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The Future of U.S. Higher Education with Online Learning—Two Steps Forward or One Step Back?

Higher ed leaders need to decide on the future of their institutions—either moving forward and building on established progress or reverting to a more traditional education model.
Higher ed leaders need to decide on the future of their institutions—either moving forward and building on established progress or reverting to a more traditional education model.

The latest national research study of online education in U.S. higher education (CHLOE—The Changing Landscape of Online Education) released on August 9, 2022. CHLOE 7: Tracking Online Learning from Mainstream Acceptance to Universal Adoption highlights the insightful views of Chief Online Officers (COOs) and points to a critical juncture for colleges and universities. After two years of managing a pandemic world that impacted nearly every aspect of our lives, higher education is poised to evolve its approach to academic offerings at a pace that even the most enthusiastic online learning advocates could not have anticipated. As we reflect on our next move, higher education leaders and faculty need to consider a primary question: Will we be opportunistic and leverage what we have learned about flexibility and the exceptional and responsive innovation demonstrated by college instructors to help institutions take two steps forward? Or will we view the last two years as a temporary inconvenience and revert to business-as-usual, taking one step back?

The CHLOE 7 report notes that COOs showed that student interest in online learning has grown substantially in the past two years, and the majority predicts it will continue. One could believe that virtually every college student’s experience with online learning exposed them to the variety of benefits online students have valued in the past: convenience, schedule adaptability, family responsibilities and work obligations, and effective instruction that could empower every student to have a voice. This newfound appreciation potentially contributes to more demand.

But beyond this positive enrollment forecast was our online learning leaders’ bold prediction about prevailing modes of learning at their institutions by 2025. COOs believe that very few students will be studying exclusively on campus or online by 2025. While there are modestly different views based on undergraduate versus graduate-level students, respondents foresee the vast majority of students at all levels combining on-campus and online courses into a blended academic experience. Given this potential seismic shift from the approximately 37% of students who took some or all their courses online, as reported in IPEDS in 2019, to the overwhelming majority predicted by 2025, what do higher education leaders need to consider to prepare their institutions for this evolution toward a more permanently hybrid campus? While many factors can influence institutional success, I would offer three to focus on.

Institutional Readiness

The first relates to institutional readiness. Has the school put in place the appropriate online learning staff (e.g., leadership, instructional design, educational technology, LMS IT infrastructure support, student support) and resources to effectively support this new endeavor? The CHLOE 7 findings note that over four out of five institutions used the past two (pandemic) years to strengthen their technical abilities to support online learning, expand and improve faculty development, invigorate their management practices to respond with agility to rapidly changing online learning demand, and support a wider variety of modes and formats that incorporate online learning. We have written in the past about the importance of an online learning leader or Chief Online Officer—an experienced point person to help guide this transformation. Thinking about that leads to other questions: Is online learning unified and organized as part of the academic leadership of the college or university, or is it scattered among numerous and distributed units? Has the institution addressed and adopted effective policies and practices to support their initiatives? For example, are all courses treated the same, regardless of modality? And has the school made sure to reconcile and align their online learning initiatives with university strategic planning and student need and demand? It is noteworthy that CHLOE 7 found that over half of responding COOs believe that meeting the anticipated undergraduate online demand at their institution will require realigning institutional strategy and priorities.

Faculty Development and Support

A second area that deserves significant attention is faculty development and support. An assessment of the institution’s current state might be a necessary starting point. At the end of the University of Rochester’s spring semester, we conducted a very informative and enlightening study with our faculty on the pandemic’s impact on their teaching, perceptions of student expectations, the evolution of their teaching practices, attitudes toward using technology to support instruction, barriers that might inhibit them from doing more and preferences for how the university can further support these excellent and inventive professors. Establishing a baseline understanding can facilitate the creation or evolution of a professional development program, which is essential to help instructors design, develop and teach online. In CHLOE 7, COOs indicated that further investment in faculty development is a high priority. The study also captures that most institutions are providing these support services (designing online courses, using the LMS and related online technologies, creating accessible courses, online course quality assurance and online teaching), with only a small fraction (2-6%) as the exception. Understandably, one area that needs further improvement is training to recognize and respond to student mental health issues. Even though 27% of institutions reported that they do not provide this training, it was also the area of greatest investment expansion, with approximately one-third of schools addressing this need.

Student Support

That brings us to the third area of focus: student support. Colleges and universities have a tradition of providing support to their students, and the pandemic was certainly a catalyst for additional services and new delivery modalities. To be successful with the anticipated growth in online students, institutional leaders will need to reflect on several questions including: What services are offered? How are they offered? Are they integrated into services for all students? Are they optional or required? Is there an institutional approach, or is student support left to the individual instructor? CHLOE 7 reported that most COOs indicated about the same allocation of resources for these services as last year, but a significant number (18-37%) did report investment growth for this support. It is not surprising that online mental health services had the highest growth rate, but other categories like online tutoring services and options to combat the digital divide also realized additional funding support. Ultimately, institutions will need to make sure all their students are well supported to succeed in the new hybrid campus.

Senior leadership at our colleges and universities will need to decide on their path forward and the extent they either build on their progress or revert to prior approaches.

-Eric Fredericksen

Higher education institutions may be at a tipping point with online education, based on unimagined growth and development driven by the pandemic. Senior leadership at our colleges and universities will need to decide on their path forward and the extent to which they either build on their progress or revert to prior approaches. COOs reported having great confidence in their school’s ability to respond to a future crisis that leads to campus closure, and they shared that online learning has been significantly strengthened at their institution. But the greater question is how colleges and universities make long-term transformative decisions that leverage a strategic and vital role for online education. CHLOE 7 offers the latest insight from COOs, which should be very helpful and informative for these executives as they proceed down this path—hopefully two steps forward.

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