What Does Virtual Learning Mean For The Future Of Higher Education?

As an educator for U.C. Riverside, Michael P. Toothman, PMP, has worked in higher education for the past 15 years. In that time, he’s developed more than 4,000 project managers from 1,000 companies, and 40 countries and led global collaborations for multi-cultural teams and won awards in the process. But for Toothman, and for the rest of the States, his world has turned on a dime in the advent of COVID.

Moving Courses Online

As U.C. Riverside had already begun moving several courses online, the transition was somewhat underway before California, and national mandates in mid-March required all education to jump online and most communities to shelter in place.

Toothman seemingly dodged a bullet in March when one of his students, who’d just returned from China, abruptly cancelled a brunch appointment last minute as she was not feeling well. Sure enough, she was diagnosed with COVID, and immediately hospitalized, and fortunately has survived. Regardless of the pandemic, Toothman sees the future of higher education and professional training believes education is forever changed—especially at the college level. He also states many schools are running a hybrid teaching model in the fall, and many universities are moving entirely online.

As a former Air Force Staff Sergeant, Toothman knows he’s at a higher risk. Already isolated, he put his time toward working on an in-depth experiment regarding how to make online education work well.

Version 1.0 Online Learning: Not Good

As we might have anticipated, the first iteration of online-only education was not good. Toothman said, “I experienced some level of student dissatisfaction, at first, as many students were expecting the dynamic interaction of a live course. Additionally, some had poor experiences with online courses in the past and this drove their inherent dislike for online learning. It was vital that I set the tone early. To keep students engaged, an instructor must be visible and active, and exhibit care, empathy, and trust for students.

My students were joining my online class discussions from all over the world; many balancing the competing demands of newly remote positions, homeschooling, and self-care. So, it was vital that I create a learning environment that added real value to their lives.”

Toothman realized he had two choices to make when it comes to teaching today.

Here’s what he stated:

  1. To lead out in pioneering new and better formulas to entice students into a new frontier they could welcome;
  2. Be left behind in a sector that is regarded inherently and forever a distant “second best” to the learning that takes place face-to-face.

With time on his hands, he’s chosen the latter.

Learning Reimagined: A New Era of Virtual Education

Knowing it would be most difficult to replace the energy of the live interactions with instructors and other students, Toothman turned his attention to what an online platform could provide that other mediums can’t. He realized the medium allows room for students to shape their own adventures in ways that a live and static lesson plan can’t provide.

For example, in teaching courses on Project Management, Toothman can build in video resources on the aspects that might interest students most—such as Future Proof Technologies, Soft Skills, or Critical Thinking. If students are most interested in A.I., robotics, and data science, they can build a pathway to lead them to additional resources in those channels—similar to a ‘choose your own adventure’ scenario. He is currently working on integrating Flipboard magazines to dynamically curate course content.

All participants complete the same core work to meet and demonstrate the required capabilities. Still, the full shape and extent of the adventure can be their own to decide, with the addition of vibrant and visual supplements that can capture and hold their attention. Likewise, Toothman has learned and maximized the ways to replicate the robustness of face to face discussions online through tools like Zoom, although it has made for a certain amount of personal sacrifice.

Toothman said, “Imagine that 20% of your enrollment is outside of the United States. They didn’t plan to attend remotely; they enrolled to attend live, but due to the pandemic restrictions, the university has sent many students back home.”

He has also made the intrepid choice to hold live Zoom sessions for international students. He knows that most instructors will not do this, and it may not be a workable solution forever. Still, as the world adjusts, it is vital to ensure first and foremost that students are met with the most exceptional experience possible as they navigate the move to learning online.

Words and Visuals—Zenerchi L.L.C

An organization led by a scientist in visualization and simulation, Bryan Brandenburg has similarly made a pivot in prioritization of the physiology visualization platform he’s brought forward in his newest company, Zenerchi L.L.C. Brandenburg’s visuals from previous organizations D.A.S. 3D and Zygote Media Group, continue to populate medical journals and press.

His new company, Zenerchi L.L.C., is taking the technology further through integration with V.R. and A.I. to create visualizations so distinct participants can view the human heart or lungs with detail that can take them down to the level of atoms and quarks. The technology touches sectors including health, wellness, medical education, and, interestingly, edutainment with the ability to transition museum and event realms into full immersion experiences.

This strategy can make those avenues of education self-funded while also bringing in new streams of revenue. Listening to the younger populace has shown increasingly less interest in traditional museums. Additionally, the technology holds high appeal for online education. Launched in 2019, Zenerchi L.L.C. has successfully achieved early funding, but in Q1 enacted a pivot of its priorities in the realm of COVID.

