Challenges, optimism and spontaneity in online education: Q&A with Dr. Scott Cowley

Pictured is Dr. Scott Cowley

Dr. Scott Cowley, assistant professor of marketing and co-director of the digital marketing and eCommerce program, has been featured as an expert on how higher education is embracing its own digital evolution. Here, he shares his perspective on teaching in a virtual setting and an initial landscape analysis on how higher education will fare as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates the transformation of colleges and universities.

You have been teaching remotely for more than a year. What are some of your takeaways?

I learn new things every week! There are definitely some benefits to teaching online and from home. In a class full of web-based content, there’s an underappreciated liberation in not having to transition back and forth between talking at the front of a classroom and typing on a computer. I also flipped my class so that students now attend a livestreamed session having already listened to the lecture that I would have given had we been in person. These two things are making it possible to pack more skill-building into each day, which I love.

I’ve learned that it takes significantly more work to deliver the same high-quality experience that I’ve become accustomed to providing. Remote learning risks muting the socialization and spontaneity in a class. And students are experiencing other significant challenges when each course is the instructor’s first in a new format—there are many different experiments happening at once. There can be plenty of fatigue on both sides. Some students are having to learn remotely in tough living conditions. As I become aware of those cases, I try to bring the kind of understanding that I would hope for if the roles were reversed. Fortunately, some students are also thriving with the added flexibility.

What trends are you seeing nationally in terms of online education and remote instruction?  How is the pandemic accelerating expected changes to higher education?

I think we expected that colleges and universities would continue venturing into new revenue streams and modes of flexible course delivery in order to aid recruitment and retention efforts. But the pandemic’s financial shock to the entire higher education system will leave some institutions unable to fund any serious exploration and innovation, and they’ll return to old ways of doing things when we reach a post-crisis state. We’re starting to see a shakeout where some institutions, including those outside of traditional higher education, will emerge as new and improved powerhouses of online learning who will be able to draw even more students through flexible, quality offerings with demonstrable positive outcomes. Right now, students have few ways to tell which of these online courses and programs are high-quality and worth the cost, but I think we’ll see that change very quickly.

I’m also very excited about some of the rapid developments that are now happening in the ed tech industry in order to support all of these new online educators with tools and capabilities we need to be successful.

What makes you hopeful about the future of higher education in general, and in terms of online education in particular?

I’ve had discussions with many professor friends in recent months that give me reasons to be optimistic. We’re learning so much right now, and it’s making us better educators. We’re being forced to reconsider some of our core assumptions about how to deliver instruction and mentorship. We will emerge stronger and more capable. My hope is that in the process we do a lot of institutional learning and reflection—that we take advantage of this opportunity to rethink our models, the resource requirements, and the degree- and course-level experiences needed to deliver on the promise of higher education. 

As you look to WMU’s evolution over the past several months, where do you see the greatest competitive advantages for us in terms of the future? 

In the middle of our first fully online semester, some of my marketing colleagues collected survey data about the experiences of our students. We wanted a better sense of how they were experiencing our virtual courses. We learned that even in challenging circumstances, we have some instructors who have adapted phenomenally, and some students who have done likewise. I see this feedback as a gift, and also highlighting some pockets of competitive advantage. We’ve learned things about good (and less good) ways to structure online courses, to stimulate learning and connection and resiliency, and to communicate with our students. These are all things that will be beneficial even when we’re back in person. We’ll be able to build on our experiences if we’re prepared to be open and teachable, turning feedback into more formal training and processes.