Surveying the Pandemic’s Effects on Online Learning

The coronavirus pandemic that ravaged the globe in 2020 caused unprecedented disruption to many aspects of human life, including higher education. In March, more than 4,000 colleges and universities were shuttered, and educators and students were thrust into what, for many, was an unfamiliar world of wholly remote learning. While many students struggled to complete online coursework from home, others thrived. Still others took a gap year hoping to return to in-person classes in 2021. In short, 2020 was a massive stress test for higher ed, the impact of which is still being digested and felt.

But with disruption comes opportunity. As the health crisis wanes and the post-pandemic world comes into focus, higher ed has the chance to reflect, learn, and decide how to move forward with online learning.

Much has been written about the impact of the pandemic on postsecondary education — the changes in student attitudes and behaviors, the cost versus the benefit of earning a six-figure degree, and pedagogical innovations spurred by the shift to digital learning. While some trends are ominous — Inside Higher Ed’s newly released 2021 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors found that 91% of respondents were “concerned” or “very concerned” about meeting enrollment goals for fall 2021 — others point to opportunity, particularly for continued accelerated growth in online learning.

Our Top Takeaways From the CHLOE 6 Report 

To help higher-ed institutions better understand the changing landscape of online education and devise winning strategies for its future at their schools, we’ve mined CHLOE 6: Online Learning Leaders Adapt for a Post-Pandemic World. CHLOE, which stands for Changing Landscape of Online Education, is a highly anticipated annual report from Eduventures and Quality Matters. It takes a deep dive into the evolving world of online education based on an online survey of chief online officers (COOs) at U.S. colleges and universities. 

Read the 69-page report here.

1. Accelerated Online Learning Growth Will Continue

The sudden closure of colleges and universities in March 2020 meant that many educators were unprepared to pivot to emergency remote learning (ERL), sparking concerns that poorly executed remote courses would damage the reputation and appeal of online learning. 

That proved not to be the case. In fact, most COOs surveyed predicted growth rather than flight from online learning.

When asked, “How will the ERL experience during the pandemic affect online undergraduate enrollment?” 60% of COOs sampled said they expected some increase in online enrollment, with another 17% expecting strongly increased enrollment. Only 6% of COOs predicted some or strongly decreased online undergraduate enrollment.

When asked the same question with regard to graduate enrollment, 35% of COOs said they expected strongly increased online enrollment, for a total of 80% predicting some or strongly increased online enrollment. Only 4% projected a decline in online enrollment.

2. Local Is Still Where It’s At

With a laptop and Wi-Fi connection the only requirements to study from virtually anywhere, one would expect students to cast a wide net when looking for an online degree program. But again, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

When COOs were asked to prioritize post-pandemic markets for their institutions’ fully online programs, on average, schools saw local/home state markets as top priority, followed by regional markets, national markets, and, lastly, international markets. Their preference for local markets matches pre-pandemic data. Why? Because branding matters to students. Moreover, brand recognition is important in terms of recruitment cost-effectiveness, as the cost of student recruitment increases with distance from the institution. 

“Any pandemic boost to online enrollment is likely to reinforce the importance of local online recruitment where most school brands are the strongest,” according to the report, which suggests that the best way for smaller institutions to counter the online giants may be to carve out a sustainable market niche.  

3. Higher Ed Is More Nimble Than Previously Thought

The pandemic and higher ed’s resulting pivot to online learning increased mainstream adoption of many education technology (edtech) tools, most notably videoconferencing, which is projected to reach 87% mainstream adoption by the end of 2021, compared with 51% in 2019, CHLOE 6 notes.  

Other technologies used in higher ed that got a boost in adoption from the pandemic include:

  • Video recording and distribution tools

  • Accessibility tools

  • E-proctoring and other integrity tools

  • Student support tools and services

  • Virtual labs and simulations    

According to the report, online student support services are either well established or are being prioritized for improvement by a majority of higher ed institutions. Many schools and programs responded by offering or requiring an online student orientation and by providing improved support for online learners with disabilities, mental health, or accessibility issues.

When the pandemic struck, higher ed shifted into high gear to provide students and faculty with the technology required to facilitate quality online learning and support services to ensure the success of online learning. Case in point: Online teaching faculty development offerings are now required, as opposed to optional, by more institutions post-spring 2020 than in pre-spring 2020.

