What Boards Need to Know about Online Opportunities

By Christopher Connell    //    Volume 31,  Number 1   //    January/February 2023

Online course offerings were proliferating in higher education long before COVID-19 came along and compelled colleges to switch overnight from face-to-face to remote instruction. Even the most reluctant professors learned quickly not just how to deliver lectures via Zoom but how to field questions, orchestrate discussions, and provide source materials online when the library was off-limits. On-campus instructional designers—many if not most colleges already had them, often in offices called centers for teaching and learning—came to the rescue. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than many expected, better certainly than in K-12 education given the clear evidence many children and teens lost ground.

Today, academics and technology experts agree there is no going back to the old school, chalk-and-talk style of teaching. Faculty who once scoffed at teaching online recognize post-COVID-19 some of the advantages and possibilities, and students don’t want to give up the flexibility of choosing when and where to do coursework. Now, the challenge facing college and university leaders is to figure out how to make the most of both worlds.

Jay Parini, PhD, the D.E Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College, still prizes teaching face-to-face, but also relishes advances the internet has made possible. When the novelist and poet began teaching nearly 50 years ago, the only technological tool on which he relied “was the old mimeograph machine, with that blue ink that smelled so awful. What a difference now, with endless questions raised online and email conversations running simultaneously with the class. It’s just amazing.”

Not every professor is so sanguine. Stephen Lloyd-Moffett, PhD, a professor of religious studies at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, argues it is “time to admit that online education has largely failed,” not for want of trying by faculty but because distracted students were not willing to work as hard.” “It may be sad to some, but most people would rather watch the hit web series ‘Drunk History’ than take actual history classes,” Lloyd-Moffett wrote recently in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

But a national survey of 2,500 adults enrolled in online degree or certificate programs found them even more enthused about online classes than before the pandemic. Ninety-four percent expressed positive views versus 86 percent in a pre-COVID-19 survey, according to Wiley University Services, which manages online programs for universities.

And 82 percent of faculty surveyed for a Harvard Future of Teaching and Learning Task Force report expressed interest in adding tools and approaches from remote teaching to their in-person classes. “They consistently cited features that enhance interactive learning (for example, chat rooms during discussions and lectures), boost collaborative and peer learning (breakout rooms and real time collaborative workspaces), and expand expertise (having other faculty, alumni, and outside experts speak to students),” the task force said.[1]

By pushing its boundaries around online learning, the Harvard task force “learned that while some programs and audiences are well-suited to in-person learning, others are not. Blending modes—synchronous, prerecorded, breakouts, simultaneous chats, Zoom-based office hours—can dramatically improve learning outcomes,” the report stated.

Education technology consultant, blogger, and market analyst Phil Hill of MindWires, LLC, says not everything went smoothly for faculty in the switch to online but what’s changed is that now everybody has experienced it.

“Two-thirds were pontificating about it before, saying they’d never teach an online course and this will never work,” he says. “Now they have experience with it … and there’s a lot more constructive criticism as opposed to whether online education even belongs in their institution’s strategy.”

Deb Adair, the executive director of Quality Matters, a nonprofit that gives its seal of approval—a certification, not an accreditation—to online courses that undergo peer review by outside faculty, says, “The big challenge now is demonstrating quality. Some institutions might have wanted to go back to entirely face-to-face instruction, but students want online courses. They like the flexibility.”

The younger generation are so-called digital natives, accustomed from an early age to working, playing, and studying on their devices.

Like workers reluctant to return full time to the office, college students who weathered the pandemic may want to take more of their courses remotely, especially asynchronous ones that allow them to “attend” class on their own schedule.

Whitney Kilgore, a cofounder and chief academic officer of iDesign, a Dallas company that works with colleges and universities to design and market online courses and programs, says even at residential campuses, students “are going to expect that some of their experience is supported with digital teaching and learning, whether blended or hybrid. I think there’s a world where both (face-to-face and online) coexist. Otherwise, they are not going to draw in those students.”

The demand is unquestionably there.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has reported that 14 million college students—almost three-quarters— took at least one course online in fall 2020. That was almost twice the number from fall 2019. Demand actually had been growing for years before the pandemic. Back in 2004 one in six undergraduates took one or more distance classes and 1 in 20 took all their courses online, NCES said.[2]

Adding urgency to the quest to better harness the advantages of online education is the decline in higher education enrollments, which the pandemic exacerbated but actually started more than a decade ago.

