Will Colleges Embrace Virtual Learning Post-COVID-19?

by Evan Thompson
• 4 min read
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After nearly a year of remote school during COVID-19, many students want classes to be normal again.

Studies show the average student feels less engaged in virtual learning than in the classroom. But some students at the University of the Cumberlands prefer it just the way it is: mainly online.

That makes perfect sense to Emily Coleman, the university's provost. Some students enjoy the flexibility of attending class from anywhere, but others — especially more introverted students — feel less anxiety taking part in an online class.

"They can ask questions a little easier," Coleman said. "They don't have to raise the hand and they don't have to verbalize that. They're more comfortable typing those questions to their faculty members or their peers."

"Educational institutions will take what they have learned from this, take what they've learned from the adaptations they've made in the classroom, and adjust."

– Emily Coleman

Before the pandemic, Cumberlands gave students a choice between taking their classes fully in person or fully online. Coleman said that option is all the more helpful and important to continue long term, knowing that some students thrive online and even feel more at ease.

Coleman believes that other schools are also paying attention to how students handle remote learning and making changes accordingly.

"Educational institutions will take what they have learned from this, take what they've learned from the adaptations they've made in the classroom, and adjust," Coleman said. "I think we'll see some things come back, but I think we'll see some things that have changed to provide more flexibility for our student learners and more flexibility and new ways to approach learning in the classroom."

Student Experiences With Online Education

Remote learning has been a challenge for many students during the pandemic. Most students were unsatisfied with their education after schools shifted to all-online courses in 2020 — a trend that has continued into the new school year. But research shows others have adapted well, although it's a small group.

A poll collected in December by nonprofit organizations New America and Third Way found that students continue to be concerned about the challenges of online education, mental health, and motivation. More than half of respondents said higher ed does not have a good quality when conducted online.

In a survey by Top Hat of 3,412 students in October, only 8% said they were learning as effectively online as they would have in person. Students struggle with various roadblocks, including a lack of an engaging in-class experience, no face-to-face interaction with faculty and students during class, and noisy study spaces at home.

Student Poll: Online Learning vs. In-Person Learning

Are you learning as effectively online as you would in person?

Who Is Thriving Remotely?

The surveys raise a question: Why does remote learning fit better for some students than others? The answer varies.

For some students, being in an online classroom is a relief. One college student told Vox that their social anxiety is no longer a barrier to fully participating and enjoying classes, whereas before, physical classes were draining.

For others, a remote learning environment is the best way to stay focused. According to The Hechinger Report, online learning has positively impacted K-12 students who were bored or distracted in school. In particular, students diagnosed with ADHD had more success focusing on their school work from home than in a classroom.

At Cumberlands, Coleman said students have enjoyed the greater range of flexibility that comes with attending class. While in-person classes require students to be in their seats to participate, Cumberlands' hybrid model allows them to participate from anywhere — which has made a significant impact for student-athletes who would otherwise miss class while traveling to an athletic event.

Top Reasons Some Students Prefer Remote Learning

  • Less social anxiety
  • Easier to focus (especially for those with ADHD)
  • More flexibility

Will Remote Learning Stick Around After the Pandemic?

Remote learning is a necessary substitute for in-person classes until it's safe to return to normal. But will remote learning outlast COVID-19 at colleges and universities?

Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College, believes remote learning is here to stay in one form or another. In particular, Finkelman expects to see an uptick in hybrid models with a mix between synchronous and asynchronous classes.

"There will be more online learning, even within a campus that is now fully open," he said.

At the K-12 level, remote learning appears to be on the cusp of surging. A new American School District Panel survey found that 1 in 5 districts are considering, planning to create, or have already created a fully online school in future years. Another 10% had the same plans for hybrid learning.

The reasoning? To offer students more flexibility, meet the diversity of students' needs, and maintain student enrollment.

"There will be more online learning, even within a campus that is now fully open."

– Paul Finkelman

Similar data is not currently available for higher education, but there are signs that schools are investing in online education.

In Texas, several colleges and universities have teamed up to form online course-sharing consortia, allowing members to expand their course offerings, help students stay on track or accelerate to a degree, and increase enrollments at a lower cost.

The University of Minnesota will pay Google $2.36 million to create a new online learning platform for the health sciences bachelor's degree program at its Rochester campus. The platform, set to launch in 2022, will let students speed toward their degrees with virtual and in-person learning.

There was also a boom in spending on educational technology in 2020, hastened by the need to improve digital capabilities. According to the Harvard Business Review, much of the $4.5 billion spent on global education technology was focused on higher education and its intersection with the workforce. Experts predict $87 billion will be invested in ed-tech over the next 10 years.

Final Word

Although the majority of students want classes to return to normal, some prefer to study online. The reasons vary; some prefer the flexibility of attending classes wherever they want, while others feel more comfortable at home than in class. There are signs that colleges and universities are aware of this. Still, it will be up to individual institutions for how to address it. But between investments in educational technology and hybrid learning models, virtual learning is here to stay.

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Halfpoint Images | Getty Images

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