Online learning: Key trends shaping student experience

Prospective students turn to college websites, synchronous instruction becomes mainstream and adult learners search for work-life balance as past year brings big changes.
By: | May 28, 2021
Students who've shifted to distance learning at some highly selective college can choose to take pass/fail classes. (gettyimages.com: FG Trade)Gettyimages.com: FG Trade

Over the past year, prospective students seeking online education turned primarily to college websites and reviews from fellow students to find suitable programs.

That was one of the many takeaways of a robust study done by BestColleges.com of online students – current, past and potential new career-path seekers – during a pandemic-interrupted past 12 months.

The Trends in Online Student Demographics Report, done of 1,300 of those students and 366 administrators, highlighted the effects of changing course delivery, the impacts of COVID-19, enrollment and campus trends, and concerns among learners.

“Essentially all students experienced some component of online learning last year, leading many to wonder if their experience was just as good if not better than a campus-based one,” said Melissa Venable, online education advisor for BestColleges.com and the study’s author. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the shifts it caused in traditional education may have changed perceptions about online education among employers as well.”

One big shift from 2019-20 to 2020-21 in the online experience was to more live instruction for those operating virtually. Nearly 90% of those polled (BestColleges.com did not include pandemic-driven remote learners in the study) said they had some sort of synchronous instruction, up 31% from 2019-20.

“Online courses that were predominantly asynchronous before the COVID-19 pandemic may have shifted to use more synchronous communication — matching the type of schedule typically followed by in-person courses — as professors and students managed new life challenges in 2020, including the effects of social isolation,” said Melissa Venable, Ph.D., the report’s author and online education advisor for BestColleges.com. “More synchronous online class meetings may indicate a purposeful decision to increase live interaction and engagement.”

Trends, concerns and guidance

Current online students – the majority of whom are White (68%), between ages 25-44 (61%), are parents and are married or living with a partner – not surprisingly listed finding work-life balance first on their list of concerns in persistence and completion of online education. They were less concerned this year with the quality of instruction and the academic support they have been receiving.

The majority of those students came from “career-minded categories (industry switchers, career accelerators and career starters”, according to BestColleges researchers. But there were increase in students who were lifelong learners (26%) and those who sought online education because of COVID-19 (15%).

College administrators noted four big trends occurring among online learners:

  • They are looking to gain new skills or improve ones they possess
  • More older students are enrolling, those ages 40 and above, and particularly “minority women”
  • Traditional students are also starting to lean toward online options
  • An increase in dual enrollees from high school programs

They also are finding increased interest from “undergraduate and first-time students”, a rise in students who are on campus taking online courses, and students from other institutions taking one or two courses at their own institutions.

Prospective students noted that finding an online program that met their needs was their most pressing concern, followed by applying for financial aid and estimating costs to attend. They increasingly have looked to college websites for information on programs over website rankings (9%).

For colleges and universities looking to the future and trying to meet the needs of current and future online students, the BestColleges team offered some guidance:

  • Survey students and look at data over the past year to determine whether support services are adequate. Adjust any policies or frameworks that may inhibit their success.
  • Consider how effective synchronous online instruction was this past year and whether it can be utilized further in the future. Would an increase in live virtual classes affect schedules and student performance? What are the benefits still of asynchronous learning?
  • Given that students are going to college websites more than ever to make decisions about enrolling, is your website delivering the kind of experience and relevant information about your online program that can attract students? Are there other ways to reach them, perhaps through improved or increased social media campaigns and other outreach?