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Student Preference for Online Learning Jumps 222 Percent In Only Two Years

In a classic example of the journalism error known as “burying the lead” by failing to begin an article with the story’s most important part, the university information technology administrators association that calls itself Educause appears to have obscured the phenomenal core finding of its recent research.

The group’s October 2022 survey of 820 university undergraduates across America found that student preferences for online learning had soared by a sensational 222 percent since before the pandemic.

But oddly enough, that newsworthy figure appears nowhere within the language of Educause’s report.

How Educause Buried The Lead

It took the astute editor-in-chief of the publication Campus Technology, Rhea Kelly, to focus scrutiny on this remarkable but obscure disclosure in the Educase study, entitled “2022 Students and Technology Report: Rebalancing the Student Experience.”

Kelly’s finding gives new meaning to the phrase “hidden in plain sight.” Incredibly, instead of featuring this insight on its report’s front page, Educause buried this data in the third section while accompanying the numbers with an incomplete and somewhat tangential commentary, obscuring this insight even further.

But it’s not like the association had completely hidden these statistics, or that Kelly’s analysis was brilliant. She had simply paid attention—and applied a little analytical thinking.

Although the association summarized some of the results in an infographic, in a curious break with best practices, Educause never released this report as a PDF file, but only published it on their website. From the bar graph on this web page, Kelly added up the 2022 totals for all the survey respondents who said they would prefer to take courses mostly online (9 percent) or completely online (20 percent). She then compared that 29 percent total with the sum of the same two categories from 2020, which was only 9 percent. Dividing the 20 percent difference over the “original whole” of 9 percent discloses the phenomenal 222 percent increase.

Kelly also noticed another interesting but similarly camouflaged insight in Educause’s data. She observed that the share of students who prefer their courses in person on campus—in other words, those who don’t prefer to take their classes online—plummeted.

In 2020 that segment amounted to about two-thirds (65 percent). But by 2022, that share had nosedived to only 41 percent. Although she didn’t calculate the percentage change for her readers, we did that math for ours. That actually works out to a decline of nearly two-fifths: 37 percent.

Why Did College Administrations Pivot?

So let’s summarize Kelly’s observations: in short, a 222 percent explosion occurred in the proportion of community college students who want to take their courses online. At the same time, the percentage of students who want to take their courses in person collapsed by 37 percent.

Upon learning about numbers like those, a typical community college’s administration would be hard-pressed not to perform a swift and decisive pivot by providing those students with as many online course options as possible. As we discuss in our recent report, “Overwhelming Online Course Demand Reshapes Community Colleges in California,” that is precisely what state officials in California and Oregon have already accomplished.

Why would college policymakers pivot so rapidly? Any administration that doesn’t do that risks that their students will defect to competing schools willing to provide expanded online options. In many cases, the competitive threats are from for-profit colleges that also offer short-term, sequenced online courses that lead to a certificate before an associate’s degree.

In fact, this October 2022 Brookings Institution report entitled “Encouraging Interoperability to Help Learners in the Digital Credential Marketplace” points out that such pre-degree certification—although not provided by all community colleges—offers a form of credentialing increasingly important to hiring managers. These days, such qualifications are also typically recognized by algorithms in the applicant tracking systems used by most large corporate employers who hire employees right out of college.

And as we further discuss in our report, the competitive threat from the for-profit schools is a crucial point emphasized by Dr. Lizette Navarette, recently appointed interim deputy chancellor for California Community Colleges, in a strategy memorandum she prepared for the CCC Board of Governors.

Why did Educause Bury This Lead?

Given that this monumental 222 percent increase may be one of the most newsworthy educational technology statistics of 2022, one has to wonder why Educause actually downplayed it. After all, the surge in demand for online courses among community college students has received substantial coverage recently, such as this feature article in the Los Angeles Times.

One would think that an association like Educause would want to seize upon the media coverage opportunities that a statistic like this one could deliver, especially when the group had conferences scheduled a few weeks later for which it presumably wanted to boost ticket sales.

