The Future is Bright for Online Education
Since Harvard University was founded in 1636, higher education was typically confined to four walls in an ivy-covered building. But no more.
In the 34 years since the first online educational program was offered by the University of Phoenix, the online ed “trend” has now gone mainstream — and then some — mostly notably since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since that first online program in 1989, online education has seen increasing growth year after year. By 2012, more than two-thirds of academic leaders acknowledged that online learning was a critical part of their long-term plan.
And with good reason. According to the U.S. Department of Education, of the 20.6 million students enrolled in higher learning in 2012, one-third (6.7 million) were taking an online course.
By 2015, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 43% of undergraduates took at least one class online, while 11% took all their classes online. And by 2019, 2.4 million undergraduates were enrolled in exclusively online college courses. In fact, in 2019, 34% of higher education courses were taught online.
Then came 2020, and the world of academics was turned on its head.
Online Learning and COVID-19
While online learning became increasingly more common from 1989-2019, the COVID-19 pandemic caused online classes to move from a trend to a necessity.
By the time the world shut down in March 2020, more than 1,100 colleges had closed their campuses. And by fall 2020, remote learning was the norm for most higher education.
In fact, in 2020, 75% of undergraduates took at least one class online, with 30% taking all their classes virtually. That same year saw a three-fold jump in undergrads enrolled in exclusively online courses — from 2.4 million in 2015 to 7.0 million.
As we entered 2021, these numbers continued to climb. Research shows that online learning grew to 170% of its pre-pandemic levels in 2020-21 and rose even further, to 176%, in the 2021-2022 school year.
As a result of the quarantine and lockdowns, colleges and universities across the country were forced to innovate their online education, making investments in virtual learning that would prove to be beneficial, even as students came back to campus.
Similar changes have occurred in the K-12 education space. According to the U.S. Census, before the pandemic, 3.3% of children were homeschooled. By spring 2020, that number grew to 5.4%. And in the 2020-2021 school year, that number doubled to 11.1%!
As the majority of schools reopened their doors in the 2021-2022 school year, children began to return to their private or public schools — but not as many as you’d think. In fact, data shows that 7.5% of households continued to homeschool. While numbers decreased slightly for the 2022-2023 school year — to 6.3% — they remain twice as high as they were pre-pandemic.
In other words, for children K-12, online learning and homeschooling appears to be the preferred choice in the ever-evolving education space.
Online Learning is the New Normal
As researchers reflect on the past three years and the impact of online learning on higher education, they are finding that virtual education is not only here to stay but enjoying accelerated growth.
Since spring 2022, 43% of school administrators indicated that remote and online options were likely to continue post-pandemic. As predicted, many brick-and-mortar universities regularly offer online courses in both undergrad and graduate studies.
Additionally, there are 422 exclusively online colleges in the U.S. This represents 11% of all higher education institutions nationally!
Most importantly, students not only embrace online learning, but often prefer it. The BestColleges’ 2022 Online Education Trends Report found that online classes were more popular at four-year colleges. The report also learned that 95% of online program alumni recommend online education.
Research from Statista found that 39% of students said online classes were better than in-person learning, while another 50% said it was about the same. Graduate students felt more strongly about online learning, with 52% saying online was better than in-person, with 38% indicating it was about the same.
The takeaway? Online learning is not only an excellent option for higher education, but often more efficient. Thanks to the accelerated adaptation expedited by the pandemic, colleges and students alike have embraced virtual learning.
In time, experts project that the where’s and why’s of education will no longer matter. As Eric Fredericksen, associate vice president for online learning at the University of Rochester, says, it will all just be student learning.