Faculty Focus


Survive or Thrive: Evolving with Online Learning and Growing a Healthy Mindset for Our Students

Man smiles while typing on computer

Change is hard!

As educators, COVID-19 ruthlessly hurled us into a world of online learning with little or no experience. My embarrassing initial reaction: “I guess we’ll use Skype!”

Truth be told, early on I wanted to resist that change. I looked for every single reason to rationalize why I should teach my classes in person. I admittedly yearned for the return to the traditional classroom, naïvely hoping that day would be just around the corner. But those days of online classes soon became weeks, weeks became months, and months eventually became semesters.

Like it or not, I found myself at a crossroads: survive or thrive. Should I drudge through my online classes, anxiously anticipating when the world would go “back to normal?” Or is it worth taking the time to learn, grow, and flourish in a remote environment?

With vaccines beginning distribution throughout the world, it is difficult to avoid dreaming of a return back into the classroom, back to the “old days.” Just a little bit longer and all this online stuff will be over, right?

Realistically, no. Even if the most optimistic COVID-19 predictions are correct, in many ways it does not matter! Pandemic or not, online interactions are here to stay.

Mindset change #1: “We’ll get back to normal” ➥ Acknowledging worldwide change

Like it or not, the world is changing in personal interactions, in business, and in academia. Remote interactions are the way of the present, and the future. Our students will be going out into a world where remote interactions are more and more common. Even in the midst of the pandemic, there is already writing on the wall:

  • Twitter and Square announced that virtually all of their employees can work from home . . . forever. Even after the pandemic is quelled (O’Kane, 2020).
  • Higher education institutions are experiencing “high demand for digital courses, content, educational materials, and paid subscriptions for global e-learning platforms.” (Research and Markets, 2020).
  • Companies such as Amazon, Nike, Lululemon, and many more have seen a spike in their e-commerce sales, driving additional hiring to meet demand (Thomas, 2020).
  • From 10 million participants in December 2019, Zoom has grown to over 300 million (Kastrenakes, 2020).

Certainly, we will eventually have the option to return to in-person classes. We’ll get to see our students face-to-face, shake their hands, and speak to them without the impediments of a mask. It will be a great moment, and undoubtedly, we should take advantage of that option in many cases. Nevertheless, we should not ignore that life will have changed, and it behooves everyone to reorient their mindsets: post-pandemic “normal” will never be the same as pre-pandemic normal.

Even after the pandemic, our students will graduate into a far more digital world—a world where they’re expected to visually communicate with others in differing time zones, a world where they’re expected to host online meetings, a world where they’re expected to thrive with technology.

Mindset change #2: “I’m bad with technology” ➥ Advocating for technology

As educators, we have the chance to help our students gracefully enter into a more–digitally integrated world. We each may teach different subject matter, but now and in the future, we all serve as an example to students in terms of technology.

Recently, I had a 21-year-old student apologize for missing an assignment because he was “bad with technology.” That student undoubtedly learned that phrase from others who spouted similar excuses. I gently replied that, that was an unacceptable mindset, not just for my class but for life in general.

If we spurn improving our own technological acumen, our students will too. If we require only minimal participation in an online environment, our students will remain lethargic. If we choose simply to survive with remote learning, then we do not give our students an opportunity to thrive.

Of course, in these times we should always leave room for grace, and I am in no way suggesting otherwise. But that does not mean that we cannot, and should not, approach our online courses with excitement, innovation, and positivity.

Bottom line: for the sake of our students, we need to eliminate the phrase “I’m bad with technology.” It has been a crutch for far too long; an excuse to remain idle rather than making progress. Realistically, it comes down to motivation. After all, we have all seen many grandparents learn to use video chat to speak to their grandkids!

We should not recoil to change. Instead, we should take the time to embrace our online platforms and learn—watch tutorials, read how-to articles, speak to colleagues about “best practices,” assign our students work that pushes them out of their comfort zone and drives them to use new technology. After all, isn’t learning new things a cornerstone of the classroom?

Be a technology advocate, not a naysayer. Be the example to your students as they enter into a far more digitally integrated world.

Mindset change #3: “In-person classes are better” Cease comparing learning environments

In-person classes are not better; they are different.

This debate comes up countless times in academia. Professors will quickly cite various research articles that point to the subtle benefits of classroom learning versus online learning. I am not here to dispute these articles, there is likely some validity to them—particularly during their time. But 2020 and 2021 encompass a far different era. Now more than ever before, there are more people taking genuine time to become accustomed to online interactions.

Personally, I have noted a marked improvement in my students’ general capabilities with online platforms. As it continues to develop into a necessity, people are becoming more creative, open-minded, and accepting of communicating through a computer.

Even as recently as this past summer, I had the pleasure to work with a student who conducted an online internship in Washington, DC. Using the Microsoft Teams skills he developed from his spring classes, he helped implement a standardized online communication platform across the office. The office loved him!

Don’t get me wrong, of course there are significant benefits to in person classroom learning. But as the world continues to become more connected, there are certainly additional benefits to online learning that are significant in their own ways.

They are not better; they are different.

So, before the urge arises to say one is better than the other, I challenge you to ask yourself:

  • Is a world where a student can attend a conference in New York then log into their class in California later that day really a bad thing?
  • Is a world where a student can visit their sick grandparent in Singapore while watching a live stream of their Canadian class really a bad thing?
  • Is a world where a student uses her online-communication expertise from school to improve her new company’s global reach really a bad thing?

Pragmatically, there will be a continued place for online learning. As educators, we are the first step to helping the next generation embrace this reality.

To do so, we must take our own first step: We must change our mindsets. Let’s move past simply surviving . . . so they can thrive.

Major Wolfgang Tay Weber, JD, is an assistant professor of law and negotiations at the United States Air Force Academy. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


Kastrenakes, J. (2020, June 2). Zoom saw a huge increase in subscribers—and revenue—thanks to the pandemic. https://www.theverge.com/2020/6/2/21277006/zoom-q1-2021-earnings-coronavirus-pandemic-work-from-home

O’Kane, C. (2020, May 12). Twitter employees can work from home forever, CEO Jack Dorsey says. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/twitter-employees-work-from-home-forever-ceo-jack-dorsey-says

Research and Markets. (2020, April). E-learning Market – Global Outlook and Forecast 2020-2025. https://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/5018693/e-learning-market-global-outlook-and-forecast

Thomas, K., & Drucker, J. (2020, September 17). When will you be able to get a coronavirus vaccine? New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/17/health/covid-vaccine-when-available.html

Thomas, L. (2020, September 23). Nike’s online business is booking—“digital is here to stay,” CEO says.  https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/23/nikes-ceo-says-digital-is-here-to-stay-e-com-business-fuels-sales.html