The new paradigm of the distance mode

Camila Acevedo Trends
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Given the current state of Higher Education, there are many doubts about the new educational paradigm: Will this system continue after the crisis? What changes will it bring about? And, in case we have to stay at home longer, how can we improve Distance Education?

One of the most urgent issues in Higher Education Institutions is the future of their resources. Experts say that online learning as we know it is changing the vision of education, mainly because this modality should reduce costs and become more accessible to the public. Something that is not yet seen in practice.

Much of this problem is due to the approach of an emergency distance mode and not to online learning as such. Therefore, in this blog we will make some distinctions regarding concepts such as Distance Education, Virtual Education and Online Education; and with this we will be able to define how technological solutions for the optimization of resource planning, such as classrooms, lectures and teachers, allow considerable savings for institutions without losing quality.

Continuing Education

Lifelong learning is a purpose that new universities are aiming at before the pandemic. A project that has been in the discourse for years, due to the market demands to have professionals increasingly adaptable to the new challenges presented by technology, promotes constant training and preparation in new skills.

In its 1972 report “Learning to Be”, UNESCO presented Continuing Education as “the guiding idea of educational policies for the years to come”, a text inherited from “Continuing Education” 16 works published by the Council of European Countries in 1970 that detailed concepts, methods and experiences of continuing education of the time, without yet thinking about how technology would impact this model previously called “system of systems”.

Continuing education as a necessity, hand in hand with the birth of new technologies, allowed the development of different modalities, in search of the objective of continuing education of professionals. This, added to the boom in higher education enrollments at the end of the 1990s, prompted institutions to invest in online program management companies (OPM) that took a significant part of the profits from the new way of educating in the 1990s.

These modalities have mutated, and we can distinguish fundamental characteristics to define them:


Virtual education:

This is a mode for which users must have knowledge of the Internet, online media and multimedia platforms. It is characterized by being asynchronous, since all the content to be reviewed and downloaded will be in a platform available to the student. However, the student must comply with deadlines previously set on the platform. The teacher and the student contact each other virtually, this, seen in a wide way; e-mail, videos, or platforms specially created for this interaction.

Online education:

In this modality, students need to coincide with the teacher at a specific time to hold meetings or live classes. The educational institution must have technological platforms that allow teachers to conduct the class itself and manage student learning.

Distance learning:

Educational strategy based on the intensive use of new technologies, flexible operational structures and highly efficient pedagogical methods in the teaching- learning process, which allow conditions of time, space, occupation or age of the students not to be limiting or conditioning factors for learning. It uses synchronous and asynchronous elements for its development.

As the current crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, it would be worth asking institution by institution what solution they are taking to achieve efficient classroom performance, student’s learning and engagement monitoring, and furthermore, saving the necessary resources for the coming consequences.

 Educational leaders have highlighted the shortcomings; lack of technical and pedagogical skills required; the need for instructional and curricular design appropriate for the modality; the opportunity to restructure processes and make investments that allow for quality education in this context and ensure resources for future processes.


The enrollment crisis

There is a clear uncertainty about the continuity of students in this modality, and even more so, about the new registrations that will be able to be reached next semester. Education could suffer a historical depletion as students are not satisfied with their distance learning experience, or even more so without the ability to pay the fee and tuition value previously charged by the university for a face-to- face experience on campus.


A report by the Deloitte Center for Higher Education Excellence warns of these scenarios because, to ensure continuity in the short term, some universities may need to rapidly restructure their operations. In the United States, the Cares Act: Federal Coronavirus Economic Assistance, Relief, and Security Act, is attempting to offset the costs caused by the pandemic to colleges and universities. However, several universities will have to renegotiate their financial status to meet their commitments, which will become more demanding as states intensify pressures to ensure quality education.

Deloitte differentiates this crisis from the one on 2008 in two important ways. The slowdown in the real estate market allowed institutions to be alerted to the situation in advance and, on the other hand, at that time the sources of financing for higher education were much stronger; more students were enrolled, and new master’s programs were attracting professionals. The current situation in the face of income uncertainty leaves the universities in an unstable financial position, so they advise leadership capable of preparing for multiple scenarios and remaining flexible in the face of continuous change.


Resource optimization and better schedules

According to Canada’s national online learning survey, published on the Online Learning and Distance Education Resources site, most Canadian institutions that implemented online learning before the crisis did so with the aim of providing more flexibility. Saving money was never one of the advantages, but the survey suggests that online learning should be much cheaper because there are considerable savings in terms of infrastructure: building maintenance, heating, lighting, libraries and laboratories. Many of the “overhead” costs of the institution are passed on to the student, who works from home (or someone else’s office).

The automation of some online courses with the support of a software for feedback of students’ experience and evaluation of learning results could be an option to reduce costs, and to focus them to enhance other distance education courses with the best teachers, dedicated to provide stimulus and relevant support to their students and, at the same time, focus on research.


Effects of a paradigm shift

Since the advent of distance education, although the experience on campus is something to be missed, it will never be the same again. The blended mode has arrived to complement the teaching in the different moments of the students’ lives, both for those who start the undergraduate program and need more interaction with their peers, and for those who already after years visiting the university prefer to study online. Therefore, there are important lessons to be considered as this paradigm shift progresses:

  • Building business models that ensure more profitable teaching
  • Development of a blended implementation strategy with synchronous and asynchronous learning
  • Automation of courses that allow to focus more resources on the most important ones
  • Graduate students for the same cost
  • Graduate students with better training (appropriate skills) for the same cost
  • Maintaining student numbers and results at a lower cost
  • Instead of increasing sections, to accommodate larger groups in the online mode



The university is changing, so it is necessary more than ever to learn from these changes and turn them into opportunities before a crisis strikes a heavy blow to the financing of institutions. For this reason, academic planning adapted to the distance mode and the monitoring of student learning outcomes in automated environments, as well as the monitoring of commitment, will be key to retaining students and saving resources for the next period.