Postsecondary enrollments fell from 21 million in 2010 to under 19 million in 2020 (including a drop of 640,000 in the first pandemic year), according to NCES. Community college enrollments dropped nearly 15 percent between 2019 and 2021 and 36 percent in the past decade.

These trends add to the urgency of colleges’ quest to meet learners where they are, especially older adults who want to study on their own schedule.

A survey by the Chancellor’s Office of the California Community Colleges, which have 1.8 million students, found more than half preferred some form of hybrid educational setting that included online and in-person instruction. Twenty-seven percent preferred all online instruction, and 18 percent in-person only.[3]

An editorial in the Rutgers University student newspaper, the Daily Targum, summed up how classmates felt about their forced introduction to online education: “Now that we have returned to mostly in-person learning, it has become evident that online learning was not as terrible as we had originally thought. Its flexibility empowered students to pursue their interests, focus on internships and manage jobs.”[4]

What is Online Education?

Online education is an umbrella term for a multitude of different ways of teaching and learning remotely instead of inside a classroom. Also called distance education, it harkens back to the correspondence classes of old when teachers and students mailed print materials and, much later, videotaped lectures back and forth. The internet put the instructional delivery methods into hyperspeed.

Some courses, degrees, and certificates are offered entirely online. Students watch live lectures and recorded videos on their computers, laptops, and smartphones and engage in class discussions, complete assignments, and interact with their teachers and classmates via email, chat rooms, and other virtual spaces. The teacher may assign additional videos, PowerPoint presentations, and other source materials for the class to watch, read and comment on; some even post transcripts of their lectures for learners’ convenience. Tests, too, are conducted online and sometimes proctored remotely via webcams if looking up answers on the internet or consulting textbooks during the exam is not allowed.

What about MOOCs?

The internet spawned Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that opened classes at some of the top universities in the world to online learners, but not for credit.

MOOCs still attract learners by the tens of millions around the globe, but they have never lived up to their early promise, which was to put higher education within reach of masses with neither the means nor opportunity to pursue advanced learning.

Research showed that a scant few people—5 percent to 15 percent by some estimates—who sign up for MOOCs actually complete the course, and most who took the free classes were not poor strivers but the already well educated. MIT professors Justin Reich, PhD, and José A. Ruipérez- Valiente, PhD, writing in Science magazine in 2019 about the experience of those who signed up for free edX courses, concluded, “The vast majority of MOOC learners never return after their first year, the growth in MOOC participation has been concentrated almost entirely in the world’s most affluent countries, and the bane of MOOCs—low completion rates—has not improved over 6 years.”[11]

EdX, the platform jointly created by MIT and Harvard in 2012, and rival Coursera, started that same year by two Stanford computer science professors, both have now switched from nonprofit status into for-profit enterprises. For a fee, they compete with tech giants to offer certificates in IT and other skills, but also now partner with prestigious universities to offer graduate degrees.

“MOOC providers are on a pathway to focus on already affluent, already educated learners in the developed world who can afford a $21,000 online Master’s in Accounting from Indiana or a $22,000 online MBA from Illinois ….” the analysis by Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente noted. “After promising to disrupt higher education, MOOC providers may settle for cutting costs through automation.”

While the stock market valued Coursera and edX in the billions of dollars when they went public, investors have soured on them and their business model. Coursera’s stock price has plummeted in 18 months from nearly $54 to as low as $10.25. Stock in 2U, which hit $98 in 2018, at one point dropped below $5 a share.

But whether for self-improvement, curiosity, or eventual dreams of a diploma, people can still watch at no cost a Yale art historian’s lectures on Coursera or learn how to save money from a University of California Berkeley finance professor on edX.

The pandemic renewed interest in MOOCs. Coursera says it reached 92 million learners in 2021—double its pre-pandemic numbers—and partnered with 250 education institutions, 2,900 companies, and 230 government entities. EdX, which Harvard and MIT sold to the technology company 2U, Inc., for $800 million in 2021, claims 45 million learners and 230 higher education and other partners. (Udemy, another big online learning company, says it has 49 million takers for its classes, some free and some for fees.)

Hybrid or blended classes combine face-to-face learning with portions of the class that are taught online. Some meet in person only a few times a semester while the professor and students interact over their computers the rest of the time.

