Skip to content

Will Online Education Grow in the Wake of the Great Resignation?

“The Great Resignation, among other economic and pandemic-related issues, highlighted the disconnect between the workforce development and education systems. Where some might find training or education gaps, entrepreneurial higher ed leaders see opportunities to serve new learners.”

Julie Uranis, PhD, Vice President for Online and Strategic Initiatives at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA)

In August of 2021, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It comes on the back of 3.6 million quits in May, 3.9 million quits in June, and 4 million quits in July, continuing a trend that’s become known as the “Great Resignation.”

Part of what makes these resignations so “great,” or at the very least remarkable, is that they have come during a time of high unemployment, which would usually signal a drop in resignation rates. Before the pandemic, the 21st century had never seen quit rates go above 2.4 percent of the total workforce; they’ve now done it six months in a row and are at an all-time high.

Reasons for the record number of resignations are as differentiated as the individuals leaving their jobs. Harsh working conditions during the pandemic, particularly in customer-facing industries, have increased worker burnout. Working from home, or being furloughed, has given people a taste of life without their old job (or at least without its old surroundings). Stimulus payments, rent moratoriums, and student loan deferrals have provided the average person more financial breathing room to seek out and wait for better opportunities. And the very real threat of Covid-19 has put people back in touch with their own sense of mortality.

But just as important as the reasons for the Great Resignation are the questions of when that resigned workforce will return—and in what capacity. Some of the answers could lie in another pandemic-accelerated trend: the rise of online education, which is helping to transform what it means to be a learner and a worker in the 21st century.

Meet the Expert: Julie Uranis, PhD

Julie UranisJulie Uranis, PhD, serves as the Vice President for Online and Strategic Initiatives at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). In this capacity, she is the Managing Director of the National Council for Online Education (NCOE) and leads the planning efforts for both the Summit for Online Leadership and the Council of Chief Online Learning Officers.

Prior to joining UPCEA, Dr. Uranis led the distance learning and continuing and professional development teams at Western Kentucky University as the Director of Distance Learning and Innovation. She began her career at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), where she held both teaching and administrative positions.

Dr. Uranis has a PhD in educational leadership, a master of science in technology studies, and a graduate certificate in Community College Leadership from EMU. She completed a bachelor of arts degree in history from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

The Great Resignation and Online Education

“The Great Resignation, among other economic and pandemic-related issues, highlighted the disconnect between the workforce development and education systems,” Dr. Uranis says. “Where some might find training or education gaps, entrepreneurial higher ed leaders see opportunities to serve new learners. Online programs extend the reach of an institution and provide new opportunities for those that have new career goals.”

New career goals could be a significant factor in the recent spate of resignations. The greatest increase in resignations has come from mid-career employees, who may be looking to pivot or upskill within their industry. And the highest quit rates overall have come from the leisure and hospitality industries, which have been hit hard by the pandemic, and where room for advancement is limited.

Covid-19 has also accelerated workforce automation, pressing the issue further. Online education could be an enticing option for the millions of Americans who have recently left their jobs.

“Online education is not a panacea, but it affords both instructors and learners a great deal of flexibility,” Dr. Uranis says. “Inherent to this conversation are the topics of quality and rigor. Online programs can serve a wide swath of learners regardless of where they are in their careers and what they hope to achieve, assuming those online experiences reflect the skills and competencies necessary in today’s workforce.”

Online education is not new. But many people got their first experience with it during the pandemic when quarantines and shut-downs moved in-person classes online. Dr. Uranis points out that even the most reticent learners and faculty members were required to adapt to online modes of delivery—a trend that’s been mirrored in the proliferation of remote work setups.

“One unexpected consequence of the pandemic is the fact that many workers now desire and expect greater flexibility in their work environments,” Dr. Uranis says. “Remote workers present some interesting opportunities if you consider these same individuals are likely to engage in additional educational opportunities. Postsecondary leaders would be wise to invest in technologies that enable flexibility. Just as technology provides greater access to remote work, the use of technology will be expected in learning environments.”

The Evolution of Online Education

Online education has evolved significantly over the last three decades. It’s become more personalized and focused on individual learner needs, and incorporated a wide range of innovative technologies. The disruption caused by the pandemic accelerated online education’s evolution in several ways, but it also presented new challenges.

“Postsecondary leaders are working to differentiate purposefully-designed online learning (pre-March 2020) from the ad hoc and emergency technology-enabled instruction that many learners experienced during the pandemic,” Dr. Uranis says. “A course that had content delivered via online technologies isn’t necessarily an ‘online course’ as it has been traditionally defined. The challenge is to move those ad hoc online experiences closer to the best practices for the delivery of online instruction that have been established in the last three decades of online learning.”

Just like companies around the world are rethinking what constitutes an office, educational institutions are reconfiguring the modern classroom. And the future of work and the future of education may look somewhat similar, encouraging a state of constant, agile learning that takes into consideration each individual’s needs. But that will require both technological innovation as well as organizational adjustment.

“Both institutions and companies are considering how information and education can be delivered,” Dr. Uranis says. “Instructional designers, training specialists with knowledge of online content delivery, and multimedia specialists are highly sought-after. Someone interested in a career change might want to look into opportunities in these areas.”

The Great Resignation is an opportunity for employers and educators to realign their values to match those of their employees and students.

It’s also a chance to latch on to the wider trend of decentralization: an expansion of remote work, a migration out of metropolitan areas, and a rise in online learning all remove emphasis from a single centralized location and put power instead in the hands of the end-user. Increasingly, that’s what the modern worker (and learner) expects.

“I think we’ll find that more institutions will embrace some form of online learning or supplemental instructional content delivered through online learning technologies,” Dr. Uranis says. “That’s not to say that every course will be an online course, but rather faculty will adopt some technologies because they serve a good purpose in their teaching. Likewise, learners will come to expect some amount of online access in their courses.”

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.