But this might not have been a case of self-sabotage after all. One possible explanation may be that the association didn’t want to further increase the workload on its members at community colleges (e.g., chief information officers and their teams) at a time when many of those schools are struggling to increase the number of courses available online rapidly. Moving courses online typically requires a lot of time and effort from a college’s information systems group. Many such teams at community colleges these days are reported to be chronically overworked and understaffed.

What’s more, the field of information systems has attracted scrutiny recently as a high-stress, high-burnout occupation, especially for those professionals with cybersecurity responsibilities. And publicizing this study’s result all over the business press could increase workload demands from college presidents on chief information officers to move even more courses online quickly—whether or not the CIOs actually have the capacity to do so.

“Give Us Everything Online,” Say Students

But wait, there’s more: The surge in student preferences for online education wasn’t the only surprise in the association’s analysis. The survey also asked students about which instructional elements they considered most important to have available online.

Incredibly, at least two-fifths of students want everything online. Instructional elements rated important to some extent include those in the following table, with the percentage of students who voted for that element in the adjacent column:

Instructional Element Student Requests (%)
Homework assignments 74
Class & lecture notes 72
Examinations 71
Study guides 69
Presentation slides 69
Quizzes 67
Video 63
E-textbooks or required readings 63
Collaborative & shared documents 59
Class handouts 59
Recorded lectures 58
Discussions 52
Audio 50
Hands-on engagement with content 44
Peer teachers & tutors 44
Group activities 43
Office hours & meetings with my instructor 42

What the Press Emphasized Instead

In most of the press coverage of Educase’s report, no mention of this 222 percent increase appears. So what did the writers discuss instead?

They wrote about how undergraduates feel stressed because of computer technology challenges. “Half of College Students Are Stressed Out by Tech Issues,” reads the headline for the article published by EdScoop. Here’s how that story kicks off:

Students are adjusting to online learning but technology challenges persist, according to survey results published Monday by Educause.

Seventy-seven percent of students said they experienced technical issues over the 2021-22 academic year, and 51% of this group reported that such issues caused them to feel stressed.

What kinds of stress? This story published by Inside Higher Ed spells them out for us:

Most of the survey respondents (64 percent) struggled with unstable internet connections, including more than one-quarter (29 percent) who reported that they lost connectivity during a class meeting, exam or other synchronous activity.

Nearly half of respondents (46 percent) had a required device malfunction when needed, and more than one-third (39 percent) found themselves unable to run a required application or software [program] when needed.

“Compassionate teaching practices such as flexible deadlines and attendance policies will go a long way in helping students manage unreliable internet access,” said Jenay Robert, Educause researcher and author of the report.

Those of us who worked in deans’ offices as academic advisors understand all too well that college students don’t learn efficiently or retain new knowledge and skills under stressful circumstances. This is especially true right before final examinations when prolonged anxiety typically makes many students physically ill.

Furthermore, nobody disputes that slow or unstable internet connections hamper college students, just as they hamper workers across the United States. For example, a team of economists led by Stanford University’s Dr. Nicholas Bloom estimated in July 2021 that America’s economy is losing $160 billion a year—equivalent to about 0.7 percent of our annual gross domestic product—from suboptimal productivity because most of our workers don’t have high-quality, fully-reliable broadband internet service at home.

Though these statistics cited by EdScoop and Inside Higher Ed are interesting, stories about the stressful consequences of unreliable internet service are nothing new. Similar reports frequently appeared during the pandemic when millions of people spent much of their days learning and working at home for the first time.

By contrast, what is novel and newsworthy about the Educause study is that for the first time, we’re observing a massive 222 percent spike in the number of community college students who prefer online education to instruction on campus. Reports like this one have never appeared before.

The writers at EdScoop and Inside Higher Ed adequately rewrote the press release put out by Educause. But the real story behind the Educause study never appeared in that release. Those writers “scaled ladders against the wrong buildings,” so to speak. They missed the point.

Instead, by applying a little analytical thinking, Campus Technology’s Rhea Kelly correctly identified what was newsworthy about that study. And if that 222 percent jump in students’ preference for online learning kicks off a consistent long-term trend—as the experts we quote in our report expect—the implications for higher education will be profound.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.