A Look at the Future of Online and Traditional Higher Education

In the world of college instruction, online education is on everyone’s minds these days—and rightfully so. Professors and students have had to make a sudden and unexpected switch to new methods of teaching and learning, and the broader higher education community is wondering what this will mean for the future of both online and in-person education.

Here at VB, we pay close attention to those kinds of conversations, and we’ve scoured the ‘net to bring you four predictions about what online education and its traditional on-campus counterpart might look like in the future.


Prediction 1: An increasing number of younger students will enroll in online courses

Even before COVID-19 kicked online education into high gear for just about everyone, online programs were undergoing change—specifically, a change in student demographics. 

The lower tuition and flexible hours associated with online programs have traditionally made them more attractive to working professionals changing careers or getting additional certifications. Here are some reports that show enrollment in these programs has been increasing among students in the “typical” undergraduate age range of 18-23—in other words, GenZ-ers:

In total, almost 20,000 of the 104,000 students enrolled in SNHU’s online programs are between 18 and 23 years old.


So why might students be taking this “nontraditional” approach to higher education? Some want to avoid debt by saving money on housing and transportation costs. Just as with their older counterparts, the flexible hours appeal to students who need to work around job and family obligations.

Some younger online students might even be taking advantage of benefits from their jobs. Employers, especially in retail and food service, are partnering with online university programs to offer tuition as a benefit to (some) employees. For example, some employees at Starbucks are eligible for free courses through ASU Online. Similarly, several nonprofits, such as College Together in Philadelphia, are connecting employees and online college programs.


Prediction 2: Online education and recent events could level, or even reverse, the fast-increasing cost of a traditional four-year college education

Tuition is at an all-time high. Back in 2013, when some of the big names in education and tech weighed in on MOOCs (massive open online courses) in the Harvard Business Review, it was reported that education costs were up 400% from where they had been in 1980.

And even seven years ago, colleges were feeling the pressure. “How can MIT charge $50,000 for tuition going forward? Can we justify that in the future?” asked MIT president Rafael Reif in a Davos talk that year. “[...] I don’t think we can charge that much for tuition in the future and it’s a big pressure point for us.”

So, with online education now at the forefront of educators’ and institutions’ minds, might this all come to a head? Will the “tuition bubble” (finally) burst?

"I don't think we can charge that much for tuition in the future and it's a big pressure point for us." - Rafael Reif

In their 2020 article, also in the Harvard Business review, Professors Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava suggest that the coronavirus crisis just might be what finally brings about the long-awaited technological disruption of higher education. They asked this question: “After the crisis subsides, is it best for all students to return to the classroom, and continue the status quo? Or will we have found a better alternative?” 

Once everyone will have had to learn or teach online for a while, will online education gain some much-needed credibility in the world of higher education and among employers? Will more students choose online programs, with their lower cost and more flexible hours, instead of traditional four-year colleges? Will four-year colleges adapt their model to better suit the needs of their students?

According to a recent article in the New York Times, there will likely be significant changes in enrollment patterns: “administrators anticipate that students grappling with the financial and psychological impacts of the virus could choose to stay closer to home, go to less expensive schools, take a year off or not go to college at all.” In addition, students at schools such as Iowa State University and the University of Chicago are petitioning for cuts to tuition for the duration of the pandemic. While it doesn’t look like these movements have been successful (yet) at lowering tuition, the University of Chicago won’t be increasing its housing and tuition fees, so that’s a start.


Prediction 3: Admissions at more colleges and universities will be test-optional

Another particularly interesting potential change to the standard model of four-year college education is that the coronavirus crisis could push more schools to adopt test-optional admission policies. Most colleges and universities in the US require students to submit an SAT or ACT score when they apply, but current social distancing procedures have impeded the scheduling of such standardized tests.

As of the beginning of April, more than 30 institutions announced that the admissions process for fall 2021 would not require SAT/ACT scores. Jeremy Bauer-Wolf, in this Education Dive article, predicts that this year “could serve as a de facto pilot year for the system to try out a test-optional policy,” which could lead to more schools adopting test-optional policies in the long run. Though this switch to test-optional admissions isn’t directly caused by the switch to online education, it’s certainly a change we might see in higher education as a result of current events.


Prediction 4: We'll see more hybrid-style courses and the IT infrastructure to go with them

This brings us to how colleges and universities may change in response to their recent experiences. Now that instructors and students have had to make the switch to online education, we might see more online features in traditional higher education once it’s safe for everyone to return to campus. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

So, what could change? The higher education community has a few ideas.

Govindarajan and Srivastava foresee an increase in “hybrid” courses and programs at universities—that is, some education would be in an online format, and some would happen on campus as traditional face-to-face instruction. It could even be the case that students could take gen-ed requirement courses online before they even come to campus, so they could maximize their time interacting with faculty and conducting research.

Joshua Kim, in his recent blog post on Inside Higher Ed, agrees that “blended learning” will become the norm. He predicts that “the biggest future benefits of virtual instruction will come after our professors and students return to their physical classrooms.” Being able to shift some content online and make full use of LMSs and communication tools like Zoom will allow “precious classroom time [to be] more productively utilized for discussion, debate and guided practice.”

Visible Body Courseware provides a great example of the sorts of tools instructors can use in a hybrid classroom.

Similarly, this Education Dive column suggests that universities may adapt their definition of the “credit hour” to match these more flexible courses. As the name suggests, credit hours take time into consideration—how much time students spend in the classroom or lab, and how much time students are expected to spend working on course materials outside of class.

For online or hybrid courses, the definition of in class and outside of class is a bit less clear. This means that schools might shift to a less time-based measure of credit, such as a greater focus on learning objectives and assessing students to make sure they are meeting those goals.

Online-only institutions like Western Governors University are already using a competency-based education (CBE) model, in which students must demonstrate their achievement of “highly specific outcomes related to their fields of study.” Perhaps brick and mortar universities will take a leaf out of their online counterparts’ book.

Being able to shift some content online and make full use of LMSs and communication tools like Zoom will allow “precious classroom time [to be] more productively utilized for discussion, debate and guided practice.” - Joshua Kim

Another change universities may see in the near future is a reshaping of their IT infrastructure. It could very well be the case that once the financial shock of the immediate crisis has passed, universities will invest more in their resources for online teaching and learning. This could mean anything from hiring instructional designers and trainers to ensuring that students and faculty have access to the kinds of hardware and software they need to teach and learn remotely. Kim notes that management of existing and future online learning initiatives will “be centralized, subject to institutional planning and cross-campus governance.”


The big picture

A spike in online program enrollment may very well be in our future. However, many students still want the “normal” campus experience. Their sudden foray into online learning wasn’t what they intended when they registered for courses this semester. For example, a student interviewed for this article in the Hechinger Report described the improvised online learning she and her peers are currently experiencing as “essentially teaching ourselves.” 

Of course, trying to switch any regular, in-person college course to be fully online halfway through the semester is a challenge for professors, and is not necessarily reflective of the full potential of courses that were intended to be taught online from the start. It’s likely that newly-online courses in the fall and spring semesters will benefit from educators being able to plan ahead.

All in all, online education has been integral in keeping courses going for students in the midst of this crisis. The lessons learned from this abrupt switch are already informing summer courses, but whether they offer classes online, in-person, or some combination of the two, colleges and universities are in for some big changes!

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