Discover 15 Current Online Learning Trends

·12 min read

A look at online learning today.

In a world shaped by the coronavirus pandemic, online education shined bright in 2020 and 2021. As campuses closed, colleges shifted their courses to remote or hybrid delivery. While hastily planned remote delivery differs from fully planned online programs, education experts say the sudden shift will further accelerate the growth of online learning and tap its true potential. Following the trial by fire over the last two years, experts say colleges are now poised to offer more choices in distance learning and develop new degree programs. "If you're not, as a university, looking at online options or improved technology systems for your students, I think you could potentially fall behind the curve," says Adrian Alba, director of recruitment for Arizona Online at the University of Arizona. Here's a look at the future of distance learning -- pertaining to both COVID-19 and the online learning trends that were already playing out before the pandemic -- as predicted by those who work on the front lines of online education.

Colleges will add new online programs.

After a test run for many schools last year, colleges will be emboldened to offer more degree programs virtually, experts say. Schools may also see a chance to boost enrollment in programs with declining numbers. Shifting programs to online allows colleges to cast a broader net and not rely on local or regional students to boost their headcount, says Ray Schroeder, professor emeritus and senior fellow at the University of Illinois--Springfield. Phil Regier, university dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus at Arizona State University, adds: "Students should expect to see more STEM offerings in physical sciences and data science, focus areas in social justice, and study areas that focus on the ethics and rules surrounding media and data consumption."

More colleges will turn to open educational resources.

Open educational resources, commonly referred to as OER, are free education tools that are in the public domain or licensed for no-cost use. These can include textbooks, online learning materials and streaming videos. Experts expect the growth of OER to accompany the momentum in online education. "I think that open educational resources are going to continue to become more accepted," says Jenna Sheffield, associate vice president for academic affairs and dean of undergraduate studies at Salem College in North Carolina. "The reason that I think that's a bright spot for students is, at a basic level, it costs less money for them. But there's actually research showing that engaging students with OER, especially if students are actually helping produce (those resources), can improve their performance."

Virtual reality will enhance the ability to offer hands-on programs online.

Some classes -- and entire programs -- are more difficult to offer online than others. For example, the demands of an English course can be more easily fulfilled online than a biology lab. But Schroeder and other experts say virtual reality will break down such barriers and make hands-on courses more accessible online. Others point to interactive videos, online skill demonstrations and similar practices. "Many nursing and science programs were already leveraging interactive video tools and peer reviewed lessons...to expand their reach and engage students outside the classroom," Ryan Lufkin, vice president of product marketing at Instructure, the maker of Canvas, wrote in an email. "The COVID-19 crisis has led us to change our thinking on those skills that require in-classroom demonstration and those that can be demonstrated and practiced in a more self-service or self-paced format."

Online learning will be increasingly data-driven.

Because online education has grown in popularity in recent years, course providers and universities are able to collect an increasing amount of data to measure and predict how online students perform, experts say. Tracking how students are -- or aren't -- engaging with course materials can help pinpoint why some students struggle or how to improve learning outcomes. "Educators and advisors increasingly have access to near real time data about how well their students are engaging," Lufkin says. "What videos are they watching, are they participating in discussions, are their responses showing they're mastering the concepts? Technology enhanced learning provides a level of insights never before seen, and the ability to support students in ways we've only started to explore."

Blended learning is here to stay.

Even as most campuses have reopened and students have streamed back, classes are often taught both in person and online through a blended learning model, which experts say is likely to become more common. "COVID-19 has been a paradigm shifting moment for higher education, throwing online education into the spotlight like never before--but the need for accessible, affordable, blended, relevant, and high-quality online learning will extend far beyond the pandemic," Chip Paucek, co-founder and CEO of the online higher education company 2U, wrote in an email. To stay sustainable and resilient, universities must embrace a digital future, he says, "because however this pandemic resolves, higher education is never going back to the world in which it existed in before."

Better course design and technological advances will diminish the digital divide.

The digital divide became a glaring issue during the pandemic. Students without computers or access to high-speed internet were at a disadvantage as they attempted to complete courses online. Some colleges with the resources to do so deployed Wi-Fi hot spots and set up broadband in public spaces on campus, but not all students were so fortunate. Some flocked to coffee shops and the parking lots of fast-food restaurants to access the internet. Experts suggest that courses designed to be equally accessible across all devices -- whether that's a laptop or cellphone -- can help improve the online experience. Actions to close the digital divide are not limited to colleges. States also play a role. In California's 2021-2022 budget, for instance, $6 billion was allocated to expand broadband infrastructure by connecting homes in remote areas to stronger internet service in nearby networks.

Virtual student spaces and programming will expand.

Students taking classes on campus can expect to run into classmates in common areas such as the library, the student union and the dining hall. But that hasn't typically been the case for online students. John Watret, chancellor of Florida-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University--Worldwide, expects colleges to offer more virtual programming to make online students feel part of the campus community. Distance learners can expect virtual student unions, group activities and more virtual programming as part of the online experience. "We're creating a nonacademic component for the students to help them be engaged and get the whole student experience," Watret says.

Certificates, badges and microcredentials will continue to grow.

Universities and companies for years have offered smaller credentials such as graduate certificates, digital badges and nanodegrees, among others, as alternatives to traditional college degrees. Often, these credentials focus on teaching industry-specific skills. Schroeder notes that such programs often appeal to adult learners who may need to add new skills as they switch jobs. Sheffield adds that such programs may also appeal to students coming straight out of high school, given the high cost of college. "The reason why those are going to gain traction is that students seem to be really thinking about, 'Why am I paying this much money to go to college?' They're thinking carefully about those decisions," she says.

