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Problem or opportunity? The sudden move to online

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Much has been made (and rightly so) about the problems involved in the sudden move of most of the nation’s universities to online classes in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s no doubt that many faculty and students have struggled with the concepts and processes of remote learning that were imposed on them without adequate time to prepare. But an email I received from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research last month got me to thinking about the silver linings that may lie in the forced move to online, temporary though it may be.

Every summer the UM Institute for Social Research offers a Summer Institute in Survey Research Techniques in Ann Arbor. During my graduate studies many years ago, I developed a keen interest in survey research, particularly in political public opinion research, and under the guidance of a faculty member who also was a well-known pollster, I ended up running a political poll for the local PBS station for seven years. During that time, my mentor (who had done his Ph.D. at UM) every year tried to talk me into going to the summer institute. But I had a full-time job and a family, so it was impossible for me to take off for two months for Michigan, much as I would like to have done so. When I saw the email last month, it brought a little sigh, until I looked closer. For the first time, the summer program is going to be offered entirely online, making it available to students regardless of location.

All those years ago I would have given my eyeteeth to attend and I would have, given an option to attend online. This got me thinking about those silver linings that might lie in the forced move to remote learning. Would UM have made its summer institute available without the restrictions of the pandemic? Maybe it would have … eventually. But for all the problems we’re experiencing with the sudden move to online, we also might consider that there are positive aspects about increasing college faculty and students’ familiarity with the online learning experience.

The most obvious, of course, is the ability to enroll in classes and degree programs at any university regardless of a student’s ability to move. I’ve heard over and over from many of my students that they never dreamed they could actually pursue a degree from USC because they could not relocate to Los Angeles. The same holds true for faculty. A robust online environment offers universities the opportunity to recruit faculty who otherwise might not be available to teach through the institution due to an inability to relocate. Remote learning also offers students broader opportunities in terms of being able to build their school schedule around work, family, and other obligations. Online courses and the materials in them are available 24/7, offering the opportunity for more students with full-time jobs and nontraditional schedules to pursue a degree.

There are other positive aspects of online learning, which are articulated on the University of Illinois Springfield’s ION Professional eLearning Programs page, that include better access for students and faculty with physical challenges; the opportunities for creating more in-depth and high-quality dialogue between students and faculty; the absence of discriminating factors such as age, race, disability, dress, personal appearance, and so on, that often are present in in-person classrooms; the opportunity for more innovation and creativity in teaching; and access to resources that can be located anywhere.

Are there, and will there continue to be drawbacks? Of course, but think about the opportunities for our universities to offer access to a whole new body of students. It’s very possible that this crisis will change forever the way in which higher education is delivered. The universities and programs that start with the positives and build on those strengths to create robust, high-quality online learning will lead the curve in building the student bodies of the future.

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