Apart from the mostly older, part-time students who enroll in online classes only, other students may prefer to take a few classes online but the rest in person, especially if they live on or near campus or if the class requires hands-on lab work.

In a McKinsey & Company survey of 3,700 online learners, 30 percent said the lack of hands-on experience was their biggest frustration, while 20 percent said it was “engaging in real time conversations through a virtual medium.”[5] (Eighteen percent said their biggest frustration was “getting the technology to work,” a complaint with which internet users of all ages are familiar, whether in college or not.)

Faculty may teach their courses synchronously, or in real time, meaning everyone is tasked to show up in person or online at the appointed hour, regardless of whether they live in a dorm or are a dozen time zones away. Some classes are scheduled in the early morning or early evening to accommodate everyone; 7 a.m. on the East Coast is 7 p.m. in Beijing.

An asynchronous class allows the students to tune in at a time of their choosing, whether mid-morning or afternoon or late at night after work or when the children have been put to bed.

“Some of the best online education experiences are asynchronous,” says Hill, the strategy consultant and blogger (see PhilOnEd-Tech.com). “It allows anywhere, anytime. The sweet spot of who benefits is probably the nontraditional, working adult student who puts their kid to bed and only has time to study at 10 p.m. or on the weekends.”

One advantage is that “if you don’t fully understand something, you can replay the [recorded] lecture without any shame, whereas it’s embarrassing to raise your hand in a classroom and say, ‘I don’t get it. Can you repeat that?’” he says.

Myriad education providers offer online courses, degrees, and certificates. Traditional, bricks-and-mortar institutions have raced to start online graduate degrees, sometimes on their own but often in partnership with for-profit online program managers (OPMs) that help them find and recruit new students, get the courses online smoothly, and provide services students will need to succeed.

It is important for students to choose online degrees from accredited programs or they won’t qualify for federal student aid. The vast majority of public and nonprofit private colleges and universities are accredited by regional agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. There are also organizations that accredit specific programs, such as those offering degrees in allied health fields. Some online programs are accredited by the same regional body that accredits their parent institution, and others by entities such as the Distance Education Accrediting Commission that bear a federal stamp of approval.

However, students who sign up for online for-profit colleges that tout their “national” accreditation may not get what they bargained for. The Department of Education in August stripped the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) of its recognition. ACICS, which once accredited several hundred colleges, both traditional and online, announced it was shutting down.

“National accreditation is typically granted to for-profit institutions that offer vocational and trade programs, and the standards usually aren’t as stringent,” a University of Massachusetts Global online learning guide cautions students. “Should you ever decide to switch schools, transferring credits between institutions is far easier if they’re both regionally accredited. In fact, most regionally accredited institutions will not accept credits earned at a nationally accredited school.”[6]

Certificates are a different matter and employers have the final say on whether prospective employees actually learned the skills to perform the job.

Some principally bricks-and-mortar colleges and universities have created purely online arms to penetrate the market led by such online juggernauts as the University of Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors University, the University of Phoenix, and Grand Canyon University. Others partner with such now for-profit companies as edX and Coursera. Originally created by university professors to offer so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) at no cost, the MOOCs do not offer degrees of their own but tuition-paying learners can take beefed-up classes to earn credits and degrees at the partner universities.

What Is Online Education?

Online education is an umbrella term for a broad range of methods to use the internet for teaching and learning. Some colleges and universities offer all their courses entirely online. Bricks-and-mortar institutions may offer a mix of online and face-to-face instruction, while also injecting online components to classes traditionally taught in person. Here’s a glossary of online education terms and providers.

Synchronous Learning

Synchronous online classes are those taught at an appointed hour in real time. Online students connect over the internet via Zoom or other video conferencing tools to listen to lectures and interact with the professor and other students. They may have live discussions in chat rooms at the same time for questions and comments. The class could originate in a traditional lecture hall, a video conferencing room, or anyplace else with an internet hookup. If necessary, exams may be proctored remotely by webcam to verify the test-taker’s identity, finish within the allotted time, and safeguard against cheating.

Asynchronous Learning

Asynchronous classes are available to watch online and complete course assignments at any time the student chooses. They use discussion boards, blogs, email, and other tools to interact with teachers and fellow students. Students can go at their own pace while the teacher fields questions and checks their progress from time to time. Lectures are prerecorded; transcripts may be included in the course materials. The online forums may have “threaded” discussions on particular topics and assignments.

