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How the Social Distancing Era is Reshaping Education: Is Online Learning the New Normal?

I do think there will remain a need for traditional undergraduate students to experience the growth and maturation that comes with on-campus living, but even in that space, there remain opportunities for increased online environments.

Dr. Jennie A. Harrop, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Professional Studies at George Fox University (GFU)

The first week of March, most American college students were finishing up their midterm exams and packing their bags to leave campus for a hard-earned spring break. But what should have been a week spent relaxing with friends was tainted by the concern of the spread of COVID-19, which was just beginning to take hold of the Western world.

Across the pond, European countries were closing down non-essential businesses, tightening restrictions on travel, and prohibiting large groups of people to meet—including schools.

With so few reported cases of COVID-19 on U.S. soil at that time (with most states tallying less than 10 cases in early March), some were still holding out hope that the U.S. wouldn’t be affected as harshly as other countries.

Then, on March 11, reality began to come into focus. The number of cases in the U.S. surpassed 1,000. The same day, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic, urging community leaders to promote the practice “social distancing”—a term that epidemiologists use to describe limiting physical contact between people to reduce community transmission of the virus.

The unprecedented nature of the situation called for fast action by the administrators of the more than 124,000 U.S. public and private schools affected, triggering a flurry of announcements that all in-class meetings would be stopped for the time being to try to curb the spread of the virus.

Meet the Expert: Associate Professor Jennie A. Harrup of George Fox University

Jennie A. Harrop

Dr. Jennie A. Harrop is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Professional Studies at George Fox University (GFU). She has taught university-level courses since the mid-1990s at Colorado State University, the University of Denver, Liberty University, and Chemeketa Community College.
Before joining academia, she was a journalist for The Oregonian, the Tacoma Morning News Tribune, and The Chicago Tribune. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Colorado State University, a PhD in English from the University of Denver, and a DMin in semiotics from Portland Seminary.

How Colleges Have Responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Colleges had varying reactions—some immediately evacuated their campuses, giving students just a few days notice to find new housing, while others just canceled classes for a few days to bide time before making any concrete decisions about how to move forward.

But overwhelmingly, schools began to come to the same conclusion: they had to move lectures online. With no clear timeline of when the pandemic situation will be resolved, continuing classes remotely was the best option.

Trevor Manning, an MBA student in Portland, Oregon, said his program’s transition was seamless thanks to its built-in online system. At Concordia University, MBA students choose one of two options at the beginning of the semester: either traditional “on-ground” education or the fully online route. Manning was originally enrolled in the on-ground program, but was able to switch into the online version in early March.

“All the schools just started to shut down in a two-day period like Armageddon,” Manning said. “Thankfully, the [online] infrastructure was already in place, so I could continue my classes with no interruption.”

Countless other K-12 and universities in the U.S. did not have these infrastructures in place, putting professors in the position to quickly learn how to facilitate online classes via digital platforms like Zoom, which combines video conferencing, chat, and mobile collaboration with a classroom-like feel.

We’d all like to imagine that this new “social distancing” standard is a phase that will quickly pass, but the current status quo does point out a vulnerability within the traditional education system.

Is it time for all traditional universities to start incorporating online options as part of their regular offerings? With the flurry of schools scrambling to bring all current students online while their campuses remain closed, it appears they have no choice.

Online Learning: The New Normal

It’s hard to say how long current measures will be necessary, but research from Harvard University on the forecast of the novel coronavirus shows that intermittent social distancing measures may need to be maintained into 2022 in the U.S. unless a vaccine or other drug therapy can be introduced on a large scale before then.

In the case that a vaccine is discovered, widespread distribution won’t be possible for one year at the very earliest, but more like 18 months. That is to say, students and educators may want to get comfortable with online platforms as part of the routine for the time-being.

We talked to the head of the Department of Professional Studies at a thriving liberal arts university in the Pacific Northwest to get her take on the state of things.

George Fox University: Expanding Distance-Based Learning

George Fox is another example of a traditionally brick-and-mortar learning institution that has been slowly building up its classes and programs that can be taken remotely. At present, it offers various graduate level education, business and seminary degrees that can be completed online.

Dr. Harrop’s department encompasses six majors for adults that are returning to pursue college education. At present, four of those majors can be taken online, as well all as the core general education courses.

The work her department has done over the years to build an online infrastructure has paid off in the era of social distancing, in the same way it did for students of Concordia’s online courses. “For the majority of our students, the transition has been seamless and minimally impactful,” she said.

Recently, her department made the decision to move all of its general education courses online, which will go into effect next fall.

“We have watched such a dramatic shift [in demand from] in-person classes to online in our general education courses … We got to the point where we thought, we just can’t keep offering the in-class option to the two or three students that really want it. So we made the decision to go fully online with the general education by fall.”

The Shift in Student Demand: A Preference for Online Courses

Since the Professional Studies Department at GFU was made for adults who have already been in the workforce for a number of years, it’s no surprise that its online options are favored by the student body.

