too critical to ignore. Institutional strategies need to be updated to include a focus on digital learning and the resources (e.g., funding, personnel, technology, etc.) need to be aligned to support that need. We can be forgiven for not being prepared this time, as long as we learn our lesson and prepare for what comes next.

    2. Modality. Educators do not need to jump right into fully online learning. In fact, there are other options that may help them and their students be successful in the long run while also offering the ability to quickly pivot when a crisis strikes. A few of these options include:

      • Online learning. I recently provided a definition for online learning and am sharing again here: Online learning uses the internet as a delivery modality to offer thoughtfully designed, quality, student-focused learning experiences, built on proven best practices that create effective interactions between learners, peers, instructors, and content” (Mathes, 2020, para. 5). 

      • Blended or hybrid learning. This modality takes the best of both worlds and pairs traditional face-to-face learning with online learning. What percentage is held in person or via a web-based platform may vary, but it is critical that this is thoughtfully designed to implement best practices to create an effective learning environment.

      • HyFlex. This is a unique model that gives students and educators much more flexibility in how interactions with the content occur. In this learning environment, the course structure is designed with both the in-person classroom session along with a fully developed online course. This gives students the choice of how they want to attend, which can be changed from week to week. In addition, “…the model provides the flexibility to keep a class from falling behind if, for example, the instructor has to travel unexpectedly or the campus is closed due to weather or other circumstances” (Educause, 2010, p. 1).

    3. Professional development. A challenge that many faced as they moved to remote learning was a lack of training. Many school districts or institutions of higher education have some type of office or center for professional development; however, these are often small units that do not have the capacity to provide training at the scale that is needed. In addition, they often provide a limited number of training options that may be focused on very general topics to reach the largest audience. The solution, of course, is to seek training from experts, like the OLC Institute for Professional Development, that offer the breadth of knowledge and can scale their training quickly or can customize training to meet your needs.

    4. Effective course design. Given OLC’s focus on quality in online, blended, and digital learning, it goes without saying that this would be on my list of recommendations. Course design needs to incorporate appropriate best practices for the learning modality. Resources like the OLC OSCQR Course Design Review Scorecard can help in building an effective course.

    5. Technology. To build out a digital education program, appropriate technology needs to be incorporated. I do not believe in using technology for the sake of using technology. Any technology implemented to support the learning experience should be thoughtfully selected with a plan developed to integrate it effectively into the classroom. It is also important that the solutions are identified to support not only the delivery of the learning, but also for academic integrity, virtual learning resources (library, etc.), and to provide student services.

    6. Student needs. Everything that is being done in the design of the digital learning experience needs to consider the needs of the students. This means providing students access to resources admissions, financial aid, military and veteran services, academic advising, tutoring, registration, and technology support remotely and in person. There are third-party vendors that can help, but this support can also be handled internally. The OLC Quality Scorecard for Online Student Support includes best practices for meeting the needs of online students.

    7. Evaluation and continuous improvement. After all of the work that goes into developing a new learning environment for students, don’t miss the critical step of evaluating the experience to identify opportunities for continuous improvement. Make sure what has been developed and implemented is updated regularly and meets current best practices. See the OLC Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Programs or the OLC Quality Scorecard for Blended Learning Programs, to ensure your students are getting a quality learning experience. 

      As we near the summer break, I encourage K-12 and higher education administrators, faculty and staff, to think about those next steps that they need to take and begin planning for the future. While we are reacting right now to the COVID-19 pandemic, creating and sustaining a quality digital learning program can only help K-12 and higher education be better prepared for the next crisis. 


      Mathes, J. (2020, April 13). A defining moment for online learning. OLC Insights.

      7 things you should know about…The HyFlex course model. (2010). Educause.

      Dr Jennifer Mathes

      Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D
      Chief Executive Officer, Online Learning Consortium

      Jennifer is responsible for the development of OLC’s long-range goals, strategies, plans and policies. She also provides leadership in researching and planning strategic initiatives, special projects and partnerships that align with OLC’s mission, vision and goals. Dr. Mathes has nearly 20 years of experience in both public and private higher education where she has served as a faculty member and an academic leader.

      She holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she wrote her dissertation on “Predictors for Student Success in Online Education.” She also has earned a Master of Science degree in Business Education and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications from Illinois State University.

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