The Future of Online Education: Where Is It Headed?

April 2, 2022

Since the early days of the pandemic, in-person learning has largely given way to online education. This abrupt shift in the global learning model has affected students of all ages, from kindergarteners to college students alike. And, with the future of higher education already a concern in the years leading up to the pandemic, the sudden move from classrooms to computers signaled a powerful disruption in an already fragile educational system.

While online schooling was available before the pandemic, it was not nearly as common in higher education as it is today. All around the world, educators and students who were used to in-person learning have been forced to adapt. Classes turned into Zoom meetings, on-campus activities were canceled, and social distancing prevented students from getting a traditional college experience. Even some graduations occurred remotely. 

But does that mean that online learning is here to stay? What does the future of online education have in store?

As the world adapts and learns to live with an ongoing health crisis, the higher education system can be studied. Remote learning experiences are essentially experimental. Online education is working, but looking at which aspects of online learning are most successful provides a more robust framework for the future.

Major Concerns With Moving to Online Education

Moving to online education came at a difficult time for many students. College students in the middle of their degree programs were told not to return to campus after spring break. High school graduates, eagerly anticipating starting their college years, couldn’t start classes in person. For both groups, staying home and working online was not the same as learning in the classroom.

Switching to a different learning method coincided with a global pandemic and the fears it produced. Many students found themselves anxious and depressed. Those who were also working likely lost their jobs. As a result, they  often developed unhealthy habits and struggled to adjust to online learning. 

Isolation, coupled with efforts to fundamentally and dramatically shift the way students learn and interact with their peers and educators,  raised students’ suicide risk and contributed to other mental health issues.

Like students, educators had to figure out how to navigate the online world. Some classes, such as ballet and theater, require in-person instruction and collaboration. Science-based classes with lab work are also more difficult remotely. Instead of teaching from a classroom where they could interact with their students face-to-face, educators were faced with the challenge of having to teach from their homes. 

Not only did educators and students have to adjust to the new location, but  learning and teaching online proved to be far different experiences from connecting in person. It became more difficult to coordinate class times, ask questions through virtual platforms, and find ways to collaborate on group projects. 

Tuition was another major concern for students as they faced moving to online learning. Some schools kept tuition the same amount for online classes and in-person options. Other schools chose a hybrid model of on-campus and at-home learning and looked for ways to charge accordingly.  Students protested tuition hikes, arguing that schools were offering less and charging more.

Despite the many challenges, students and educators made remote learning a way of life. However, there are still concerns because there’s no data yet to back up how well it works in the long run, with a four-year degree program and beyond.

The Four-Year On-Campus Experience vs. Online Learning

A traditional on-campus experience offers students more than just educational opportunities. It provides them with socialization, networking, and the chance to develop into independent adults. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of learning remotely is vital to exploring whether the future of online learning appears bright. 

Unfortunately, with more disadvantages than benefits, online learning may not be the right choice for all students, as evidenced by a considerable drop in enrollment at schools around the country. However, online education acts as a temporary solution when other schooling options aren’t feasible.

Advantages of Online Learning

A shift to online education programs comes with advantages, including:

  • Flexibility: With remote learning, students can tailor a lot of what they do around other activities and parts of their lives. This is especially true if they have courses where they can submit work by specific deadlines and don’t have video conference classes. 
  • Cost: Students who would otherwise spend a lot of money (or require substantial student loans) to go to school away from home will save on costs that come with on-campus living.
  • Opportunities: Students can attend school remotely even if they aren’t in a location where they could participate in person. Someone in Arizona, for example, could get an education from a college in New Hampshire, Florida, or Missouri without having to move to a new state. Some schools charge out-of-state tuition for online learners, but many set a tuition price that’s different from either in-state or out-of-state charges.

Disadvantages of Online Learning

While there are some great reasons to learn online, the future of online education can also come with significant disadvantages. Opportunities exist to  help struggling students with concerns such as:

  • Lack of interaction: Students may feel like they aren’t close to their educators or other students, making it harder to form bonds and relate to them.
  • Difficulty with collaboration: While it’s possible to create group chats and other methods of interaction, it’s harder to develop quality group projects when students can’t be in the same physical location.
  • Inequality: Not all students have access to proper equipment and services. This can disrupt their ability to attend classes and exacerbate inequalities.
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO): Especially for students hoping to head off to college for the first time, the stress of missing out on that on-campus experience can take its toll on mental health and their desire to pursue higher education.

