Online learning gets A, B grades from students, faculty, administrators

Students would like to see more fully online courses in the future, while administrators aren't so sure, according to the study from Cengage.
By: | May 3, 2021
Bermix Studio

College students, faculty and administrators continue to show high optimism for digital learning despite the challenges presented during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the fourth Digital Learning Pulse survey commissioned and released by education technology company Cengage.

More than 75% of students, 89% of faculty and 81% of administrators, in fact, gave online learning during the spring either an A or B grade. For all three groups, that was a slight improvement over the study’s fall numbers, which already were strong.

“Digital learning was already growing, and the pandemic greatly accelerated that,” said Fernando Bleichmar, Executive Vice President and General Manager for U.S. Higher Education at Cengage. “It also increased everyone’s comfort level and capability with online learning and digital tools. Students continue to face pressures and are questioning the value of higher education, but they clearly see the benefits and flexibility that digital learning can offer. Now colleges and universities need to find an affordable way to meet students where they are in their journey.”

More than 1,400 students and nearly 1,300 faculty and administrators from 856 institutions took part in the survey, which was conducted by Bay View Analytics on behalf of Cengage and the Online Learning Consortium, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, University Professional and Continuing Education Association and Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. On the whole, more than half of the students expressed positive views of online learning (57%) and digital materials (52%). In that grade breakdown, 43% gave online learning an A.

“The students surveyed understand and appreciate the value of their online learning experience,” said Russ Poulin, Executive Director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. “This is encouraging considering that many of them were actually involved in an emergency ‘remote’ experience in a class not designed to be offered in that format. In the future, those students will greatly appreciate taking online courses from faculty prepared to teach in the modality with curriculum designed to maximize learning at a distance.”

One modality that didn’t seem to resonate strongly with any of the groups were hybrid courses, with only about a third of students and faculty, and one quarter of administrators, strongly agreeing when asked if they would prefer hybrid class formats in the future. Still, about two-thirds overall expressed interest in them.

“These results will be reassuring for faculty and administrators,” said Dr. Jeff Seaman, lead researcher and Director of Bay View Analytics. “Their concern for student well-being and the quality of their education was very evident in our previous surveys, and it’s clear from the students’ responses that they valued this effort, and thought it was largely successful.”

The biggest split came around fully digital courses. More than 45% of the students “strongly agreed” when asked if they’d want some completely online classes in the future. Only 32% of faculty and 15% of administrators strongly agreed. Despite the divides, another quarter or so of students, faculty and administrators did agree that some digital courses would be preferable in the future.

“Some have worried that the remote learning experiences offered during the pandemic would negatively reflect on courses that are online by design,” said Robert Hansen, Chief Executive Officer of University Professional and Continuing Education Association. “These results seem to contradict our assumptions based on anecdotal information. When three-quarters of students and more than half of faculty want to experience at least some courses fully online, the key takeaway is that the pandemic did not threaten but in fact accelerated the long-term growth, acceptance, and desirability of online learning. Those numbers will only improve, as emergency remote offerings are rebuilt as modern online courses and programs.”

One interesting anecdote from the report was the inclusion of challenges most pressing to students, with all three groups asked to rank them from biggest to smallest.

All three put “feelings of stress” at the top of the list, followed by “level of motivation”. “Having time to do coursework” ranked No. 3.

Students listed “support from my academic institutions” at No. 4 … but administrators  had it ranked last, at No. 7. (At No. 7, students and faculty both listed “access to a learning device”.) Students and faculty both had “internet connectivity” at No. 5, which was a big area of concern at the start of the pandemic. “Having a suitable place to do coursework” ranked No. 6 for students.

“Student perspectives regarding their preferences and perceptions of quality are critical as we plan strategically for helping faculty leverage the professional development they’ve received in the past year,” said Angela Gunder, Chief Academic Officer of OLC. “Blended learning pedagogical practices are well poised to help bridge the gap between student access and success, and we’re re-imagining programming and resources that position faculty and staff to thrive in this space.”