Massive open online courses are on the rise.

Massive open online courses, also known as MOOCs, gained momentum in 2011 and a 2012 headline in The New York Times declared "The Year of the MOOC." Today, MOOCs continue to enjoy growing popularity. Online learners can take these typically free courses to learn a variety of skills. In recent years, colleges have partnered with MOOC platforms to offer various credentials, including bachelor's and master's degrees at rates much cheaper than the traditional route. MOOC provider edX, created by Harvard University in Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, enrolled as many learners in April 2020 as in the entire 2019 year, according to Anant Agarwal, its founder and CEO. "We consistently surveyed learners coming to edX in the early days of the pandemic to better understand what learning experiences they were looking for, and the majority were either looking to learn something new, or gain new skills to help them in their careers," he wrote in an email.

Stackable online credentials are likely to become more popular.

Schools have also launched programs in recent years that allow students to earn several microcredentials -- such as certificates -- as they progress toward their final goal, which could be a bachelor's degree. Experts expect such programs to increase in coming years for largely the same reasons that microcredentials are likely to grow. "I do think that short-term credentials in technical education areas such as healthcare or (information technology) will continue to be attractive to both students and employers," Traci Lepicki, associate director of operations and strategic initiatives at the Center on Education and Training for Employment at Ohio State University--Columbus, wrote in an email. "Stackable credentials can make job candidates more appealing and contribute to higher wages and opportunities for advancement."

Competency-based education will see slow but steady growth.

Also increasingly common in online degree programs: competency-based education, where students progress quickly through familiar material given their experience, taking assessments to demonstrate mastery. A 2020 survey of 488 colleges conducted by the nonprofit American Institutes for Research described "evidence of growth in programs and optimism about the future" of competency-based education, which is much more common for undergraduates. The top three areas of study primed for competency-based undergraduate education, according to the survey, are nursing and health professions, computer and information science, and business administration. Competency-based education may help make a college degree more affordable, as some programs are priced lower than traditional counterparts, the survey found.

Public-private partnerships will bolster boot camps.

So-called "boot camps" have been around for years, offering students crash courses in areas such as coding. While online boot camps aren't new, Paucek expects them to expand. He points to partnerships, such as those between 2U and Norfolk State University in Virginia, that make online boot camps available to current students and recent alumni to add another layer of skills on top of their education. There's also a program offered through a workforce development group in Prince George's County, Maryland, to help provide training for local residents. "We'll see an increase in the number of public-private partnerships created to broaden access to higher education," Paucek says. "These partnerships will spur new models of workforce and skills development to promote greater social and economic mobility in our communities."

More employers will drop traditional degree requirements for hiring.

Sixty percent of the U.S. workforce does not hold a bachelor's degree, according to the 2020 Accenture and Opportunity@Work report. However, these workers have skills for high-wage jobs, skills gained through alternative methods, Agarwal says. Therefore, many employers are beginning to look beyond traditional degrees. The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading companies in the U.S., launched an initiative in 2020 to reform its members' hiring practices to "emphasize the value of skills, rather than just degrees." Predicted Agarwal in an email: "We'll see that increase in 2022 and beyond as more companies relax hiring requirements, particularly in tech fields, and recognize the power and importance of skills-training credentials, like boot camps and professional certificates."

More online options will require students to do their due diligence.

"Prior to Covid, there was a misconception that online education is not as good as in-person courses," Alba says, adding that a degree earned at U of A is the same whether it's earned online or in person. "I think that we are really debunking that theory. You're getting the same courses, the same attention to detail with faculty and staff and you are getting a lot of the same opportunities as you would in an in-person course." But not all college degree programs are of equal quality, whether online or in person. With more online options emerging, students should weigh their choices carefully. "The big challenge for students has been and will continue to be quality discernment -- how do they know which online programs are high quality and which are not?" Regier says. "There are horrible programs in the space, focusing primarily on getting students in and accessing their financial aid to pay for tuition, with little thought or concern about the quality of the learning outcomes or learning experience." Students should be aware of warning signs such as a lack of program accreditation, degree paths that seem too fast and easy, and an absence of student services.

More students will make online learning their first choice.

"Post COVID-19, students will eventually go back to campus. But more students will also make online their first choice," says Paucek, noting that a recent survey of alumni from graduate programs that partner with 2U found those learners highly satisfied with the online experience. Anecdotally, Schroeder says, many older students and graduate students find online education liberating. Watret says more traditional-age students are choosing online programs, yet he worries that it may be a harder sell for current high school students in the wake of COVID-19. "They want that face-to-face instruction," he says. "There's going to be a balancing out between face-to-face delivery and online delivery and schools will have to work through that."

Get more information on online education.

U.S. News offers lots of advice for prospective online students about paying for their online education, preparing for an online program and excelling in online classes. Discover more about gearing up for college by following U.S. News Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Trends to watch in online education

-- Colleges will add new online programs.

-- More colleges will turn to open educational resources.

-- Virtual reality will enhance the ability to offer hands-on programs online.

-- Online learning will be increasingly data-driven.

-- Blended learning is here to stay.

-- Better course design and technological advances will diminish the digital divide.

-- Virtual student spaces and programming will expand.

-- Certificates, badges and microcredentials will continue to grow.

-- Massive open online courses are on the rise.

-- Stackable online credentials are likely to become more popular.

-- Competency-based education will see slow but steady growth.

-- Public-private partnerships will bolster boot camps.

-- More employers will drop traditional degree requirements for hiring.

-- More online options will require students to do their due diligence.

-- More students will make online learning their first choice.

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