4. Interest in Synchronous Online Courses Is Growing

Prior to the pandemic, entirely or predominantly synchronous online courses occupied a tiny niche of the online market (1%-3%). But with the mass conversion of so many courses to online delivery in the form of classroom lectures via videoconference during the pandemic, interest in synchronous learning has grown. 

When asked, “Are new and revised online courses/programs, including converted ERL courses, likely to include a significant synchronous component?” COOs responded:

  • Undergraduate

    • Very likely: 26%

    • Likely for some subjects but not others: 57%

    • Unlikely: 14% 

  • Graduate 

    • Very likely: 21%

    • Likely for some subjects but not others: 56%

    • Unlikely: 23% 

The data suggest that closer examination of the value and effectiveness of synchronous learning is taking place at many institutions and that more synchronous online courses likely are on the way, especially at private four-year and low-online enrollment institutions, per the report.

5. Schools Have Greater Opportunity to Accelerate Online Programs

As a result of the unprecedented stress test that plunged more than 20 million students and some 1.5 million faculty members at U.S. higher ed institutions into a remote learning environment, learners and educators — many of whom had little or no experience with online learning and teaching — got a crash course in the subject that’s changing the landscape of higher ed. 

Now, every professor has some experience developing and teaching digital courses, and expenditures for online support resources have increased. When COOs were asked to compare 2019 and 2020 resources, their responses indicated that most institutions (63%) had made some or substantial additions to online support resources. 

Resource investment areas for online learning by sector included funds for:

  • Tech hardware, software, and licenses
  • Online faculty development
  • Online support staff
  • Exam proctoring and security
  • Faculty online course development
  • Third-party service providers

Technology investment was necessary to build online capacity during the pandemic, with some 77% of COOs investing in technology hardware, software, and licenses. Indeed, 2020 and 2021 marked the largest yearly increases ever in edtech investment across all sectors of higher education. While large schools still outpace small institutions in edtech adoption, smaller schools are narrowing the gap — creating a strong foundation for the ongoing growth of online learning.

6. More Access and Nonacademic Support Services Are Needed

Just as in healthcare, the pandemic both revealed and exacerbated inequities in U.S. education. At the most basic level, some students lacked ready, or even any, access to the technology required for online learning — including laptops and a reliable high-speed internet connection. 

However, most COOs did not see the digital divide, as it’s come to be known, as a major issue. CHLOE 6 found that although digital divide issues seemed to have been somewhat segmented by institutional characteristics, such as geographic location, 59% of COOs reported that only 15% or less of their student population had access issues. Fewer COOs (18%) reported that 16%–30% of students had access issues, and only 5% reported that more than 30% of the student body was impacted by the digital divide. As a result, only a small fraction of those polled indicated that digital divide issues were a major responsibility during the pandemic.

Not so for student support. Indeed, the emergency remote pivot (ERP) acted as a catalyst for institutions creating or sourcing online student orientations. While CHLOE 5 (conducted prior to the ERP) reported that 51% of undergraduate students had no online experience and that some institutions offered neither a stand-alone orientation workshop or course (28%) nor one embedded within online academic courses (37%), CHLOE 6 found that by fall 2020:

  • Institutions offering or requiring a stand-alone online student orientation had increased from 72% to 87%
  • Institutions offering or requiring student orientation modules within an academic course had increased from 62% to 74%
  • Institutions offering or requiring LMS/technology training had increased from 85% to 95% 

The study also uncovered the top three institutional priorities for online students:

  1. Increasing online student access to academic support services, such as tutoring and academic advising (43%)

  2. Making student support services available, including financial aid and mental health services (37%)

  3. Offering general student orientation to online learning (32%) 

Turn Disruption Into Opportunity

Given the option, higher education would surely prefer to erase 2020 from its collective memory, but to do so would mean forgoing the chance to learn from disruption. The pandemic-induced thrust into online learning offers many invaluable lessons for the future of online higher education.

Wondering how to put the insights from CHLOE 6 to work at your institution? We can help. 

Archer Education partners with accredited universities to help higher-ed marketers and COOs accelerate online learning growth and enrollment. If you’d like to learn more, contact our team and explore our tech-enabled marketing, enrollment, and retention services