Issues With Remote Learning 

Remote learning isn’t new — it’s been an option for people long before the pandemic forced it on nearly every student and teacher. Even still, online learning programs have yet to solve key issues. Understanding the importance and severity of these concerns is the first step in improving the future of online education. These issues are:

  • Comprehension: Some students will have a much harder time understanding the material when they aren’t learning it in person. It’s more difficult to ask questions and work with peers and educators for help and support when classes are online.
  • IT equipment: Not every student has access to a quality computer and a fast internet connection. For those who don’t have these things, reliably attending classes and completing coursework on time can cause significant challenges.
  • Collaboration: Working together is almost always easier in person, and collaborating over chat or Zoom is not the same. This can make it much harder for students to learn from one another and for groups to create quality projects.
  • Socialization: Part of the experience of going to college is learning to socialize with peers. Remote learning doesn’t allow for the same interactions that an on-campus student would have and can make it harder for students to have a true college experience.

All of these issues can cause problems individually. But for students facing two or more of them, the challenges can be extreme. Fortunately for most students and educators, adaptation has been a main focal point.

Adaptability and the Future of Online Education

The entire academic base has changed. Students and educators need to  make adjustments for online learning to work. But institutions themselves have also had to make drastic changes. For some colleges and universities, students have again been asked not to return to campus. At others, students have returned to the dorms, but their classes remain online. The early days of the pandemic saw the most trial and error, as schools worked to find a balance between education and safety. Now, most states no longer have mask mandates, and there are fewer regulations regarding how many people can be together in enclosed spaces. 

Not all schools feel comfortable going back to “normal” at this point, however. Many schools anticipate a new normal, and a lot of what their administration decides will affect the future of online education. Additionally, regardless of when in-person options become available, there will be students and educators who will choose not to return.

Right now,  the biggest area of adaptation is in making sure both students and educators can keep learning channels open. Still, online classes and kitchen table coursework will never be the same as learning and teaching in a classroom on a face-to-face basis. Continuing to find new ways to adapt will be important as more data starts to come in regarding how well students and educators are performing. Whether online learning affects their mental and physical health, how well they learn the material, and other factors related to the educational experience will all need further study.

Ways for Schools to Ensure Online Learning Success

Unfortunately, schools and educators can’t guarantee that all students will succeed with online learning. There will inevitably be some students who don’t do well with the experience. The goal, however, should be to make sure the overwhelming majority of students are making the most of learning online. For remote education to work, students need to succeed in their educational endeavors, even if they don’t have the same experience they would have if they were on campus.

Improvements can be made to the online learning experience. Such enhancements can include collecting more feedback from struggling students and content students alike. The goal is to understand what students like and don’t like about online learning. By doing this, higher education institutions can discover which parts of the on-campus experience these students are missing most and hopefully create ways to offer them something similar. At that point, schools and educators can move toward changes that will benefit the educational community on a larger scale. 

Providing students with opportunities for interaction is another way in which to help them succeed. For example, it can be possible for students to be enthusiastic about their college days, even if those days take place in front of a computer at home. While it can’t take the place of on-campus interactions, virtual activities and other events can go a long way toward helping students feel included and valued.

Educators can also help promote student success and well-being by making themselves more accessible. When remote learners struggle with understanding a concept, for example, they can’t stop by to see their teacher after class or during office hours if they aren’t on campus. Having educators hold virtual office hours and have an open-door policy for emails (and even texts or phone calls during set hours), can go a long way toward helping students have a better and more rewarding experience through online learning.

Online Learning Is the Future of Education 

It’s very possible that online learning will become the future of education. Online schools and degrees existed before the pandemic. Now, there are more classes and opportunities offered remotely. The pandemic proved many in-person careers can work remotely, and this has opened the door for people to work from home even as restrictions eased. Current educational opportunities follow that same trend. 

Current data shows that most students and educators have adapted well to online learning and that learning remotely is undoubtedly better than not learning at all. Still, some education needs to take place in person. A medical student, for example, requires hands-on work as part of their learning experience. The same is true for other professions where physical interaction or specialized training is often required.

As more data emerges regarding how well students and educators have adapted to the online educational experience, it will become easier to predict the likelihood of returning to on-campus learning. Even if many schools go back to in-person options, it seems likely that a significant number of students and educators will choose to remain remote for at least some of their learning or teaching. Online learning will remain a large part of the future of education.

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