Company Pivots

They went with online education as their first commercially available product. This choice was partly due to the need to provide deep visualization and a more profound education on the pandemic issue. To that end, the company partnered with Carrus, a leading provider of online healthcare training and professional development, to take online medical education to a higher level with new online courses that use the Zenerchi physiology simulation and visualization platform.

“We wanted to make this technology available at the highest level and to the largest audience possible,” Brandenburg said, as to the decision to approach online learning first.

Zenerchi will shortly release a library of stock images and AR/VR simulations of human physiology under the trade name S.T.E.A.M. for use by educators and developers. This format ensures readers get what they need on the fly and to surmount the barriers of storage and internet bandwidth. These will be vital steps in the future of learning.

Future of Education

The shift to virtual learning has significant implications for the future of education. A recent article by researchers  Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava for Harvard Business Review underscores the experiences of Toothman and Brandenburg. Their current experiments indicate the traditional model of a four-year face-to-face college education can no longer rest on its laurels.

A variety of factors, most notably, the continuously increasing cost of tuition, already makes higher education out of reach for most students and families. It makes the post-secondary education market ripe for change.

Day by day, we see further evidence that the pandemic crisis may force this change in higher education.

The ways we respond and react to the need for better methods of virtual learning will have a significant impact on whether and how online education develops as an opportunity for the future. It may change the impact of education on our economy at large, and its viability and availability to a broader set of participants. Likewise, the time and geographic flexibility of online learning may serve to make it available to a more comprehensive set of participants.

As Govindarajan and Srivastava note, some politicians are pressing or have promised the concept of a free college education – but what if the newest developments prove that a college education doesn’t have to bankrupt a person? The implications are tremendous for all. Govindarajan and Srivastava suggested, “After the crisis subsides, is it best for all students to return to the classroom, and continue the status quo, or will we have found a better alternative?”

Toothman is excited to continue his quest to forge forward in all of these developments. In the interim, he continues to teach his courses.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with Author permission.


Robyn D. Shulman
Robyn D. Shulman
Robyn D. Shulman, M.Ed., is a certified K-9, ESL, and Writing Teacher. In 2018, LinkedIn named her the #1 Top Voice in Education. She is a contributing writer for Forbes, where she covers education and entrepreneurship. She is also the Executive Editor at Brain-centric Design. She writes about K-12, college changes, innovation, entrepreneurship, and the innovation we need to have in education. She also shares how learning works on a fundamental level for both children and adults, based on 40 years of neuroscience. Her work highlights the positive changes we can bring in K-12, for college-age students, and within corporate education. Robyn is also the founder of EdNews Daily, an education media outlet and resource that provides education support and information for parents, students, teachers, and school administrators. Robyn has also been part of LinkedIn's advisors since 2013 and was named as "Someone to Follow" in 2016 with the official influencers who use the platform. Before her time writing, she started her career in a 4th-grade classroom, and eventually transitioned into higher education. Entrepreneur, Forbes, Cision's Influencer Blog, The Huffington Post, LinkedIn's Official Blog, The International Educator, Edudemic, Edutopia, We Are Teachers, Reimagine Education, Fox News Chicago, Thrive Global, The Next Web, and more publications have featured her work. Today, she continues to work with students, teachers, and innovators in education, hoping to bring positive change to the entire education system.

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  1. Technological innovations are showing great potential in the world of education, especially in times of Coronavirus. The potential of virtual reality in the world of education is becoming increasingly interesting.
    The new systems allow you to have a virtual laboratory for each subject, also giving children the opportunity to interact with each other and with the professor. In fact, students can see and perceive themselves within the space, as well as being able to use their hands to grab virtual objects, move them and perform other actions.
    The physicality that can be exploited when everyone is inside the same room is lost, but can also be used remotely. In the same way, a professor who is at a great distance can still hold the lesson within the virtual classroom. A system of this type can also offer new opportunities to schools without some structures and allows teachers to have more effective tools for their work and students to learn complex concepts much faster and easier.
    Not a system that replaces the textbook, therefore, but that integrates traditional teaching and opens up new possibilities, also for students who have learning difficulties. And that, in difficult moments like the one we are facing, shows how the continuity of lessons can be guaranteed even when reaching school becomes impractical.

  2. Thank you, Robyn.
    Very good stuff.
    I still am running into clients who ask me to deliver what was pretty crappy traditional classes via the internet, as if that’s a step forward. I suggest this is the perfect opportunity to jettison lots and lots of industrial-age assumptions and habits about learning and teaching. That’s the first step, to make room. Until we do that, we’re just saying ‘tired old crud in a brand new package’!
    Have a serene weekend.