Your Ultimate Guide to Serving Learners Remotely

Executive Summary

Over the past month, higher education has changed gears rapidly to shift from a mostly face-to-face delivery model to remote, as a result of measures put in place to mitigate the effect of COVID-19.

However, there are some fundamental differences between remote and online education that explain the difference in terminology.

Remote learning is a pandemic response—an approach to shifting synchronous aspects of face-to-face programming into an online format. True online learning leverages available technologies to enhance student-to-instructor, and student-to-student, engagement.

As the social distancing orders are expected to last into the future, college and university leaders are preparing for a summer, and potentially even a fall, of continued distance education.

In response, our team at Modern Campus wants to make sure you’re ready! This is your ultimate guide to serving learners remotely. From this eBook, you will learn the differences between remote and online learning, how to reduce transactional distance for distance learners, what it takes to support online engagement, and how to structure your institution for a new normal.

Table of Contents

  1. Remote in a Time of Pandemic: Six Considerations As We Adapt to COVID-19
  2. Coronavirus Crisis: Obstacles of Moving Traditional Students to Distance Learning Modalities at Scale
  3. Minimizing Online Students’ Transactional Distance to Maximize Value
  4. Managing Operations in a Time of Crisis
  5. Adjusting to the Reality of Remote Learning


Remote in a Time of Pandemic: Six Considerations As We Adapt to COVID-19

Sasha Thackaberry | Vice President for Digital and Continuing Education, Louisiana State University

Modified from an article originally published on The EvoLLLution.

One of the first things that emerged from the move from an “outside chance contingency plan” to an “academic continuity plan” mind space is a quick and necessary language transition.

Though “online” is the correct terminology for what most institutions are now moving towards in order to maintain operations, the standard usage quickly moved from “online learning” to “virtual learning” and finally settled on—for many institutions—“remote learning.” Part of the reason for this shift is likely vernacular; if our own teams and offices are “working remotely”, then our students are “learning remotely”.

But this language shift serves another critical purpose; it helps communicate that what we are doing right now is not “online learning”.

What we are doing right now is keeping the semester going through the end of an instructional period so that students can progress towards earning their degrees and certificates. We are keeping the wheels on the bus and focusing on accomplishing the courses’ instructional goals for a specific period of time in a specific situation.

This is important to recognize. For all faculty and students out there: what you are currently experiencing is not online learning, even though it is learning delivered remotely.

Online degrees and certificates should be intentionally designed learning experiences that are engaging, efficient, and effective. Online learning as a field has moved away from a “broadcast mentality” of delivering information to an “engagement mentality” of designed experiences that go beyond student-to-content engagement and include rich student-to-student and student-to-faculty engagement. Online degrees and certificates should also have an integrated virtual student support structure that is focused on customer service focused and provides online tutoring, coaching, career services and other critical components of a holistic education.

The use of “remote learning” means we must communicate to faculty and students that:

  • We know you didn’t sign up for this.
  • This is a temporary solution to an extraordinary circumstance.
  • Hopefully you won’t judge an entire modality based on an experience with a pandemic.

My final recommendation during this extraordinary time is that we need to pace ourselves. Be as flexible as you can with your team. Our ability to provide support for students and faculty starts and ends with our teams and our talent. They are also going through a lot right now. We don’t know for how long this will upend daily life.

Take care of your own physical and mental health as well.

You’re going to need it.

Expert Analysis

Maintaining effective communications with your learners, faculty and staff is more important now than ever. Information changes rapidly and the modern expectation is for accurate and error-free communication 24/7/365.


Coronavirus Crisis: Obstacles of Moving Traditional Students to Distance Learning Modalities at Scale

John Woods | Chief Academic Officer and Provost, University of Phoenix

Marc Booker | Associate Provost, University of Phoenix

Modified from an article originally published on The EvoLLLution.

Amid coronavirus concerns, many higher education institutions across the country have announced plans to transition on-campus students into online environments. These precautionary measures could persist for weeks or months as social distancing and quarantine scenarios are implemented to limit the spread of COVID–19.

