Most people agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the trajectory of online learning. But by how much and in what ways are matters of debate.
Chief online officers (COOs) anticipate that most undergraduate and graduate students' academic trajectories will feature prominent online components by 2025, according to the "Changing Landscape of Online Education 2022"(CHLOE, for short) survey released today. The survey, conducted by Quality Matters, a nonprofit group focused on ensuring quality online education, and Eduventures, a research and advisory group, defined chief online officers as the primary officials responsible for coordinating online learning at the college or university.
These officials predict a much more central role for technology-enabled learning in the near term than did the college presidents responding to Inside Higher Ed's Survey of College and University Presidents last spring, many of whom envision a continuing rebound for in-person learning in the years ahead.
"They probably wouldn't be online officers if they didn't have a reasonable degree of optimism about where it's going," said Jeff Seaman, director at Bay View Analytics, a survey design and statistical research organization, that was not involved in the CHLOE survey but conducts its own studies of technology in education. "However, I have to say that the overall trends we see [in the CHLOE survey] match up to our more general surveys."
It's not that chief online officers expect that fully online education will dominate; they see a blended future, in which both exclusively face-to-face and exclusively online students will be outliers by 2025. Instead, most students will take courses based in classrooms that have significant digital components, or classes delivered mostly online that have residential components.
"The public may see [higher ed learning options] in terms of a binary but that's not how it's playing out at institutions," said Bethany Simunich, one of the survey's co-authors. Instead, COOs envision most students will combine face-to-face and online courses and programs in a range of formats.
"COOs are close to the reality of online learning -- closer than most -- and therefore are more aware of the strengths and weakness of fully online study," Richard Garrett, a study co-author, said. The COO respondents also anticipate that student demand for online learning will increase in upcoming years, though at a reduced pace from that observed during the first two years of the pandemic.
This contrasts with what college presidents predicted in an Inside Higher Ed survey conducted earlier this year. Presidents reported that in-person learning would rebound from 64 percent of all classes at their institutions in the spring of 2022 to an anticipated 68 percent next spring.
In that survey, the majority (84 percent) believed that parents and students were unwilling to pay as much for online learning as for in-person learning, which may account for their less optimistic view of online learning's trajectory. Similarly, college presidents' preferences for in-person learning and biases about online learning may also have played a role. For example, all presidents rated their in-person courses as "good" or "excellent," while approximately one in five (22 percent) considered their online courses "fair" or "poor."
An Emerging Definition of 'Hybrid'
Few traditional-aged undergraduates (4 percent) are expected to study exclusively face-to-face, according to the chief online officers. Even fewer (2 percent) will study exclusively online. Among graduate students, they expect almost none (1 percent) to study exclusively in-person and a small minority (9 percent) to study exclusively online. Fully online and fully in-person options exist on opposite ends of the course-delivery continuum. In between these two extremes are a range of hybrid options.
"Hybrid is just a term of convenience that … doesn't really define what it is, other than that it's a combination of two things we somewhat better understand," Garrett said.
The survey defines hybrid courses -- also known as "blended" -- as those in which "a significant portion of the course takes place online, with the remainder being face-to-face." In this muddled middle, students may elect web-enhanced face-to-face, online asynchronous, online synchronous, or multimodal courses (such as those taught face-to-face and online). In the multimodal category, for example, hyflex courses offer the option of attending in person or online for each class session. Even so, the definition of "significant" may vary depending on state guidelines, institutional policy or instructor preference.
"You have religious-based arguments on 'this is the better definition,'" Seaman said. "We're talking about academics. This is what they do."
The debate, however, is not only semantic. Garret noted that institutions are now asking deep questions about the value of different modalities.
"Why are these delivery modes not just popular or convenient or in fashion but the right delivery modes for what we are trying to achieve in a particular field, for these students and for these career objectives?" Garrett asked. "That is the opportunity going forward."
The COOs in the CHLOE survey expressed a nuanced view of their institutions' abilities to realign strategies and priorities as they navigate a potential pivot to more blended formats. On the one hand, they expressed optimism about a modest increase (17 percent) in online support staff, including instructional designers, educational technologists, advisers and coaches. Also, more institutions are centralizing online services and integrating them with on-campus services, which aligns with the future they envision.
But COOs expressed concern that institutions are not providing students with adequate orientation and training to succeed in online learning. Though most colleges (84 percent) provided students with stand-alone orientation, few required it. (Less than 25 percent of public two-year, public four-year and private four-year schools required orientation, and public four-year institutions ranked lowest in this category.)
Institutions that the survey defined as "low-online" (those with fewer than 1,000 online students) made strides providing more faculty support for making online courses accessible, though a small percentage (10 percent) still do not provide support. This contrasts with mid-sized online schools (those with 1,000 to 7,500 online students) where few (3 percent) do not receive support and high-online schools (those with more than 7,500 online students) where all faculty receive support.
Faculty training for recognizing and responding to student mental health issues had both bright and dark spots in the survey. Approximately one-third (32 percent) of institutions expanded faculty training in this area. But approximately one-quarter (27 percent) still do not provide such training.
That adds nuance to an earlier survey of students. Though approximately one-third (35 percent) of students reported at the end of 2021 that their mental health was better than it had been earlier in the year, a majority (60 percent) were still struggling, according to the Student Voice survey, from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and supported by Kaplan.
"The scale, the commonality, the suddenness of it all," Garrett said of online learning's collision with the pandemic in the past two years. "We can't tolerate a situation where online students … have a very different mental health infrastructure … if they can't come to campus." Garrett suggested that student mental health needs that were left unaddressed before COVID-19 have now suddenly become mission critical. "We're seeing that lag."
The CHLOE survey also shined a light on quality standards for online courses and programs. On the bright side, nearly all survey respondents (96 percent) noted that their institutions have quality standards for online courses. But only half require all asynchronous online courses to meet those standards, and well over half (66 percent) lack processes to ensure compliance. "Voluntary review and adherence to the standards is the rule," the authors wrote in the survey's executive summary. That may reflect higher ed's decentralized collaborative culture.
"We know from research, and we also know anecdotally, that that top-down, administrative-stick approach doesn't work," Simunich said. "Quality is not about checking boxes. … You have more of a system of face-to-face, collegial, quality peer reviews."
Seaman agrees that quality assurance is a problem but not one that is unique to online or hybrid courses.
"I worry about [the lack of quality assurance in online courses] at least as much for the in-person courses," Seaman said. "Faculty members in all modalities are rarely hired for their abilities to teach, but those who teach online are much more likely to avail themselves of professional development support."
Though the mentioned surveys of COOs, presidents and students were all conducted in the past year, they were conducted at different points in the past year. That means that the results may have been affected by the rise and fall of different COVID-19 variants or other developments.
"It's been hard for us to put our finger on the pulse because the pulse has been changing," Simunich said.