Hybrid Learning

Hybrid courses, also known as blended courses, combine in–person and online interaction at different times. Students typically attend class in person at least several times a semester while learning the rest of the material online, including recorded lectures and interactions via computers. In other words, it combines synchronous and asynchronous learning. While students move through lessons at their own pace, they customarily have readings and assignments to complete before each face-to-face session.

Types of Online Education

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) took off a decade ago when Stanford computer science professors created Coursera and Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology collaborated to launch edX, both offering fully online courses that anyone around the world with a computer could take free. Tens of millions continue to do so with hundreds of courses from computer science and statistics to art and history to choose from. While free, the vast majority are not for credit, although Coursera and edX, now owned by 2U, have switched from nonprofit to for-profit status and partner with universities to offer some courses for credit. Khan Academy, which is nonprofit, offers free K-12 and higher education classes, and Udacity, a for-profit, charges fees for tech and business skills courses.

Online Colleges and Universities
Some of the largest online colleges and universities are operated for profit, including the University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University (which has unsuccessfully sought to be recognized as nonprofit by the U.S. Department of Education), and Strayer University. Others are nonprofit, including Western Governors University and the University of Southern New Hampshire.

Scores of colleges and universities have online, degree-granting branches including:

  • Purdue University Global, formerly Kaplan University
  • The University of Maryland Global Campus
  • Penn State Global Campus
  • UMass Global
  • The University of Florida Distance Learning
  • Liberty University Online
  • Capella University

Some institutions offer online classes taught by the home campus faculty, including adjuncts. Others rely on teachers hired to teach online only.

But many rely on online program managers to recruit students and use outside faculty to teach classes, while the students earn credits for the same degrees universities award to resident students.

What Are Online Program Managers?
At least 550 U.S. colleges and universities contract with online program managers (OPMs) to do marketing, recruit students, and help deliver a bundle of services, from course design and technology to student services. According to the U.S. Government Accounting Office, 90 percent of these colleges are public or private, nonprofit institutions. While some of the contractual arrangements are opaque, the GAO cited an Eduventures Research survey that found most colleges paid 41 to 60 percent of tuition revenues to their OPM.[17] Among the larger OPMs are Pearson, Wiley Education Services, Academic Partnerships, Bisk, and 2U.

What is Online Course Sharing?
Institutions that participate in consortial agreements with other institutions can share online courses and also provide for the transfer of credits and financial aid between institutions, as established through the consortium. Known earlier to facilitate in-person sharing, for example, among the Five Colleges Consortium in Northampton, Massachusetts, consortial agreements can now allow course sharing online to connect larger networks of like-minded institutions. Tech companies, such as Acadeum, provide applications where institutions can post and students can access shared courses.

U.S. colleges and universities must be accredited for students to obtain federal grants and loans. Most are accredited by regional accreditation agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Some are accredited by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. Degree programs within a college may additionally be accredited by bodies within their academic field, including business and the health professions. If a student takes courses from an unaccredited online school and seeks to transfer to an accredited institution, those credits usually will not count toward graduation requirements.

Many online education providers teach skills and award certificates that employers recognize for purposes of hiring and advancement. With postsecondary enrollments down and employers having difficulties filling skilled positions, colleges and universities awarded 359,713 credentials in 2020, while several large MOOCs awarded 9,390.[18]

Purdue University—which purchased Kaplan University and renamed it Purdue University Global—Arizona State University, and the University of Maryland all have attracted tens of thousands of students to their online programs. The latter’s Global Campus sprang from in-person classes that Maryland began teaching decades ago on U.S. military bases overseas.

Online students today can pursue degrees from the Penn State Global Campus, the University of Florida Online, Colorado State University Global, and numerous other public competitors. The University of Massachusetts acquired online Brandman University in California in 2021 and rebranded it as UMass Global as “a private, nonprofit affiliate.”

But penetrating the online market isn’t easy.

The University of Arizona, trailing Arizona State by far in online enrollments, in August 2020 bought online for-profit Ashford University and converted it into the University of Arizona Global Campus, which President Robert C. Robbins says “will greatly expand its reach … further diversify our educational enterprise, and provide much-needed short-and long-term revenue.” It signed a long-term contract with Ashford’s parent, Zovio Inc., to run the program.