While this shift in modality is undoubtedly warranted to protect students, it is the responsibility of institutions to provide the best educational experience to ensure a seamless continuation of their academic journey. But are universities prepared to adopt distance learning at scale indefinitely?

Online learning is not novel—but it can become a challenge at scale. Universities have offered varying capacities of distance learning since University of Phoenix began its model in 1989.  The University has leaned into our more than 80,000 working adult learners across the country who attend classes virtually. Our educational model embraces technology to provide instruction in an engaging and immersive online environment.

Here are a few often overlooked elements of distance learning to consider when scaling an online environment.

Traditional Courses Often Don’t “Fit” Online Modalities

By planning and proper training, curriculum can be delivered by virtual means with limited loss in fidelity. Here, our curriculum design teams build our courses with both online and face-to-face teaching methods in mind, which means a shift is easier. Without this design, you’ll need to figure out how to “fit” traditional courses to online delivery.

This is not to say that ground-based courses should be delivered virtually at all times, but this approach can help ensure that you accommodate students for virtual delivery as needed without concerns of learning outcomes being adversely impacted.

Interactive Elements Don't Translate Without Strategic Implementation

Have engaging discussion forums that allow virtual students to benefit from student-to-student and student-to-instructor interactions by asking practical critical-thinking questions that result in substantive conversations.

We provide this through in-house multimedia and our educational technology team that creates adaptive resources so that students are still benefiting from activities that simulate, scale, and enhance face-to-face context.

Leverage Your Tools To Their Fullest Capacity

Understanding learning designs and needs and leveraging your digital engagement tools allows the ability to pivot quickly for students in an emergency like this, and creates no encumbrance for any existing online population as studies will continue as normal.

Expert Analysis

The coronavirus pandemic forced colleges and universities to move quickly, innovate boldly and change gears rapidly. These are not traits generally associated with higher education, but our industry showed it can overcome barriers when students’ best interests are on the line.

To learn how the shift to remote learning can teach us a valuable lesson about higher education’s innovative spirit download this paper.


Innovation Is Not Our Antithesis: Lessons from Higher Education’s Response to COVID-19

Higher education’s shift to remote learning in response to COVID-19 shows that we can be agile when it’s best for students.

Download whitepaper

Minimizing Online Students’ Transactional Distance to Maximize Value

Tanya Zlateva | Dean for the Metropolitan College and Extended Education, Boston University

Modified from an article originally published on The EvoLLLution

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most significant differences between the student experience of online learners and that of face-to-face learners?

Tanya Zlateva (TZ): One difference is that the connection to the learning institution is not so physical and immediate. An on-campus student is surrounded by every facet of the institution—the buildings, the administrative structure, the teaching structure. The student gets a huge amount of information from their physical surroundings; it is a constant immersion. The online student, however, comes into a virtual environment which is much more course-specific.

Then in terms of the teaching and the delivery, most on-campus classes are still in the traditional model of lecture and discussion concentrated in one or two hours. With the online student, the experience probably stretches for a longer time and it is less structured, which has its advantages but it doesn’t create the same rhythm and habit of studying that is imposed on the on-campus student.

Evo: Due to this transactional distance, are online students a little less forgiving when it comes to bureaucratic issues or administrative issues that they might face compared to a face-to-face student, who could be influenced by their emotional connection to the campus?

TZ: It depends on the organization of the course and the amount of student support services that are integrated into the student experience.

In our case, we have a student support coordinator for every course and that person starts before the course begins and brings the student into the system, talks to them and checks in throughout the course with them. These kinds of student services have to be put in place.

Similar to everything else that happens online, if one has to give an impression of the campus, if one has to give more information about the university, it has to be spelled out. On campus, this happens naturally. The information is in your surroundings. You don’t have to write it out in detail in materials or in the system.

On-campus is implicit; online has to be explicit. Here, the transactional distance is typically larger and therefore it needs to be addressed in a targeted way.

Evo: What does it take for universities create a high-end experience for their online students?

