The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the growth of online learning and created a shift towards remote instruction. While hastily planned remote instruction differs from fully planned online college programs, education experts say that colleges are now in a position to offer more choices in distance learning. However, it takes time, expertise, and resources to develop quality online degree programs, according to Lisa Templeton, associate provost for Oregon State University’s Ecampus and extended campus programs.
Here's a look at the future of distance learning, as predicted by those who work in online education.
1. Colleges will add new online programs. After a test run for many schools over the last few years, colleges are emboldened to offer more degree programs virtually. Phil Regier, university dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus at Arizona State University, believes students should expect to see more STEM offerings in physical sciences and data science, focus areas in social justice, and study areas that focus on the ethics and rules surrounding media and data consumption.
2. More colleges will turn to open educational resources. Open educational resources, commonly referred to as OER, are free education tools that are in the public domain or licensed for no-cost use. Experts expect the growth of OER to accompany the momentum in online education.
3. Virtual reality will bring hands-on programs online. Virtual reality will break down the barriers that make some classes – and entire programs – more difficult to offer online than others. Ryan Lufkin, vice president of product strategy at Instructure, the maker of Canvas, suggests interactive videos, online skill demonstrations, and similar practices to make hands-on courses more accessible online.
4. Online learning will be more data-driven. As online education has grown in popularity in recent years, course providers and universities can collect an increasing amount of data to measure and predict how online students perform. Technology-enhanced learning provides a level of insights never before seen, and the ability to support students in ways we've only started to explore, according to Lufkin.
5. Blended learning is here to stay. Even with students back on campus, classes are often taught both in person and online through a blended learning model, which experts say is likely to become more common.
6. Technological advances will diminish the digital divide. Courses designed to be equally accessible across devices – whether a laptop or cellphone – can help improve the online experience, and actions to close the digital divide are not limited to colleges. States also play a role.
7. Virtual student spaces and programming will expand. Distance learners can expect virtual student unions, group activities, and other programming as part of the online experience.
8. Certificates, badges, and microcredentials will continue to grow. Universities and companies have offered smaller credentials such as graduate certificates, digital badges, and nanodegrees, among others, for years, as alternatives to traditional college degrees.
9. Stackable online credentials are likely to become more popular. Programs that allow students to earn several microcredentials – such as certificates – as they progress toward their final goal, which could be a bachelor's degree, are expected to increase.
10. Higher education and corporations will collaborate more. More corporations are partnering with higher education institutions and fully paying for online degree programs or microcredentials.
11. More online options will require students to do due diligence. With more online options emerging, students should weigh their choices carefully.
12. More students will make online learning their first choice. More traditional-age students are choosing online programs, and 18- to 21-year-olds are starting to enroll for the very first time and doing their whole degree program online.
13. Online learning will continue to evolve and innovate. As the field of online education continues to grow, there will be continued innovation and experimentation with new technologies, teaching methods, and delivery models.
14. Online education will become more accessible to underserved communities. Online learning has the potential to bring education to underserved communities who may not have access to traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. As technological advancements continue to improve and the digital divide narrows, more individuals from underserved communities will have access to online education.
15. Online education will become more affordable. The affordability of online education will continue to be a major draw for students. Online courses are often less expensive than their traditional counterparts, and the ability to complete coursework from anywhere can save students money on travel and housing expenses.
16. Online education will provide more opportunities for lifelong learning. The flexibility and accessibility of online education make it a great option for individuals who want to continue their education throughout their lives. Online courses and programs will continue to provide opportunities for individuals to upskill, reskill, and pursue new areas of interest.
Overall, the future of online education looks bright, with continued growth, innovation, and accessibility. As the pandemic has demonstrated, online education is not just a temporary solution, but a viable and important option for learners of all ages and backgrounds.