Two years later the university parted company with embattled Zovio, which had been fined $23 million by a California judge for misleading its 35,000 mostly low-income, indebted students about costs and the value of Ashford degrees in the job market. Its accreditor had sounded the alarm about its graduation rates. Soon after Arizona dropped Zovio, which was formerly Bridgepoint Education, Zovio announced it was folding.

Some online program managers take a cut of 50 percent or more of the tuition from the new students they sign up, while also providing the backbone for student services. Many of these online providers count on students’ getting Pell Grants, G.I. Bill benefits, and federally guaranteed loans to pay their tuition and bills.

Government auditors recently urged the U.S. Department of Education to step up oversight of these arrangements and guard against abusive recruiting practices by OPMs. The General Accounting Office said at least 550 colleges and universities—90 percent of them public or nonprofit—work with OPMs to help deliver degree programs online and to recruit students for the programs. It is against the law for these companies to be paid incentives to recruit students, but the auditors said some of the arrangements are opaque.

The Century Foundation, which conducts research on public policy issues, has denounced big OPMs as “wolves in sheep’s clothing: predatory for-profit actors masquerading as some of the nation’s most trustworthy public universities.” They “exercise far more control over online programs than do the schools themselves, to the detriment of both students and the hosting institutions,” it says.[7] These companies typically charge schools 40 to 65 percent of the revenues the online programs bring in and bind colleges to contracts that run as long as 10 years.

It cautioned colleges not to buy bundled services, bypass their faculty on making decisions about degree programs, or enter long-term, unbreakable contracts.

2U recently announced it was unbundling what it charges universities and giving them options starting at a 35 percent share of revenues for a core set of tech-enabled services.[8]

A report from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and the University of Louisville titled “In-House or Outsource?” examines the pros and cons of contracting with outside, for-profit online program managers. “We found that many (chief online learning officers) turned to OPMs for marketing and recruiting, while far fewer sought academic and student support services. Yet while many needed marketing and recruiting from OPMs, we also found that these services were largely not meeting (the learning officers’) expectations,” Louisville professors Jeffrey Sun, PhD, and Heather Turner PhD, have noted.[9]

They say colleges worried about the coming dip in the number of high school graduates feel pressure to compete with efforts by sister institutions and the online “megauniversities” to quickly find more students.

Among the most heavily promoted online degrees are MBAs. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business says 231 accredited U.S. business schools offered fully online MBA programs in 2021–2022, up from 179 in 2017–2018. Schools offer MBAs in different specialties and the number of different programs jumped from 440 to 646 during that period.

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is launching an executive Global MBA costing almost $214,800 that will be taught 75 percent online and 25 percent on the Philadelphia campus. The NYU Stern School of Business has a hybrid MBA that allows students to complete the core curriculum—half the program—entirely online, mostly through classes taught synchronously (live) at night, combined with one-week in-person modules in New York City. Tuition varies, but part-time MBA students can expect to pay $164,000 for 60 credits over three years.

The Geis School of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on the other hand, offers its online “iMBA” degree that costs just $23,040. Georgia Tech received waves of favorable publicity when it began offering an online master’s in computer science degree for $7,000.

Working adults often pursue online graduate degrees in hopes of career advancement. But many go deeply into debt by borrowing to pay steep tuition.

A Wall Street Journal exposé brought an avalanche of bad publicity to the University of Southern California for offering an online social work master’s degree costing $115,000 that left students saddled with debt in a profession in which half were making $52,000 or less. USC partnered with 2U to offer the degree, the online program manager pocketing 60 percent of the tuition. “Compared with other master’s-degree programs at top-tier U.S. universities, the USC social work degree had one of the worst combinations of debt and earnings,” the newspaper reported.[10]

The lure of what are supposed to be fast profits can draw institutions into dubious online arrangements. Experts caution that the upfront costs can be significant, and it takes patience to reap the benefits.

“If you’re seeking the efficiencies that come with online learning, are you assuring the quality?” asks Debra Humphreys, Lumina Foundation’s vice president of student engagement.
“There are important questions trustees should be asking.”

“There’s been an explosion of master’s degree programs offered online and a lot have been created as cash cows …. Responsible trustees should think hard about the quality of the programs they are offering,” says Humphreys.

