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How Institutions Met Student Needs During the Pandemic

Top institutional priorities for online students

Top institutional priorities for online students. Source: "The Changing Landscape of Online Education, 2021" from Quality Matters and Eduventures Research.

Online student support became a key issue for higher education institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their top priority: providing academic support services such as tutoring or academic advising, according to the 2021 Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report.

CHLOE is an annual survey of chief online officers about the structure and organization of online learning in United States higher education, conducted by Quality Matters and Eduventures Research. The 2021 survey polled representatives from 422 U.S. colleges and universities, drilling down into the impact of the pandemic on the future of online learning.

Academic support was cited as the highest priority for 43 percent of institutions in the survey, followed by student support services such as financial aid or mental health support (37 percent). Other priorities included offering general student orientations to online learning; addressing digital divide issues; and training students on the learning management system and other learning tools.

The survey also asked which online student services were working well and which needed improvement. Institutions felt most confident about providing library services online (cited as "working well" by 76 percent of respondents), followed by course registration (69 percent), technical support (66 percent), billing (65 percent) and financial aid (60 percent). While academic advising and tutoring were high priorities for institutions, only about half of respondents (54 percent and 52 percent, respectively) felt those services were working well online. And the online student services institutions struggled with most were mental health services (cited as "needs improvement" by 55 percent of respondents), disability services (53 percent) and accessibility support (52 percent).

Drilling down into the issue of the digital divide, the survey found that on average, the share of students experiencing technology and internet access issues during the pandemic was relatively low. The majority of respondents (59 percent) said that only 15 percent or less of their students were impacted by the digital divide, while 18 percent said that 16 to 30 percent of their students were affected. Just 5 percent reported that more than 30 percent of their students were impacted. Still, nearly one in five respondents (18 percent) simply did not know how many students had access issues.

Among the ways institutions addressed the digital divide:

  • 56 percent distributed laptops or tablets;
  • 48 percent expanded on-campus internet access;
  • 44 percent distributed wireless hotspots;
  • 35 percent adjusted course assignments, such as eliminating high-stakes exams or providing flexibility on assignment deadlines;
  • 30 percent provided students with information on low-cost technology and internet options;
  • 22 percent provided free or low-cost software;
  • 19 percent provided free or low-cost peripherals;
  • 8 percent expanded community internet access; and
  • 2 percent distributed funds directly to students to help them purchase necessary technology.

The full report, which covers enrollment trends, attitudes toward online learning, ed tech usage, online learning quality assurance and more, is available for download on the Quality Matters site (registration required).

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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