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How and Where We Fit in the Landscape of Digital Higher Education 

Review of Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education (2022). by Robert Ubell

Reviewed by Beatrice Mendez Newman

Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  OLOR Reviews
 Author(s):  Beatrice Mendez Newman
 Original Publication Date:  11 May 2022


Resource Overview

Resource Contents

Review of Staying Online  

In Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education (2022), Robert Ubell delves into the complexities of sustaining online education at U.S. college campuses. A companion book to his 2017 Going Online: Perspectives on Digital Learning, which traced the trajectory from traditional to online teaching, this new volume offers a retrospective on how colleges and universities arrived where they are now in the area and era of online learning. An important overlay in Ubell’s discussion is the impact of the pandemic when teaching online became a necessity not a choice as everyone, everywhere suddenly became an online instructor in Spring 2020. Bolstered by convincing evidence from experts and experience, Ubell invites us to think about our place in and our individual contribution to the holistic landscape of digital higher education.

Staying Online is a compilation of pieces previously published in EdSurge, Inside Higher Ed, and several other publications, but with updates to reflect new developments in online teaching and learning. The pieces are remixed into five sections: (1) "Emergency Online Learning," (2) "Theory and Practice," (3) "Scaling-up," (4) "Problems and Considerations," and (5) "Changing My Mind."

The engaging opening chapter is Ubell’s new contribution on the impact of the pandemic on online learning. “We Are All Online Learners Now” honestly presents the pedagogical missteps that marked higher education’s sudden entry into almost 100% online learning when the pandemic closed down campuses. Ubell happily reminds us that those of us who had been successfully teaching online for years before the pandemic moved smoothly into the suddenness of full online teaching. But, he honestly assesses that there was “catch-as-can improvisation, with most faculty teaching online not knowing exactly what they were doing” (p. 9). A lot of what Ubell writes in this first chapter makes us wince in recognition of the discomforting truths about how sudden, across-the-board online teaching was implemented with almost no support for the transition. I found myself nodding and saying, “yes, uh huh, right” all the way through this sage discussion of the problems that permeated online instruction in that traumatic year.

Most of the chapters in the book offer insider information on how online instruction has been integrated into higher education. Several chapters explore the forces that have driven the “academic digital economy,” a sort of tension between nostalgic clinging to traditional images of onsite campuses and the new reality where “digital students study at home or while commuting to and from work, often late at night after the kids are asleep” (p. 51). In the face of dwindling enrollments, online instruction became a lifeline for institutions as more and more students found a fit between their educational aspirations and life responsibilities. Several chapters detail “outsourcing” and other economic availabilities that have allowed institutions to integrate ready-made digital education platforms instead of investing in expensive retooling of faculty and/or reconstruction of existing programs. Whereas traditional classes might maximally manage a few hundred students, massive online open courses [MOOCs] had room for thousands of global learners, drawing impressive revenues. Online program managers [OPMs] allowed institutions to offer ready-made, outsourced programs, integrating substantive online availability into existing institutional offerings. A broad range of institutions, including prestigious campuses, lent their institutional aegis to MOOCs and OPMs, often agreeing to disproportionate distribution of tuition income with the providers in exchange for increased enrollments generated by these digital learning platforms. With decades as a specialist in digital education, Ubell shares astute analysis and insight into how digital education is managed at our institutions. It is hard not to conclude that digital education is a pragmatic way to generate institutional revenue.

For those of us who teach successfully in online platforms, those of us who deeply know the students who enroll in our online classes, it is gratifying to see Ubell’s commitment to non-traditional students. In the chapter titled “Online as an Ethical Practice,” he champions those students who work full-time at low-paying jobs and see online programs, especially those that are fully formed, holistic, and lead toward a degree, as a route toward social mobility. Online education is “ethical practice,” Ubell asserts. We all have stories of students with exceptional circumstances that make traditional, face-to-face learning an impossibility. Ubell powerfully proclaims the inherent contribution of digital education: “Online rescues [non-traditional students], giving them the unprecedented opportunity to earn a degree without the stress of commuting or taking classes at night. Since its invention over two decades ago, online has permitted millions of working students to leap over the class divide” (p. 34).

This is not a book about what works in online teaching and learning. Ubell does make a few comments about his allegiance to constructivist learning theory and how he successfully implemented it in his own online teaching. And, at the close of the first chapter, the chapter that addresses the impact of the pandemic, he admits that the exigencies of online education call not for transferring old ways of teaching to online platforms, but instead for “new pedagogical practices . . . to engage students studying far from campus” (p. 13). By and large, however, you will not learn how to be a better online instructor from reading this book. It is instead a book about the holistic landscape of digital education as it has been embraced, sometimes reluctantly by our institutions. As individual instructors of online classes, we lack the perspective to see how we, how our students, how our classes fit into the labyrinth of digital education. Ubell’s book shows us how complex, how diverse, how expansive digital education has become. In the preface, he proposes that digital education is no longer developing, tentative, or pandemic-driven; it is instead “here for the long-haul, staying online” (p. xvi). We get to the last pages of Ubell’s book, the last section in the last chapter titled “Online Is Not One Thing,” agreeing with him that online education is eclectic, evolving, malleable. The whole of Ubell’s book suggests that each of us does indeed fit individually and collectively in the space of digital education.

Staying Online 

Robert Ubell. 2022. Routledge. [Paperback, 39.95; eBook, 29.96].

About the Reviewer

Beatrice Mendez Newman Beatrice Mendez Newman, Professor in Writing and Language Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, has taught online since 2014. She sees online learning as a catalyst for developing new, learner-centered pedagogies and as a means of supporting educational access to students who need to merge life exigencies with academic and professional goals.

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