In a Post-COVID World, Will Online Learning Become the New Normal?


Andrew R. Hanson,
Director of Research at Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights

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This year, OLC invited some of our Accelerate 2020 sponsors to share stories with our membership, as a way to contextualize their services and invite conversation with and within our membership. This blog post is one of those stories.

This spring, the COVID-19 pandemic forced tens of millions of students and working learners to move their learning online. The crisis effectively accelerated the long-term structural changes in how Americans were learning — the changes that we would likely have seen over the course of several years took place in a matter of days, weeks, and months. The big question for the future: will these changes be temporary, or are we at an inflection point toward a future where online and hybrid modes of learning become the new normal?

Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights has surveyed more than 22,000 Americans over the past eight months through Public Viewpoint to better understand how they are navigating the current economic crisis and disruptions to education.

Earlier in the summer, a quarter of working-age Americans said they had to change their plans as a result of the pandemic, including 9 percent who said they were delaying enrolling and 5 percent who said they were changing providers. Many Americans are delaying enrolling or returning until it’s safe to attend in person or deciding to switch to an online college. 

As enrollment data rolled in this fall, we saw these early signals begin to materialize: historic declines at community colleges alongside smaller declines at most four-year colleges. But not everywhere. In fact, for many online colleges and nontraditional providers like bootcamps and MOOCs, the pandemic has been good for business. At online colleges, for example, the annual growth rate has doubled from 2.5 percent in 2019 to 5 percent this year.

The COVID-19 crisis is rapidly catalyzing higher education’s business and delivery model toward options designed for a lifetime of working and learning. College presidents who have longed for the chance to embrace online and its myriad benefits now have the opportunity

Consumer data reveals several promising trends for the future of online learning: 

  • Online learning has ample room for growth, even beyond the pandemic. When asked about their preferred mode of learning in the next six months and if COVID-19 were not a factor, most Americans prefer online-only or hybrid modes of learning over exclusively face-to-face experiences. These consumers include an incredibly diverse mix of workers and learners of all ages looking to reskill and upskill. The preference for online learning is even stronger for women, middle-age, and Black Americans.

  • While many education consumers are uncertain about the quality of online learning, few are skeptical. Only one-in-10 Americans said they were not confident in the quality of online learning, while the rest were evenly split between those confident in its quality and those who are uncertain.

  • Many of our intuitions about the ideal mode for learning are wrong. While the convenience of online trumps the perceived advantages of face-to-face learning for online learners, most consumers believe that online and hybrid are the modes through which they learn best. The upshot is that there simply is no one-size-fits-all option that will work best for all workers and learners.

At the same time, online learning’s rapid overnight growth poses several challenges for its perception going forward. While alumni of online colleges rate the value of their education higher than alumni of in-person colleges, consumers broadly believe that the signal online learning sends to employers is less valuable than the alternative. 

Though the massive shift to online learning exposed students to an experience they otherwise wouldn’t have had, it also poses substantial risks. Current students who were forced to move online do believe that the change negatively affected the quality of their learning. To their credit, traditional colleges and universities are rapidly adapting to an online learning environment, building new technologies and training their faculty at a remarkable pace. 

As more universities previously resistant to change have opened the floodgates, however, a major gulf has materialized between the typical college student’s experience of online learning and leading providers who have learned how to leverage the strengths of the online environment to deliver a world-class education. These providers place a special emphasis on innovative curricular models, data analytics, and support services uniquely important to promoting persistence for online learners.

Indeed, Strada consumer data demonstrate that little is more important for helping students today than support services such as mentoring, coaching, and resources to support mental health and well-being. Our survey of current students found that the No. 1 challenge they are facing this semester is managing their mental health — things like stress, anxiety, and loneliness. 

For higher education, the legacy of this crisis may be that it catalyzes a shift, as Ryan Craig described it, “from all you can eat in one sitting to what you need when you need it.” Realizing this promise will require learning models that put students, workers, and learners at the center and leverage the unique advantages of the online environment.

The day when we no longer speak of “online learning” but only “learning” might arrive sooner than we think.


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