The question of whether online learning can compete with physical classrooms has been made irrelevant by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing. The only question now is how effectively it can do so.

The Republic of Letters, a virtual conference recently organized by Harappa Education and Ashoka University, brought together global experts to share their thoughts on the future of higher education, and how best to frame online learning for it.

Here are three lessons for educators that emerged from the conference: 

1. Adapt course content to learner context 

The best educators understand and cater to the context that their learners come from. This takes time in a physical classroom where gathering feedback and testing new ways of teaching is a slow and tedious process. The online medium, on the other hand, lends itself to quick and constant iteration and improvement. As Dr Rick Levin, former CEO of online learning platform Coursera, says, online teaching gives you “clickstream data on every learner and you can see every single step they take in the process of learning. This allows for rapid iteration and rapid improvement in the quality of courses and for testing of new pedagogical tools”.

This is especially important given that the online medium expands the learning universe. It’s not just students who are signing up for new courses today. There is a surge in non-academic courses for the purposes of upskilling, with mid-career learners from across industry seeking micro-credentials for a career advantage. Being mindful of the learner’s context and striving to understand them better will help online educators build content that is meaningful and engaging.

“Reinventing the university means to put wisdom at its center. And track the progress of students applying this wisdom throughout their lifelong journey,” says Ben Nelson, CEO of Minerva Project.

2. Facilitate learning rather than focusing on teaching

The biggest advantage of going online, according to Prof Bharat Anand, Vice-Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard University, is the aspect of social learning. A remote experience can be a global experience, and allow people who may otherwise never cross paths to collaborate and learn from each other.

Rethinking the role of educators, Prof Anand emphasizes that they are needed only to curate content and aid the process of discovery. “Peer learning is what allows learning to scale,” he says. 

Understanding this will allow educators to facilitate the process of learning better. The educator’s job then becomes to only provoke the learner to take on a journey of discovery. They can do this by encouraging learners to participate in class (choose to grade them for it), answer each others’ questions, have a discussion portal, and find ways to continue the conversation even outside class. 

3. Impart wisdom, not knowledge

Traditionally, education has focused on rote learning and not on using cognitive skills. But higher education should be about understanding and application, not just acquiring knowledge.

Educators need to encourage learners to go beyond merely consuming content by providing tools to make sense of the content. They must use different examples, call for different points of view, and encourage learners to connect the dots.

Ben Nelson, CEO of Minerva Project which is trying to redesign education, believes higher education should be about learning metacognitive skills that people can apply regardless of the subject. It should help people gain not just knowledge but wisdom or the ability to apply your learnings from a situation in another context or circumstance. “Reinventing the university means to put wisdom at its center. And track the progress of students applying this wisdom throughout their lifelong journey,” says Nelson.

Online educators, and in fact all educators can do well with these takeaways: keep content and context in mind, facilitate learning, and impart wisdom. 

Manisha Koppala is an Associate Specialist in the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. The literature graduate from Ashoka University loves a cup of good coffee and happens to be a free-hugs dispenser, these days via screens.

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