Most people agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the trajectory of online learning forever. But to what extent and in what ways are matters of debate.
Principals Online (COOs) predict that most undergraduate and graduate student academic trajectories will feature prominent online components by 2025, according to the “Changing Landscape of Online Education 2022” survey (CHLOE , for short) published today. The survey, conducted by Quality Matters, a non-profit group focused on ensuring quality online education, and Eduventures, a research and consultancy group, defined online managers as those most responsible for coordinating online learning at college or university.
These officials predict a much more central role for technology-enabled learning in the near term than did the university presidents who responded to Inside the Higher Education Survey of College and University Presidents last spring, many of which envision a continued rebound in in-person learning in the years to come.
“They probably wouldn’t be online agents if they didn’t have a reasonable degree of optimism about the future,” said Jeff Seaman, director of Bay View Analytics, a survey design and analytics organization. Statistical Research, which was not involved in the CHLOE survey but conducts its own studies on technology in education. “However, I have to say that the general trends we are seeing [in the CHLOE survey] correspond to our more general inquiries.”
It’s not that online managers expect fully online education to dominate; they see a mixed future, in which face-to-face and online-only students will be outliers by 2025. Instead, most students will take classroom-based courses that have components digital material, or courses delivered primarily online that have residential components.
“The public can see [higher ed learning options] in terms of binary, but that’s not how it happens in institutions,” said Bethany Simunich, one of the survey’s co-authors. Instead, COOs envision that most students will combine face-to-face and online courses and programs in a range of formats.
“COOs are closer to the reality of online learning – closer than most – and are therefore more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of fully online study,” said co-author Richard Garrett. ‘study. COO respondents also predict that student demand for online learning will increase in the coming years, but at a lower rate than seen in the first two years of the pandemic.
This contrasts with what university presidents predicted in a Inside Higher Education survey conducted earlier this year. The presidents reported that in-person learning will rebound from 64% of all classes at their facilities in spring 2022 to an expected 68% next spring.
In this survey, the majority (84%) believed that parents and students were unwilling to pay as much for online learning as for in-person learning, which may explain their less optimistic view of the trajectory of online learning. Similarly, university presidents’ preferences for in-person learning and biases regarding online learning may also have played a role. For example, all presidents rated their in-person courses as “good” or “excellent”, while about one in five (22%) rated their online courses as “ok” or “poor”.
An Emerging Definition of “Hybrid”
According to online officials, few traditional-aged undergraduates (4%) are expected to study face-to-face exclusively. Even fewer (2%) will study exclusively online. Among graduate students, they expect almost none (1%) to study exclusively in person and a small minority (9%) to study exclusively online. Fully online and fully in-person options exist at opposite ends of the course delivery continuum. Between these two extremes lies a range of hybrid options.
“Hybrid is just a convenience term that… doesn’t really define what it is, other than it’s a combination of two things that we understand a little better,” Garrett said.
The survey defines hybrid courses – also called “blended” – as those in which “a significant part of the course takes place online, the rest being face-to-face”. In this confusing medium, students can choose face-to-face, asynchronous online, synchronous online, or multimodal courses (such as those taught face-to-face and online). In the multimodal category, for example, hyflex courses offer the option to attend each course session in person or online. Even so, the definition of “meaningful” may vary depending on state guidelines, institution policy, or instructor preference.
“You have religious arguments about ‘this is the best definition,'” Seaman said. “We talk about academics. That’s what they do.”
But the debate is not only semantic. Garret noted that institutions are now asking deep questions about the value of different modalities.
“Why are these modes of delivery not just popular or convenient or trendy, but the right modes of delivery for what we are trying to accomplish in a particular field, for these students, and for these career goals?” Garrett asked. “This is the opportunity to move forward.”
COOs in the CHLOE survey expressed a nuanced view of their institutions’ ability to realign strategies and priorities as they navigate a potential pivot to more mixed formats. On the one hand, they expressed optimism about a modest (17%) increase in online support staff, including instructional designers, educational technologists, counselors and coaches. Additionally, more and more institutions are centralizing online services and integrating them with on-campus services, which is the future they envision.
But COOs have expressed concern that institutions are not providing students with adequate guidance and training to succeed in online learning. Although most colleges (84%) offered students self-directed orientation, few required it. (Less than 25% of public two-year, public four-year, and private four-year schools required orientation, and public four-year schools ranked last in this category.)
Institutions that the survey defined as “weakly online” (those with fewer than 1,000 online students) have made progress in providing more support to faculty to make online courses accessible, although a small percentage (10%) still does not provide support. This contrasts with medium-sized online schools (those with 1,000-7,500 online students) where few (3%) receive no support and high online schools (those with more than 7,500 students online) where all teachers receive support.
Training faculty to recognize and respond to student mental health issues presented both positives and negatives in the survey. About one-third (32%) of institutions have expanded faculty training in this area. But around a quarter (27%) still do not offer such training.
This adds nuance to an earlier student survey. Although around a third (35%) of students said at the end of 2021 that their mental health was better than at the start of the year, a majority (60%) still struggled, according to the Student survey. Voice, of Inside Higher Education and College Pulse and backed by Kaplan.
“The magnitude, the commonalities, the suddenness of it all,” Garrett said of online learning’s collision with the pandemic over the past two years. “We can’t tolerate a situation where online students…have a very different mental health infrastructure…if they can’t come to campus.” Garrett suggested that the mental health needs of students that were unmet before COVID-19 have now suddenly become mission critical. “We are seeing this mismatch.”
The CHLOE survey also shed light on the quality standards of online courses and programs. On the bright side, almost all survey respondents (96%) noted that their institutions have quality standards for online courses. But only half require all asynchronous online courses to meet these standards, and well over half (66%) lack processes to ensure compliance. “Voluntary review and adherence to standards is the rule,” the authors wrote in the survey summary. This may reflect the decentralized collaborative culture of higher education.
“We know from research, and we also know anecdotally, that this top-down, administrative approach doesn’t work,” Simunich said. “Quality isn’t about ticking boxes. … Rather, you have a system of face-to-face, peer-to-peer quality reviews.”
Seaman agrees that quality assurance is an issue, but not unique to online or hybrid courses.
“I worry about [the lack of quality assurance in online courses] at least as much for in-person classes,” Seaman said. “Faculty members of all modalities are rarely hired for their teaching abilities, but those who teach online are much more likely to avail themselves of professional development support.
While the mentioned surveys of COOs, presidents and students were all conducted within the past year, they were conducted at different times over the past year. This means the results may have been affected by the rise and fall of different variants of COVID-19 or other developments.
“It was difficult for us to take the pulse because the pulse changed,” Simunich said.