The average student of Professional Studies at the university is about 33, according to Dr. Harrop. Most of the department’s students already have work and family responsibilities outside of their school work, unlike most younger college students, so being able to attend a program remotely is ideal. In some cases, it’s even the make-or-break factor in determining whether they can feasibly enter such a program.

The increase in demand for online courses being witnessed at George Fox is just one example of a trend that is being observed across the nation. According to 2017 data from the Center for Distance Education Research, distance education enrollments at degree-granting institutions in the U.S. have increased 24 percent since 2012.

One of the schools charted in the study, Western Governors University (WGU), which is a fully online institution, reported a five-year compound growth rate of 17 percent as of 2019 enrollment numbers. But in the most recent two years, it saw an even higher 30 percent growth in enrollment from 91,436 to 119,618 students.

Similar to George Fox’s Professional Studies program, the average age of WGU’s student body is about 35. About 80 percent of its students work while enrolled and of them, over 70 percent work full time.

“WGU specializes in serving students whose lives don’t fit with traditional, time-based, in-classroom education, and that often includes older, working learners,” Joann Kozyrev, vice president of design and development at WGU said.

While online degrees are known as good options for those that can’t undertake a full-time, in-person program, it looks as though the younger generation is also generating demand for these programs.

At WGU, the fastest growth has been in the younger, more traditional-aged students: the 18 to 22 year-old age group. This demographic “is growing at twice the rate of any other age group and at more than five times the rate of our enrollment as a whole,” Kozyrev said, perhaps because the online model “fits many lifestyles and is being embraced by the younger digital natives who live so much of their lives online.”

Fighting Stigma and Finding a Balance

Despite the benefits of online learning options, in academia, there is still a palpable stigma surrounding the medium. At every traditional college campus, there is still a handful of old-school professors that ban use of electronics in class—viewing devices as distractions rather than helpful tools.

Dr. Harrop laughed as she recounted her teenage children’s observation that today’s classrooms look the same as the classrooms of their grandparents’ generation, begging the question: if our society has changed so much in the direction of digital, why haven’t the classrooms?

Of course, there is legitimacy to the argument that in-class learning holds a certain value that an online classroom can’t quite replicate.

Trevor Manning, the student from Concordia, expressed disappointment that he now has to finish his semester online: “On-ground, it’s like a conversation. Online, we still do discussions, but we just write paragraphs back and forth. It’s a very different experience in-person,” he said. He also added that part of the reason he wanted to pursue an MBA was the opportunity to network and make connections with fellow students, which is more difficult without in-person interaction.

Despite the fact that online learning does have its disadvantages, in the new context of social distancing, it has become a necessity overnight.

“Online education has gone from abstract idea to growing trend to everyday reality for millions of students. And since the novel coronavirus began its rapid spread worldwide, it’s essentially become the only way to learn, at least for the time being,” Kozyrev said.

Of course, there are professions that necessitate frequent in-person meetings in order to learn the necessary material. Such programs are not able to simply move lectures onto Zoom in order to keep students on track for graduation.

“My roommate in dental hygiene school at Clark [College], is at the point in her education where everything she does is practical and hands-on. She’s been delayed indefinitely,” Manning said.

Dr. Harrop adds to the point: “I do think there will remain a need for traditional undergraduate students to experience the growth and maturation that comes with on-campus living, but even in that space, there remain opportunities for increased online environments.”

Has COVID-19 Forced Colleges to Modernize Their Learning?

While the current pandemic situation is challenging in a multitude of ways, there is a silver lining to be gleaned in the educational world. It is forcing learning institutions that have lagged behind the digital revolution to quickly come up to speed.

“It’s giving both higher ed in particular, but also K-12 education, a bump into a whole other world—into a whole new way of educating people. It’s scary, uncomfortable, and it doesn’t feel good, but if we can find ways to learn to use [digital tools] well, we can educate varying learners and varying modalities all at the same time, rather than just sitting in a classroom with chairs in a row with somebody at the front talking,” Harrop said.

Once the global pandemic is overcome, the residual effects of incorporating online mediums to traditional classrooms will likely remain—not as replacements for on-campus learning in entirety, but in addition to them.

“It is so important for institutions currently making the transition to online learning environments to be extremely thoughtful about doing it in a way that focuses on their students’ best interests,” Kozyrev added. “…They should ensure their programs allow students to collaborate closely with peers and instructors. They should use technology to teach, not just to deliver traditional one-to-many, sage-on-the-stage instruction. And they should use learning resources that were developed as online-first tools whenever they can.”

Nina Chamlou

Nina Chamlou is an avid freelance writer from Portland, OR. She writes about economic trends, business, technology, digitization, supply chain, healthcare, education, aviation, and travel. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, or traveling abroad, studying the locale from behind her MacBook. Visit her website at