TZ: On the academic side, creating a high-end experience is mostly the same as for on-campus students: Have highly competent faculty who like to teach. There are, however, differences such as the ease of the online environment. It’s not mirroring or recreating the campus, but it is translating the course delivery and teaching into the online environment.

On the administrative side, it’s different. It’s much more on the technical, student support side than on campus and instructional design is extremely important. In terms of maintaining course quality, we have to make sure a process is in place that will ensure revisions. The exams are no different. We need to have a process in place for online exams that guarantees the integrity of the degree.

Those are substantial differences between the online and on-campus administration setup that need to be taken into account.

Evo: What are some of the most common challenges to making the changes necessary in creating a high-end student experience, and how can leaders overcome them?

TZ: The differences between on-campus and online teaching are typically underestimated by the faculty. In the classroom, you have students in front of you, so they will prompt with their questions and comments an adjustment of the material. That cannot happen in the asynchronous online environment. One has to consciously think of what might happen and anticipate the difficulties students might have. Then, faculty need to directly address those issues, spelling them out and providing materials or more explanation, more exercises, more discussion.

The other piece is translating the material into online content by working with the instructional designers. There is a synergy but also a natural tension between the faculty and the instructional designers. They have to adjust to one another’s working style, to understand the needs of each other, to be able to build a team and to compromise and listen to each other.

Many universities and administrators who want to go online underestimate the amount of support, technology, instructional design and student services offices that have to put into place in order to run as smoothly as possible. That misconception is becoming more and more dispelled because people have a taste of what it means to teach with technology, even in the classroom. It is still a big classroom, but there is no-high quality experience without putting that in place.

Expert Analysis

Delivering high quality programming in an online environment is a challenge, but it’s not the only obstacle facing higher education institutions shifting to a remote environment. It’s also essential to build a back-end infrastructure designed to engage learners when the physical campus isn’t there.

Managing Operations in a Time of Crisis

Robert Wensveen | Associate Director of Continuing Education, University of Calgary

Modified from an article originally published on The EvoLLLution.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What’s been the University of Calgary’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Robert Wensveen (RW): Our response has been similar to that of other institutions: we shifted to a remote learning and working environment. Shutting down face-to-face classes was a bit of a challenge for all institutions, especially since it had to coincide with directives from the provincial government.  As public institutions, it was important to ensure messaging to citizens was uniform across the province.

In continuing education, not all of our courses are easily convertible to online. Not all of our instructors were comfortable making that transition, but their resiliency and creativity came through when we were forced to shift. Many of our program managers were genuinely surprised at the creativity the instructors displayed once they had to adjust to this new reality.

We had to adapt quickly and ensure that we updated them on a regular basis, so they were always current and accessible when communications needed to be sent out.

Robert WensveenAssociate Director of Continuing Education, University of Calgary

Evo: What role is continuing ed taking on in helping the university-wide transition to a remote learning model?

RW: We have a small teaching and learning team within continuing education, and our director has offered her team’s skills to help the greater institution. Whether that’s troubleshooting or supporting, they can provide faculty with help in learning new technologies and transitioning their courses to an online format.

Taking care of things in-house was our first priority. As things progress, we’ll be able to support the institution more and more. It’s the same with our information systems team. I have a small team, and if we can support the institution once we get our own staff set up, we’re happy to do what we can.

Evo: What did it take to facilitate that transition from an operational perspective?

RW: Our greatest challenge early on was maintaining consistent and relevant communications. Most of the communications sent out early were targeting the credit community. The problem there is that we’re non-credit, so those critical messages were delayed. Some messages would come out on a Sunday evening or Saturday afternoon and then we would scramble to communicate them to our students. We had to work with the group in charge of central messaging and create mailing lists for all CE students that the senior admin team could readily access. At the same time, those lists change rapidly. There are additions, drop-outs, transfers and registrations made across a range of courses that start on different dates. The flexibility and fluidity of our lists of students is much more dynamic. 

We had to adapt quickly and ensure that we updated them on a regular basis, so they were always current and accessible when communications needed to be sent out.

