Online Learning Poised to Eclipse Traditional College Classrooms
Demand for online education continues to surge, and according to a new study, online learning may even be poised to eclipse traditional college and university classrooms.
The Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report released in August 2023 shows how student demand for online learning drives colleges to adapt. In its eighth annual edition since 2015, this survey polled more than 300 chief online officers (COOs) at both four- and two-year institutions across the United States who manage virtual instruction at their schools.
Focusing on the 2021-2022 academic year, the fieldwork was conducted in January and February of 2023 as a collaboration between two firms, Eduventures and Quality Matters. QM is a quality assurance consulting firm, and Eduventures is an educational marketing research firm owned by the Encoura division of ACT, the American College Testing program.
Overall, most of these administrators report strong growth in student demand for online and hybrid instruction alongside lessened demand for on-campus, face-to-face courses. Because of this accelerating student demand, about 66 percent of colleges are adding new online-only courses to help maintain their overall enrollment.
These results appear during a period when a number of colleges had started to resume on-campus classes after three years of pandemic disruption. But what’s especially interesting is that this study found that even traditional-age undergraduates—the group typically least receptive to online education in the past—wanted their online and hybrid course options to continue.
The survey found that 81 percent of the respondents reported that the enrollment rates of traditional undergraduates younger than age 25 in on-campus programs were plateauing, declining, or sharply declining.
Furthermore, about 57 percent of the administrators report stagnant enrollment of this group in on-campus programs, and 24 percent report declining or sharply declining enrollments in face-to-face instruction. And the COOs observe even greater declines in adult undergraduate and graduate student enrollment within face-to-face classes.
But at the same time, virtual and hybrid enrollment continues to expand, with 56 percent of the administrators reporting enrollment growth in online or hybrid courses. Of that group, 36 percent report growth for these programs, and 20 percent report strong growth.
Impact of Demographics
Among traditional-age undergraduates, the COOs reported just over a third of their fully online programs experienced growth of at least 4 percent in enrollment. By contrast, only about a fifth of the face-to-face courses grew that much or more. Nevertheless, on-campus curricula performed best with these younger students, with 16 percent of these programs experiencing growth. But displaying 25 percent growth, the online programs outpaced the on-campus curricula, and so did the hybrid programs with 17 percent growth.
Among the adult undergraduates, the trends appear comparable. About a quarter of the on-campus programs faced a decrease in this demographic, but the fully online programs witnessed 32 percent growth. Moreover, just over half of the fully online programs experienced enrollment growth at or above the 4 percent level, compared with only 19 percent of their face-to-face classes.
Graduate students’ enrollment grew among all cohorts, whether face-to-face, hybrid, or completely online. But this latter, fully online category saw enrollments skyrocket, climbing by almost two-fifths.
Furthermore, 90 percent of the administrators reported similar or increased levels of interest in online programs across the board, among all cohorts in the study. Most notably, these groups include the traditional-aged college students and their adult undergraduate and graduate student counterparts.
About two-thirds of the institutions currently invest in marketing research that will reveal which online degree programs would be the most popular among prospective and current students. And two in five of them are transforming their face-to-face courses and programs that are most in demand into online versions.
The survey’s authors conclude that this surging demand for online and hybrid learning has “likely not yet reached its peak.”
Reprioritization Strategies Divide Administrations
The colleges appear to be responding through a reprioritization process. Although many are grappling with resource constraints, about half of the administrators confirm an increased emphasis on online education within their current strategic plans and budgets.
Two in five administrators reported that they’re already prioritizing students’ demand for online education, while just over a third—36 percent—said that in view of this demand spike, their schools were re-examining their strategic priorities. Only about 3 percent of the COOs claimed they don’t see any current or future demand for online learning 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,” says the report.
Unfortunately, 10 percent of the administrators appear to be struggling, saying that it’s “difficult to keep up” with the shift toward online learning. But at some institutions, the administrators may have no choice but to do whatever they can to keep up. Doing so could be essential at some institutions—especially certain community colleges—that are threatened by the looming college “enrollment cliff” brought about when young families stopped having children from 2008 to 2013 during the Great Recession and its anemic recovery.
As Quality Matters Executive Director Emeritus and CHLOE’s Senior Editor Ron Legon framed this challenge, “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.”
Community Colleges as Online Leaders
Speaking of community colleges, almost nine in ten COOs at two-year institutions told the pollsters that online asynchronous courses are widely used for undergraduates under 25 years old. That contrasts with three-fifths of the COOs at public four-year colleges and two-fifths at four-year private schools who reported similarly broad use of asynchronous courses.
Commenting on community colleges, the report said, “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.”
However, there seems to be an economic stratification developing among the use of live synchronous classes at different institutions. The administrators told the pollsters that private four-year colleges use this modality the most, followed by public four-year schools. Community colleges rarely use live instruction, the officials said.
It’s easy to see how certain institutions could exploit their high percentage of live synchronous instruction as a competitive advantage when attracting students.
Faculty Preparation—and Resistance
But are professors prepared for online teaching? No college participating in the survey had yet implemented any campus-wide initiative for adopting online instructional technologies. And less than 25 percent of the administrators said that 70 percent or more of their faculty had any online course design experience.
The COOs at two-year community colleges report the highest proportions of faculty with course design and online instruction experience. Although three-quarters of community colleges require training for teaching online, only half of the private four-year colleges and two-fifths of the four-year state colleges do.
It appears that the COOs are bucking resistance from faculty who don’t want to teach online, an observation consistent with other recent research that we’ve reported on here on OnlineEducation.com, such as the controversial Tyton Partners’ Time For Class 2023 survey. After all, if all the professors wanted to teach online, several types of incentives discussed by the CHLOE report would never be necessary.
For example, more than half of the administrators reported offering remote work as an incentive in the most common means of encouraging faculty to teach online. To encourage professors to go through the additional work involved with developing online courses, financial incentives in increased salary and cash honoraria were authorized and distributed by almost 70 percent of the COOs.
To sum up, this report recommends three main initiatives. They include:
- Retrain the faculty, without hesitating to provide financial, work-at-home, and other incentives to support their training and additional work to build and teach online courses
- Support the online learning environment by constructing a new infrastructure
- Conduct quality assurance studies to make certain that students’ expectations are satisfied