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Online Learning Evolution: How Graduate and Undergraduates Are Learning

remote learning
(Image credit: Photo by Samantha Borges on Unsplash)

Online learning trends in higher education that existed prior to the pandemic have been amplified over the past two years. Some institutions have begun offering more graduate programs online while others have seen increased interest in taking a course or two online from students who attend school primarily in person. 

“Overall, I would say that online graduate programs are on the increase and have improved from a quality standpoint as technology has advanced and more people have become comfortable in the online learning environment,” says Dr. Kenneth F. Newbold, provost and chief academic officer at Benedictine University in Illinois. “The online space is definitely an area of possible expansion for Benedictine.” 

Rico D'Amore, Director of Academic Services Technology, at Benedictine University, says students may have a larger appetite for online than some realize. “I think too many times people think everyone wants to go back to normal, everyone wants to be in a classroom, but I don't know,” he says. 

Graduate Goes Online 

At Western Connecticut State University, many graduate programs that pivoted to online in March 2020 have decided to stay there. “For many of our other graduate programs, the push to online necessitated by COVID-19 has led to an ‘aha’ moment and most are going to be online going forward,” wrote Dr. Missy Alexander, provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs in a recent blog post. 

Currently, 45 percent of the Western Connecticut’s graduate programs are online, with nearly 65 percent being either online or hybrid. 

“We're finding that the flexibility that online learning allows is good for most adult learners,” Alexander says.

Asynchronous online courses fit with graduate students’ busy lives and existing careers. Online learning may not be for everybody, however, many graduate students are well suited to it, Alexander says. “They are in a good position to thrive in the online environment, because they already understand how education works,” she says. 

Some of the online programs will incorporate short in-person residencies for students to meet one another and faculty and receive hands-on training; others may require one or two classes be taken in person or may even be fully online. The university’s MFA Program in Creative and Professional Writing, where I am an adjunct faculty member, has long used a low-residency model, bringing students to campus for five days twice per year. This may serve as a model for some of the new online programs. 

However, not every graduate program will move online. For instance, a degree in biological diversity will be primarily in-person due to the field trips the degree requires as well as the discipline’s hands-on nature. 

Online As An Option  

At Indiana University enrollment in online courses has increased this semester. 

“Now, 55 percent of our students across the university, which includes seven campuses, attend at least one online class,” says Dr. Chris J. Foley, director of the Office of Online Education. 

Prior to the pandemic that number was around 34 percent and growing only by about 3 or 4 percentage points annually. 

This increased demand is not being fueled by online-only programs but by online courses that can make scheduling easier for traditional in-person students. 

“Students see the value of it, they see the convenience of it, they can flesh out a schedule, take extra credits, make progress toward their degree,” Foley says. “We knew that that was always true for a certain proportion of the population. We now know it's true for what seems to be the majority of the population in a given semester.”

These numbers may be surprising given that during 2020 and the first half of 2021, online learning became a frequent target of criticism from students and faculty across the country. However, that criticism may have been prompted by factors beyond education. 

“The image of online education may have taken a bit of a hit last year because of everything people had to deal with,” Foley says. “Student and faculty frustrations with the broad challenges of the pandemic was interpreted and distilled by some as a rejection of online education. But, in reality, lots of things, much of which was beyond the confines of the classroom, contributed to these frustrations. It’s now increasingly clear, given our enrollments in online courses, that students and faculty still see a larger role for online after the pandemic.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a journalist, author and educator. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.