Digital Learning Pulse Survey: 90% of U.S. Higher Ed Institutions Used Emergency Distance Education to Complete Spring 2020 Term


The survey of higher education’s immediate priorities related to the COVID-19 pandemic was conducted April 6-19 by Bay View Analytics on behalf of OLC, WCET, UPCEA, CDLRA and Every Learner Everywhere, and underwritten by Cengage; findings will be discussed in a webinar, this Friday, April 24.

BOSTON, Mass. (April 22, 2020) — A new survey of U.S. higher education leaders and practitioners reveals nearly all (90%) higher education institutions surveyed used some form of emergency distance education to complete the Spring 2020 term. “Digital Learning Pulse Survey: Immediate Priorities,” conducted online this month by Bay View Analytics (formerly the Babson Survey Research Group), also indicates emergency online instruction differs from a pre-planned fully online course. Even experienced online instructors had to improvise as they went along, with more than one-half (51%) using new teaching methods for these newly online courses.

The survey was conducted in partnership by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA), and Every Learner Everywhere, with the support of underwriter and primary partner, Cengage, and media support by Inside Higher Ed (IHE). These organizations have come together to help identify and focus the resources needed to support educators and institutions in addressing current and future challenges related to the rapid shift to remote instruction during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

“It’s worth noting that, even as faculty identified a variety of support options that would be helpful during this challenging time, their most pressing concern is for their students,” said Jeff Seaman, lead researcher and director of Bay View Analytics. “When asked what assistance would be most helpful, 57 percent identified additional support for their newly online students – rating it more important than support for themselves.”

Additional findings from the survey include:

  • Almost all institutions (97%) moving classes online had to call on faculty with no previous online teaching experience. One-half (50%) of the institutions were able to rely on at least some faculty with online teaching experience.
  • A majority of faculty (56%) who moved courses online were using teaching methods that they had never used before.
  • Faculty had to make a number of adjustments to their courses to complete them online. While only a few faculty (17%) made changes to required readings, roughly one-half (48%) reduced the amount of work they expected. About one-third (32%) lowered their expectations for the quality of student work.

“This is a transformative moment for educational institutions – one that will unquestionably have lasting and likely unforeseen impacts,” said Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D., chief executive officer for the Online Learning Consortium. “We are partnering on this research to help understand the transition that institutions are currently facing and how we can best support them as they navigate the new reality.”

“The transition to an emergency version of online learning happened so fast, that it is helpful to pause briefly and reflect,” said Russ Poulin, executive director of WCET. “We first need to thank the frontline heroes who made the impossible happen in transitioning the courses. The survey helps us to understand better what actions were taken and what steps are needed to proceed.”

“The massive tectonic shift to online during the pandemic vividly illustrates the vital role played by deans of professional and continuing education, chief online learning officers, and many others across the institution like instructional designers and online student service personnel,” said Bob Hansen, CEO of UPCEA. “Imagine this crisis happening just ten years ago, let alone fifteen or more. It’s clear that the investments made in highly entrepreneurial units charged with driving online strategy have saved the day for higher education, positioning us for a future that may look very different.”   

“Faculty reported that the uncertainty around the fall semester is creating a sense of anxiety” noted Nicole Johnson, Research Director of CDLRA. “Early decisions on how instruction will proceed for the remainder of 2020 are critical for giving faculty time to prepare for ongoing online instruction, particularly if social distancing orders remain in place."

“Navigating this pandemic will test higher education’s capacity to provide high-quality, effective teaching and learning in every course, to every student,” said Jessica R. WIlliams, Ph.D., Director of Every Learner Everywhere. “By engaging and learning directly from educators who are experiencing the shift to remote teaching and learning, we can better understand the immediate impact, challenges, opportunities, and support needs. We see this survey as an important tool to ensure equitable learning experiences for all students.”  

“Institutions have done a tremendous job in an extremely short and unexpected time to move to a distance education model during this crisis,” said Fernando Bleichmar, General Manager for Higher Education and Skills at Cengage. “But they clearly need additional funding and resources to adjust to the current environment and fulfill their mission of student success. Everyone in the education ecosystem needs to work together to support institutions and help them deliver an affordable, equitable and quality learning experience in an uncertain time ahead.”

Webinar: ‘The Great (Forced) Shift to Remote Learning’

Survey findings will be presented in a free webinar this Friday, April 24, at 2:00 pm ET, hosted by Inside Higher EdThe Great (Forced) Shift to Remote Learning: a Survey of Instructors and Campus Leaders” will feature a discussion with the survey’s lead researcher Jeff Seaman, OLC’s Jennifer Mathes, as well as Will Austin, president of Warren County Community College, and Inside Higher Ed Editor Doug Lederman. Click here for webinar details and registration.


The results are based on responses from 826 U.S. higher education faculty and administrators collected during the period of April 6-19, 2020, representing 641 different institutions. The partners plan to field a follow-up pulse survey this summer to gauge shifts in priorities.

About Cengage

Cengage is the education and technology company built for learners. As the largest US-based provider of teaching and learning materials for higher education, we offer valuable options at affordable price points. Our industry-leading initiatives include Cengage Unlimited, the first-of-its-kind all-access digital subscription service.  We embrace innovation to create learning experiences that build confidence and momentum toward the future students want. Headquartered in Boston, Cengage also serves K-12, library and workforce training markets around the world. Visit us at or find us on Facebook or Twitter.

About Bay View Analytics

Bay View Analytics, formerly known as the Babson Survey Research Group, is a survey design, implementation, and analysis organization. Bay View Analytics partners with and conducts research for universities, businesses, foundations, and agencies including the London School of Business, Hunter College, the College Board, Eduventures, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Gates Foundation, Tyton Partners and the American Distance Education Consortium. Bay View Analytics’ activities cover all stages of projects, including initial proposals, sample selection, survey design, methodological decisions, analysis plan, statistical analyses, and production of reports. Learn more at

About WCET

WCET is the leader in the practice, policy, & advocacy of technology-enhanced learning in higher education. WCET is a member-driven non-profit which brings together colleges, universities, higher education organizations, and companies to collectively improve the quality and reach of technology-enhanced learning programs. Learn more at

About UPCEA 

UPCEA is the association for professional, continuing, and online education. Founded in 1915, UPCEA now serves most of the leading public and private colleges and universities in North America. With innovative conferences and specialty seminars, research and benchmarking information, professional networking opportunities and timely publications, we support our members’ service of contemporary learners and commitment to quality online education and student success. Based in Washington, D.C., UPCEA builds greater awareness of the vital link between adult learners and public policy issues. Visit


The CDLRA tracks the status and development of online, distance and digital learning in public post-secondary education across Canada. 

About Every Learner Everywhere

Every Learner Everywhere brings together 12 partner organizations to help colleges and universities navigate the rapidly evolving digital learning landscape. Our mission is to help institutions use new technology to innovate teaching and learning, empower instructors, and improve student outcomes—especially for first-generation college students, low-income students, and students of color. Learn more and meet our partners at

About Online Learning Consortium

The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) is a collaborative community of higher education leaders and innovators, dedicated to advancing quality digital teaching and learning experiences designed to reach and engage the modern learner – anyone, anywhere, anytime. OLC inspires innovation and quality through an extensive set of resources, including, best-practice publications, quality benchmarking, leading-edge instruction, community-driven conferences, practitioner-based and empirical research and expert guidance. The growing OLC community includes faculty members, administrators, trainers, instructional designers, and other learning professionals, as well as educational institutions, professional societies and corporate enterprises. Visit for more information.