Our second challenge was preparing staff to work from home. We needed to make changes for our staff to work remotely. Some were bringing in laptops from home onto which we could configure remote access software and a general VPN.

The other huge challenge was having our student services teams process credit card transactions from home. With very strict PCI compliance rules, I had to spend considerable time getting special permissions to allow for this to happen. We were successful in moving all of our student services staff off campus and setting them up to work from home, which required training people who aren’t used to setting up hardware at home. This is particularly important for this group because of the significant security risks their job poses. It’s essential that they’re set up in a secured environment that doesn’t jeopardize our clients’ or students’ credit cards, for example.

Expert Analysis

Moving your teaching and learning environment is only the first step to establishing a true remote presence for your learners. Establishing a robust IT environment and maintaining security over student information requires you to have student-centric systems and integrations in place.

Adjusting to the Reality of Remote Learning

Laurie Borowicz | President, Kishwaukee College

Modified from an article originally published on The EvoLLLution.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have learners in workforce and career education programs been affected by the shift to remote education?

Laurie Borowicz (LB): It’s a bigger challenge for career and technical education courses because they’re more focused on hands-on learning. I’ve been impressed with how faculty are embracing tools designed to teach remotely and virtually. They’re working hard to creatively come up with solutions and answers. Of course, we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to measure competencies.

It’s encouraging to see faculty embrace the change and come up with new solutions. There’s a spark of energy.

Evo: What has the operational shift to remote learning been like?

LB: When I first arrived at Kish in 2016, it had a declining enrollment for the last five years, and the core issues weren’t being addressed. The college never really changed its processes. There was a significant focus on autonomy, but unfortunately it led to people not rowing the boat together.

About two years ago, we were approved by HLC to launch a fully accredited online program, and we’ve taken off from there. Last year, 20% of our enrollments were online. We had definitely already been making this shift into a more virtual world.

If you have the structure and the process in place, changes will inflict minimal pain.

Laurie BorowiczPresident, Kishwaukee College

We created a full-time position whose role is to support faculty with Quality Matters best practices and help them embrace online instruction. We also created a complementary IT position to support the technical needs of online instructors and faculty. We had the process and systems in place, and every course had the shell. We also had a faculty-led online learning community, which has been pretty active over the last couple years.

So, we had the structure in place to support a shift to remote learning. It’s been heartwarming to see folks across the college embrace change rather than refuse it. We were well positioned to do this, so people are starting to feel that they can adapt to the new normal.

Evo: How are staff and faculty adapting to this new normal?

LB: If you have the structure and the process in place, changes will inflict minimal pain. We have a lot of online support and technical support to help people do their jobs remotely. It feels good that we can continue to provide all of our services—whether it’s advising, enrolling, library services or tutoring—in an online environment.

COVID-19 arrived like a tsunami, and we are going to figure it out. Do I think we’re doing everything wonderfully in the virtual classrooms? No, I know we’re not going to have that all figured out this spring, but it gave us a great jumping-off point. We’ve been doing a lot of virtual meetings through tools like Zoom. That terminology “new normal” is really important here. We’re not going to return to the status quo after this—there will be a new normal.

Evo: How concerned are you that with the shift to remote learning, people will equate the experience with what’s possible in a truly well-designed online environment?

LB: As leaders, we need continue to support and encourage peer-to-peer mentoring to achieve and retain quality. It cannot be top-down mandated, and I hope some of it comes from our students.

We also want to create a community of CTE instructors to get best practices of online instruction for career and technical education. We’re going to have to figure out how to incentivize, support and promote this idea of them growing online learning in their departments and in their world. It’s an exciting challenge.

Expert Analysis

For community and technical colleges, delivering on the workforce and community support mission is critically important. Especially in a time that will be characterized by sweeping unemployment and recession.


We use cookies on this website to enhance your experience and improve our services and our website’s functionality. By continuing to use our website, which includes remaining on this landing page, you consent to the use of cookies and agree to our Privacy Policy.