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COVID-19's Ultimate Impact on Online Learning: The Good and the Bad

Higher education's current move to online learning may be leaving a sour taste in the mouths of students and faculty across the country, but there is a silver lining.

student working on computer

As colleges and universities have shuttered their physical campuses in the face of the spread of COVID-19, they have moved their courses to remote and online formats in rapid fashion. And that's prompted many to wonder what the ultimate impact this period of time may have on online learning in higher education.

Based on the present situation, where individuals come to stand on online learning will depend on where they sit currently. That is, there will be both positive and negative impacts on the state of online learning in higher education.

The Bad

On the bad side, given that college and university faculty hastily moved courses online without much support, online learning is being done poorly in many quarters of the United States. It's consequently getting a bad reputation at many campuses.

Students are voicing their disgruntlement in a variety of ways, including asking for refunds. Some students have even gone as far as filing class action lawsuits seeking money back.

Faculty members who have struggled in the online environment and haven't received enough support from their college or university are unlikely to have much enthusiasm for online learning in the future. Even in cases where teaching and learning centers on campuses intervene and help build the courses, they are likely overstretched at the moment, and so many courses have been poor substitutes for the originals (even if the originals weren't terribly inspiring).

When colleges eventually resume physical instruction, many will breathe a collective sigh of relief and resume their studies as usual. It's unlikely they will look back fondly on their online experiences and wonder why it is that they ever dragged themselves to a classroom in the first place.

Where Online Benefits

But that's not the whole story.

If the closure of physical campuses continues into the fall, some residential students and their parents will start asking why they should pay large tuition bills for an in-person experience they are not receiving. If they are going to be learning online anyway, why not opt for a provider that has strong experience with online learning and that can offer it more affordably than can a traditional college or university?

Those institutions with robust online learning programs — particularly if they are more affordable than a traditional program — will stand to gain ground. Online learning will grow from where it was pre-COVID-19, when already over a third of postsecondary students took at least one online class and roughly 30 percent of graduate students studied exclusively online. Mega-universities that offer affordable programs, such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University, will grow. Places like Arizona State University that offer robust online programs as well as in-person ones and can offer the potential for seamless transfer between the two are also likely to benefit.

What's more, as commentators are fond of saying, higher education is counter cyclical because adults return to college in tough times to wait out the recession while investing in themselves.

The majority of adult learners who return to school will almost certainly enroll in online programs out of a desire for convenience and accessibility — especially given the current physical-distancing requirements. Early data suggests that students are bullish on online colleges and universities — and relatively less interested in community college options and traditional offline education environments. Many adult learners will also enroll in unaccredited online programs that are faster and cheaper and are tied to a field of potential employment.

Online programs that create overwhelmingly positive experiences and successfully serve learners who would have otherwise pursued a more traditional offline avenue will build brand loyalty among this group — which will likely translate into greater positivity around online learning more generally.

Where the Bad Drives Good

Even this, though, isn't the whole story, because the longer physical distancing continues, traditional colleges and universities are likely to pour more resources into innovating and constructing more robust online experiences. Even if their faculty and current students have soured on the experience, they will have no choice.

Granted, many institutions won't be able to afford the investment this will require. But many institutions are also likely to close, merge or declare financial exigency given the financial pressures mounting throughout the economy — so the volume of students will go elsewhere.

Institutions that are sturdy or have forward-thinking leadership will innovate.

As Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, wrote recently, "Replicating online the vibrancy of the campus experience is within reach. Already, young musicians play 'together' online. Undergraduates conduct research in virtual labs. Even campus athletics have turned to esports."

Northeastern is even figuring out how to maintain its famed coop programs in which students work with businesses and nonprofits around the globe. Those experiences will now happen virtually.

The Minerva Project and Foundry College are partnering with traditional institutions to create active online learning experiences that far transcend a synchronous Zoom session.

And regardless of the length of the physical distancing, colleges and universities that didn't have robust disaster preparedness plans — the overwhelming majority of institutions — will almost certainly have to put stronger measures in place. Online learning will be a big part of those plans. It will cause institutions to invest in improving their offerings, which will seep into their traditional offerings as well.

As these experiences take root and improve, students at some of these institutions will come to enjoy hybrid learning experiences that mix online and offline learning in novel combinations. 

The Bottom Line

The longer physical distancing continues — even policies of intermittent physical distancing — the more online learning will benefit. Even where students and faculty have bad experiences, the volume of students — and employed faculty members — will begin to shift to institutions that do online learning well.

The shorter the duration, the more online learning will take a hit for those in traditional institutions.

Where this will all shake out is yet to be determined, but odds are strong that online learning will continue to grow in the next couple of years — even if there remains a strong, vocal group of students, faculty and families who have a sour taste in their mouth from the whole experience.

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