Whether public and private nonprofit colleges and universities run their own online courses with classes taught by their own faculty or contract out the instruction, they face competition from those online behemoths, both for-profit and not-for-profit.

Sharing Courses Online
One of the most promising developments in online education is the recent emergence of course-sharing consortia among like- minded institutions, including liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities. With advances in technology making it possible for distant students to fully participate in a class and not just watch lectures on Zoom, these schools are filling gaps in their availability of courses and offering prerequisites and other important gatekeeper courses for certain majors more frequently than they can on their own.

Nearby colleges have shared courses for years, but those arrangements were to attend classes in person. The Five College Consortium in western Massachusetts for students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Amherst even runs its own buses between campuses.

“The game changer here is the ease with which online connections now can be made among institutions,” says Richard Ekman, the president emeritus of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), who oversaw the launch of the CIC Online Course Sharing Consortium[12] in 2018.

The consortium now includes 313 colleges—almost half of CIC’s membership—that share more than 5,000 courses with the assistance of the Austin, Texas, company Acadeum, which works with these and other institutions large and small to make their online courses available on its platform. (Lumina Foundation, which prioritizes college completion, was an early investor in Acadeum.)

The arrangement allows colleges to share resources and revenues and fill “seats” that would otherwise remain empty. Moreover, it can help students stay on a path to graduate on time and perhaps make up in the summer or a winter term a course they failed the first time. That can reduce the number of students who give up or transfer to another institution that has the classes they need.

Ekman, who retired in 2021 after two decades at CIC’s helm, was skeptical at first, wary of undermining the private colleges’ signature strength of small classes and close interaction with faculty. But he came around to the belief that a modest amount of online instruction would actually help CIC colleges better fulfill their mission and keep students on track to graduate.

“Say you’re a premed football player at a small college where organic chemistry is offered once a year in the fall. Well, you can’t take it in the fall.” Ekman said. The consortium enables the football player to stay on track. The consortium also proved prescient as a means to help small colleges pivot quickly during the pandemic.

The colleges pay fees to use Acadeum’s platform. The company retains 25 percent of the fees the teaching institution charges per enrollment in a course.

“We are essentially the connective tissue between institutions,” says Rob Manzer, Acadeum’s chief academic officer. “Our platform makes it easy for the home institution to review courses from other institutions, see the syllabus and faculty credentials, and make an informed selection of a course.” The grades go on the students’ transcripts, sometimes erasing an F from an earlier try.

Consortium members avoid losing tens of thousands of dollars of future tuition payments from students who otherwise might have transferred or dropped out.

Another notable course-sharing consortium is that of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI).

In the May 2022 announcement about SREB, cochair of the consortium Roslyn Clark Artis, JD, EdD, and the president of Benedict College, said: “Enabling students to access courses from other HBCUs and MSIs, while providing the support and resources of these richly diverse institutions, is the next step in a collective effort to realize the full promise of HBCUs and MSIs.”

For Benedict, the proof of concept was its arrangement with Dillard University for Benedict seniors to take an accelerated 2021 winter term to make up the six hours each needed to graduate that spring. More than 90 percent successfully did so.

The future of online education is still to be determined.

A survey of faculty and administrators by Bay View Analytics found that the percentage of college courses taught fully online, after doubling to 71 percent in the pandemic’s first year, fell back to 49 percent in 2021-2022. Face-to-face instruction fell from 96 percent in 2019-2020 to 14 percent in 2020-2021 but rebounded to 58 percent of classes in this past academic year. A third of classes now blend in-person and online methods of teaching.[13]

A separate survey of chief online officers found most expect student interest in online learning to keep growing. The annual Changing Landscape of Online Education report by Quality Matters and the market research firm Eduventures said these online leaders predict that by 2025 “the great majority of students at all levels would be combining on-ground and online experiences through a variety of blended and hybrid formats at both the course and program level.”[14]

There remain concerns about the digital divide and what portends as colleges rely more on distance education. A report by the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, based in part on student surveys at Indiana University and Ohio State University, found that almost one in five college students “reported technology barriers (inadequate computer hardware or internet connection) that inhibited participation in online learning.” Low-income and minority students faced this problem the most.[15]

A Gates Foundation-funded study[16] by the Boston Consulting Group and the Arizona State University Foundation of six large, successful online programs at six public universities (including Arizona State) and community colleges found that well-designed courses can deliver equivalent or even improved student outcomes, including higher retention and graduation rates; increased access, particularly for disadvantaged students, and reduced operating costs.

