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A drawing of students, split into two panels, to represent in-person and online education, respectively: on the left are three young adult students in a classroom and on the right is a single young adult student working at her computer in a kitchen, a cat at her feet.

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A rising demand for online courses in a post-pandemic world has colleges and universities re-evaluating their priorities, a new report suggests.

The annual “Changing Landscape of Online Education” report, released today, polled hundreds of chief online officers at higher education institutions and focuses on the state of online and hybrid leading in higher education. The eighth annual report was conducted by Quality Matters and Eduventures Research, a division of Encoura, a data science and analytics platform. It surveyed the chief online officers on what they experienced over the 2021–2022 academic year.

“The CHLOE 8 report captures the dynamic, uncertain moment after the ‘emergency remote learning’ of the pandemic,” said Richard Garrett, CHLOE co-director, in the report. “The crisis has faded but experience and expectations have changed."

While the demand for online education spiked in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, report researchers said they believe the demand has not yet reached its peak.

Student demand has risen over the last academic year, the report argues, noting that while overall enrollment numbers have largely dipped across the nation, online enrollments continue to grow. According to the report, 81 percent of the chief online officers surveyed said their institution had a decline or stagnation in enrollment, while 56 percent said they saw growth in online and hybrid programs.

But keeping up could be imperative for higher education institutions, especially with a looming enrollment cliff threatening to constrain revenues.

“For many institutions struggling with enrollment and revenue levels, success in building online capacity may spell the difference between viability and crisis in the next decade,” Ron Legon, CHLOE senior editor and executive director emeritus of Quality Matters, said in the report.

The biggest way universities are changing their approach is the amount of course offerings they have for online. According to the report, 66 percent of those surveyed are adding new online-only programs.

But the institutions may not be prepared for a large roll out. None of the universities surveyed had implemented any institution-wide adoption of technologies. Less than a quarter of the officials surveyed said a majority of their faculty (which they defined as 70 percent) has experience in designing online courses.

The Challenges

As the purse strings continue to tighten across higher education institutions, officials are struggling to find the resources to support a shift to more online-based learning, according to the report.

The report lays out several initiatives that need to occur:

  • Incentivize and retrain the instructional workforce.
  • Build an infrastructure to support the new learning environment.
  • Ensure the new models can support and deliver on students’ expectations.

But institutions are adapting. Nearly half of the survey respondents say they are keeping up with the demand, although 10 percent of those respondents said it was a strain on resources. Only 3 percent of those surveyed said they do not see a demand, now or in the future, for online options.

“Reading between the lines, it is clear from their responses that many institutions are internally divided on strategic issues that hold the potential to fundamentally redefine them,” the report said.

Demographics and Enrollment

Online programming has long appealed to adult students, which the report defines as those 25 years old and older. Nearly 25 percent of on-campus programs—or those that are face-to-face and attended at scheduled times—had a dip among the adult graduate demographic, while fully online programs saw a 32 percent growth in the same demographic.

While graduate student enrollment grew across the board in fully online programs, hybrid programs and on-campus programs, the fully online offering saw the largest jump, with a 37 percent increase.

Enrollment for on-campus academic programs fared the best with traditional-aged students, with 16 percent of on-campus programming seeing growth. However, both online and hybrid programs outpaced that, with 25 percent and 17 percent growth, respectively.

Community Colleges Lead Online

Almost all community college online officers (89 percent) said that online asynchronous courses are widely used for their traditional-age undergraduates, compared to 63 percent of those at public four-year institutions and 36 percent at private four-year institutions.

“Given their mission, their history of adaptability, and the leadership role they have played in the spread of online learning over the past 25 years, this is hardly surprising,” the report said of community colleges.

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