Predictions From Over 1500 Students and 350 Administrators for the Future of Online and Hybrid College Courses

Recently, released the results of a large survey of college students and administrators detailing both students’ and institutions’ experiences with online learning during the Fall 2020 semester, as well as their predictions for the future of online education. In addition, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Adobe hosted a webinar, “Engaging a New Generation of Learners,” in which instructors and administrators discussed the kinds of changes the past year would bring to their institution’s online learning programs and technological infrastructure. 

Gladfelter Hall, on the campus of Gettysburg College, PA.

Together, the survey and webinar painted a picture of a changing higher education landscape in which students have a greater interest in the flexibility of online and hybrid learning, and institutions will need to listen to their students’ needs to build programs and courses for the next generation of learners. 

In this blog post, we’ll share with you the three biggest and most relevant anatomy education takeaways we got from the survey and webinar panels. 

Before we get to those takeaways, though, let’s take a look at who the BestColleges survey participants were. The survey included responses from 1800 students and 366 school administrators in total. 

About the students:

  • 25% of the students, referred to in the survey writeup as online students, were enrolled in online degree programs
  • 28% of students switched to online learning as a result of COVID-19; these students are referred to as remote students in the writeup 
  • The remaining student respondents were either graduates of online programs (28%) or students considering enrolling in an online program (19%)

About the administrators:

  • 166 identified their primary role
    • 42% were institutional-level administrators
    • 19% were program directors or deans
    • 15% were admissions or enrollment managers. 

What did all these students and administrators think the future will look like?


1. 92% of students would recommend online learning to others.

Students have a favorable view of online learning! Online learning comes with a unique set of challenges for both students and instructors—we’ve talked about student perspectives and the challenges of online education on the VB Blog before. In the BestColleges survey, students’ concerns included: 

  • Perception of online education/courses by employers
  • Quality of instruction and academic support
  • Being part of a learning community and/or interaction with professors and classmates
  • Using technology and software to access and participate in classes
  • Accessing support services provided by their college or university
  • Adapting to an online or remote learning environment
  • Balancing education with work, family, and household obligations

Despite these concerns, students’ responses indicated that they view the remote/online learning format in a positive light. 

Of all the students in the survey, 92% would recommend online or remote education. If we look at only the students who had to switch to remote learning due to the pandemic, the response suggests more students will look for these courses in the future: 83% of them said they would recommend online or remote education. They value the flexibility of online learning and expect a positive return on their investment in online degree programs. 

In fact, flexibility seems to be the big draw for online education—convenience and flexibility factored into many students’ decision to enroll in online courses and degree programs. For example, the survey showed that:

  • 23% of student participants said that “a need to schedule studying around existing commitments, such as work or family obligations” figured into their decision. 
  • 25% of all the students surveyed said that “balancing education with work, family, and household obligations” was their biggest online learning challenge. (That isn’t surprising, considering that 65% of the online student respondents were employed and 65% of them were parents.)

COVID-19 was the biggest motivator for online enrollment for both online (30%) and remote (60%) students, but the flexibility factor these students experienced is something they want more of in the future. From these results, it’s clear that achieving a good balance between education and other important obligations is top of mind for many students when it comes to online learning. 


2. Almost half of remote students would consider enrolling in an online course or program once campuses resume normal operations.

Students have an optimistic outlook about the future of online/remote learning. The experience of remote learners (students who switched to online education because of the pandemic) made this year’s BestColleges survey unique. At the time of the survey, around half of the students expected to enroll in online classes/programs (50%) or remote learning courses (56%) for the Spring semester. This makes sense, considering that life in most places has not yet returned to normal.

The number of remote students who expressed interest in online or remote programs after campuses return to their regular operations is quite impressive. In the BestColleges survey, 49% of remote students said they would be likely to enroll in online classes or programs, and 48% said they would be likely to enroll in remote learning courses. Most students would still prefer in-person courses, as demonstrated by the fact that 57% of remote students said they would be likely to enroll in in-person classes in physical classrooms once campuses resume normal operations.

The experiences and observations of the Chronicle/Adobe webinar panelists confirm this shift in student expectations. Marcia Ballinger, President of Lorain County Community Colleges, reported that before the pandemic, around half the students at her institution were taking an online course. Now, that number has risen to 88%. She says that students are eager to return to their in-person classes, but they also want expanded access to online learning now that they have experienced some of the benefits it provides. Instructors and administrators at Lorain County Community College are therefore thinking of and trying out different ways they can reimagine courses to offer students a broader portfolio of options for online vs. traditional classroom learning. 


3. Administrators and faculty will be more involved in support services as online and hybrid course offerings grow.

Panelists felt the “pressure is on colleges” to improve the student experience in the future. Ultimately, it looks like online and hybrid courses will be playing a larger role in the future of higher education in general. This is certainly consistent with the predictions we discussed last year in this VB Blog post. But what does a more hybrid campus look like? The webinar panelists have a few ideas.

Further the “flipped classroom” by using its features for hybrid learning
One thing that’s already popular at many colleges is the "flipped classroom." This format has a lot of features that work well for future hybrid courses: content students need to learn is presented in readings or recorded lectures that are available online, and in-person class time (or synchronous online sessions) is dedicated to discussion. Instructors can make the most of what students want out of their on-campus learning: hands-on research, mentorship, a learning community, and the building of specific skills. LMS software like Canvas, Blackboard, and our very own Visible Body Courseware is great for this type of hybrid learning model. 

Leverage the benefits of co-listing a course
Other interesting plans for using online learning tools include consortium-style courses involving collaboration by students and faculty from multiple institutions and using video sessions to invite guest speakers for special lectures or alumni for career panels. 

Increase investment in technology
A bigger investment in technology to help both students and faculty create online learning environments will be crucial going forward. Some schools, like California State University at Fullerton, have been building up technology lending and support programs for the past few years. Because of this prior investment, Fullerton found itself fairly well prepared for the technological and logistical challenges of moving large numbers of students to remote learning. Device lending programs for both students and faculty proved advantageous to Fullerton in this regard. From laptops and wi-fi devices to iPads, webcams, and headsets, students and faculty were able to get the hardware they needed to teach and learn. According to Amir Dabirian, the President for Information Technology and CIO at Fullerton, 90% of students and instructors already had the resources they needed for remote learning before the pandemic began. A 24/7 tech help desk for students and another for faculty also proved immensely helpful in getting everyone connected. The challenge with offering support like this, as many professors in the webinar Q&A pointed out, is funding. 

Increase faculty training
This will likely be on the agenda for many institutions. During the pandemic, thousands of instructors received training in shifting to remote teaching, but there is a whole world of online pedagogy they can continue to explore in future workshops. Marc Austin, Director of Professional Education at George Mason University, highlighted the importance of viewing these kinds of workshops as professional development opportunities for faculty members. Some, like Marcia Ballinger, even suggested offering mini-credentialing or certificate courses for faculty. 

All in all, it looks like online and hybrid learning are here to stay. There will certainly be challenges for both students and instructors along the way, but hopefully higher education will change for the better, becoming more flexible and responsive to the needs of its students while continuing to provide quality learning and community experiences that help them achieve their personal and career goals. 

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