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While online learning was already in place at most higher education institutions well before Covid-19, the pandemic experience has had a dramatic impact on the use of higher ed online learning.

It is safe to say that online learning was a godsend for universities (as well as K-12 school districts) during the pandemic. Online learning in higher education made it possible to continue most classes despite the need to socially distance and curtail or limit in-person interactions. It also provided an opportunity for students and teachers who had not previously experienced teaching and learning in the digital environment to have these experiences.

Post-pandemic Higher Ed Online Learning

Research from Cengage indicates that almost three-quarters of student respondents (73%) say they would prefer to take some of their courses online after the pandemic—68% favor some hybrid approach. About two-thirds of both students and staff say they’d like to use more academic tech and digital course materials in the future.

It is a trend that is not going away as students and teachers have discovered how online academic technologies are transforming higher ed learning.

Phil Ollenberg is a higher education leader and assistant registrar with Bow Valley College. He says: “Over the last sixteen months, trend data out of the US and globally are showing students warming to the idea of online education, with more and more expecting online and flexible delivery in their programs and making decisions on which college or university to attend based on that information.”

The transition to online learning and zoom classes was abrupt and no one could have predicted how it might go. But, by and large, higher ed institutions learned they were more adaptable than they might have believed, says John Kaloukian, director of solutions and services with Panasonic System Solutions Company of North America. “As we look towards the future and a new school year, we have learned how to implement hybrid learning successfully – technology being key,” he says.

Technology, says Kaloukian, “focused on creating a more immersive experience—like auto-tracking software that enables a camera to move with the professor or advanced microphones to deliver crisp audio with or without a mask on.” These, he says, are just a few ways that academic technology was able to make the hybrid-learning environment more productive.

During the pandemic, says Ollenberg, “courses which were previously thought ‘unteachable’ online suddenly transitioned overnight. We also saw colleges and universities invest in their online teaching infrastructure, support staff for online teaching and training for faculty teaching online.”

These moves all portend a continued place for online learning in higher education this fall and beyond.

“How many students will return to full-time in-person instruction in the fall remains a big question,” says Zahid Mustafa is founder and president of We Succeed, a virtual tutoring platform. The emergence of the Delta variant will likely have an impact on that ultimately. Fortunately, though, “online learning has been embraced more than ever before, furthering the opportunity for continued widespread accessibility to students in any and all situations,” Mustafa says.

Higher ed online learning also is likely to continue as an option for the foreseeable future.

It does not come without its downfalls and inequities, and these issues will need to be addressed as we move forward.

Overcoming Barriers of Higher Ed Online Learning

One barrier related to the online learning environment is access. COVID-19, says Mustafa, has “emphasized the disparity of outcomes that comes with online learning.” While beneficial for some, he notes that others struggle in this learning environment. That represents “a whole new array of opportunities for continued growth and adaptation for educators moving forward,” he says.

Ollenberg agrees that there are challenges to be addressed, particularly for “lower-income, marginalized, and rural learners who may not have access to the technology or internet bandwidth required to study online.” But, he says, we have also seen “many examples of schools, governments, and non-profits investing in giving free or low-cost laptops, tablets, and other technology to these groups to help them with access.” Long-term investment in internet access and academic technology will be crucial to ensure improved equality, he says.

Cost can also be a barrier, says Ashwin Damera, co-founder and CEO of Emeritus, a global provider of online education. “While significantly less than on-campus programs, the cost of online degree and credential-bearing programs can still be a barrier to enrollment,” says Damera. Research done by Emeritus, based on input from 2000 people from 21 to 65 years old across 10 countries indicates that respondents expect to increase their personal spending on education in the future. However, Damera says, “there must still be mechanisms in place to help them bridge any affordability gaps.”

Lynne Fleisher, M.Ed., director of Clarion Online at Clarion University of Pennsylvania agrees. This is true, of course, in both online and in-person learning environments. “A huge challenge is affordability and confirming that an academic degree is worth it in the end,” she says. At Clarion, she says, “We are working through our Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to integrate six of our institutions which will provide cost savings and increase workforce-ready programs for our students. We are laser targeted at reimagining how we operate as a state system in Pennsylvania. Online will be a huge part of this plan.”

Education challenges and opportunities during the pandemic are causing administrators, instructors and others to consider new ways of teaching in the future. Technology will play a significant role in the process.

What the Future Holds for Online Learning in Higher Ed

“We always employed a video conferencing presence, but due to the extraordinary circumstances, Zoom became integral in our success,” says Fleisher. “Paired with our LMS it was easy to use and gave a humanizing presence in our classes.” Ease of use was the key, she says. Online Zoom classes delivered. “The other win was actually combining our online with our on-campus population in some classes; the shared experience endeared some of our on-campus students to looking at online learning with a fresh perspective.”

A hybrid classroom model is likely to prevail in higher education moving forward. In either environment, Wendy Ince, a professor at Pasadena City College, says, “We can continue serving online and in-person learning best if we pursue excellence in both.” It’s important, she says, for educators and administrators to maintain enthusiasm for continued progress in online education. “The best practice elements that should be leveraged are the desire to improve,” Ince says. “Reworking and revitalizing courses to improve them for learner and instructor benefit can be leveraged for all formats.”

As a new academic year approaches, much remains uncertain. However, one thing is clear: higher ed online learning will be a mainstay for college campuses this year and for years to come.