Online learning has taken off in the past decade due to the now widespread accessibility of fast speed internet.
While online courses were once clunky, text-based and lacked user friendly interfaces, they have come a long way in a very short period of time. Now, embedded video, imaging and quiz functionalities are commonplace, while newer affordances like synchronous chat rooms are will be becoming increasingly more common in the next few years.
As internet speeds increase and new software comes onto the market, online learning will continue to change rapidly. Furthermore, the changing broader changes in global economies means mature-age full-time workers are increasingly turning to online courses to upskill and seek career changes.
In this post, I present an up-to-date snapshot of online learning, which reveals some interesting facts about the current state of online learning and the direction in which it is headed.
1. Online University Learning is Growing
Since 2012, enrollments in distance learning courses has continued to increase despite a drop of over 1 million overall student enrollments in the higher education sector in the US in that same period. Similar plateaus in overall student numbers are evident in the UK higher education sector.
In other words, even though overall university attendance is flat-lining, online learning is soaking up a greater percentage of students than ever before. What we can observe here is a drift of students away from on-campus studies toward online studies.
With this drift, universities will increasingly face pressure to meet the unique needs of their growing distance learning cohort. Support services such as career advisor drop-in sessions and accessible disability advisors need to face the challenge of servicing an online student base in new ways. This will necessitate upskilling of staff, development of new student support procedures, and perhaps even the embrace of new software solutions such as live online chat for student support.
2. Online University Learning is more Common than you may Expect
Reading through recent reports on the state of online learning from major higher education reports, I was struck by just how common distance learning has become. Indeed, almost 1 in every 3 students in the US is taking an online course. That’s 6,300,000 students studying online in the US!
This figure does not indicate that 6 million students are studying exclusively online, but points towards some on-campus students taking up online courses during their summer breaks or blending online courses with their on-campus courses to access otherwise inaccessible elective subjects.
This figure highlights one of the greatest benefits of online learning: its flexibility. For example, online learning opens doors for students to pick up subjects offered exclusively on campuses too far from their home campus to access. Students in this situation can therefore cater their own degrees to increasingly specialize in subject areas that link to their preferences or career ambitions.
Similarly, students can embrace a hybrid of online learning to streamline their degrees. With a push particularly in the UK for shorter degrees to allow students to upskill faster, online learning can fill this gap by helping students to move towards a trimester-based learning structure that would turn a 3-year degree into a 2-year degree, or a 4-year degree into a 2 and a half year degree.
3. Over 3 Million University Students Study Exclusively by Distance in the US
Of the 6.3 million university students in the US studying at least one course online, over 3 million take exclusively online classes. These students are studying ‘fully online degrees’.
These figures indicate that online learning is filling a clear need in the educational marketplace.
Many students choose online degrees because they are working full time, are full time carers for children or the elderly, or live in rural and remote communities.
Until the early 2000s, such students would have been in the same position I was as a university student: learning by ‘correspondence’. I recall receiving weekly lecture recordings to listen to and a pile of readings to complete each week.
This was an incredibly isolating way of completing a university degree. The closest interaction I had with my teachers was the odd email, or feedback written on assessments that I received in the post.
With the affordances of modern Learning Management Systems, including synchronous communication, collaborative discussion forums and interactive video tutorials, it appears students have voted with their feet and flocked to online learning in numbers over the past decade.
4. Mobile Learning is the Future of Online Coursework
67% of students studying online use mobile phones to complete coursework. This figure points towards the growing presence of mobile phones in the everyday student’s life.
By contrast, only 21% of students surveyed indicated that they would not like to use mobile phones to conduct coursework.
Here, then, there is an obvious need for online course creators and LMS developers to implement mobile-friendly learning in order to move to the spaces in which students are gathering.
One of the greatest benefits of mobile learning is that students will be empowered to complete coursework in new spaces – the bus, on the phone during a lunch break at work, or in the car waiting for a child to come out from school.
This move towards creating online courses that are even more flexible plays to a strength of online learning, and would naturally appeal to the core online student demographic.
5. Online Learning is rated ‘as Good as’ or ‘Better than’ On-Campus Learning by most Students
85% of students who have studied both on-campus and online report that they find online learning to be as good as or better than on-campus learning.
This figure helps to put to bed a longstanding assumption that online learning is an inferior means for obtaining a degree.
On the contrary, I run online workshops with my students to brainstorm ways students can pitch their online degree as a strength to prospective employers. Benefits include:
- Strong skills in using technology;
- Capacity to work independently on set tasks;
- Capacity to effectively manage work-life balance; and
- Netiquette skills – i.e. the capacity to communicate very effectively online.
With strong numbers of students reinforcing their positive regard for online learning, it is reasonable to expect that those students will move into the workforce with positive opinions of online studies. I expect that online learning will shortly shake the stigma of inferiority and increasingly be seen as a strength by prospective employers.
6. Social Interaction remains key for Online Learning Success
57% of past and present online students report that social interaction was “very important” to their success online.
This figure points towards the importance of embracing new technologies that encourage easy and effective online collaboration.
Personally, I embrace formal online learning forums but also encourage my students to use informal collaboration as well. This includes the use of class Facebook groups by students to build rapport with fellow students and create additional avenues to more deeply embed themselves in an online learning culture.
Furthermore, social interaction remains one of the best ways for students to learn. Communication between students enables students to view new perspectives and have their ideas challenged and refined.
It therefore remains pedagogically pertinent that online learning courses increasingly move towards creating social peer-to-peer communication environments for students.
7. Online Learning skews towards Mature Age and Postgraduate Learners
An Australian report highlighted that online learning was most commonly used by mature-age and postgraduate students. This reinforces my own perception that I have many more mature parents in my online than on-campus classes. It also reinforces the role of online courses in filling a need for populations typically excluded from online learning situations.
In a related fact, a US study found career transition was the primary motivator for online learning. Again, this highlights the role of online courses for supporting people already established in the workforce.
Moving forward, I envisage online learning continuing to play to this strength through, for example, offering synchronous online classes during evenings and weekends, and encouraging student collaboration to be focused on workforce-related discussions that link the course content to students’ current experiences in the workforce.
Where to from Here?
It appears that online learning will remain a big part of the higher education sector for decades to come. However, current research shows that new trends in online learning may be on the horizon.
Namely, to address students’ interests in learning on mobile, online courses may increasingly move towards mobile-friendly platforms. This may necessitate a move towards mobile-friendly teaching strategies also, such as embracing podcasting for learning.
Furthermore, increased sociability of distance learning environments that began in the early 2000s appears to remain a significant factor in the success of online learning. It therefore appears that sociable learning situation in distance courses will remain a concern at the top of the minds of educators and eLearning designers for years to come.