Among the advice they offered to institutions seeking to build their online presence:

  • Tailor a portfolio of programs to the needs of different student populations.
  • Invest in high-quality instructional design.
  • Provide strong support to meet the needs of student learners.
  • Engage faculty as true partners and give them a voice on key decisions.
  • Strengthen analytics and monitoring.

Lumina Foundation’s Humphreys says, “If the programs they are developing are not really integrated with your mission … and instead are seen as ‘Let’s make some extra money by offering something online,’ they will likely fail.

“On the flip side, if an institution says to itself, ‘There’s a new, large audience of people who cannot come to campus and live there and go to college full time for four years but need learning. We can offer that learning if we invest in the professional development of our faculty, if we design targeted programs aligned to where the workforce is,’” she adds.

Hill, the ed tech expert, also counsels trustees to tread carefully.

“You really need to be patient. It’s going to take time to organize properly, and you need realistic goals. Don’t let people sell you a pipedream,” he says.

Christopher Connell is a longtime higher education journalist.


1. “Report of the Harvard Future of Teaching and Learning Task Force,” Harvard University, March 8, 2022, https://ftltaskforce.harvard.edu/
2. “Condition of Education 2021,” National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, https://nces.ed.gov
3. “Student Centered Action & Response: Course Section Offerings and Plans for Future Instruction,” California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, https://www.cccco. edu/-/media/CCCCO-Website/Reports/cccco-report-course-modality-010621-a11y. pdf?la=en&hash=A202408FDDDD2AE3C70595B76EC774843E0A4DFC
4. “Online learning remains paramount component of education after pandemic,” The Daily Targum, Rutgers University, Sept. 29, 2022, https://dailytargum.com/article/2022/09/editorial-online-learning-remains-paramount-component-of-education-after
5. “Demand for online education is growing. Are providers ready?” McKinsey & Co., July 20, 2022, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/ demand-for-online-education-is-growing-are-providers-ready
6. “Are online degrees accredited? How to identify quality distance learning programs,” University of Massachusetts Global, https://www.umassglobal.edu/news-and-events/blog/are-online-degrees-accredited
7. “Dear Colleges: Take Control of Your Online Courses,” The Century Foundation, Sept. 12, 2019, https://tcf.org/content/report/dear-colleges-take-control-online-courses/
8. “2U Unveils New Partnership Model to Increase Access and Affordability in Higher Education, Embracing edX’s Flexible Approach to Degree Support,” 2U, July 29, 2022, https://2u.com/latest/2u-unveils-new-partnership-model-to-increase-access-and- affordability-in-higher-education-embracing-edxs-flexible-approach-to-degree-suppo- rt/
9. “In-House or Outsource? UPCEA/University of Louisville study explores factors at play in deciding to work with an OPM,” University Professional and Continuing Education Association, Oct. 6, 2022, https://upcea.edu/in-house-or-outsource-upcea-university- of-louisville-study-explores-factors-at-play-in-deciding-to-work-with-an-opm/
10. “USC Pushed a $115,000 Online Degree. Graduates Got Low Salaries, Huge Debts.” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 9, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ usc-online-social-work-masters-11636435900
11. “The MOOC Pivot: From Teaching the World to Online Professional Degrees,” Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente, Science, Jan. 11, 2019, https://www.science.org/ doi/10.1126/science.aav7958, https://joseruiperez.me/papers/journals/2019_Science_ MOOCPivot_postprint.pdf
12. CouncilofIndependentCollegesOnlineCourseSharingConsortium,https://www.cic. edu/member-services/online-course-sharing-consortium
13. “Turning Point for Digital Curricula: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2022,” Julia E. Seaman and Jeff Seaman, Bay View Analytics, https://www. bayviewanalytics.com/reports/turningpointdigitalcurricula.pdf
14. “2022 Changing Landscape of Online Education Report 7,” Quality Matters and Eduventures, https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/resource-center/ articles-resources/CHLOE-7-report-2022
15. “The Digital Divide Among College Students: Lessons Learned from the COVID- 19 Emergency Transition,” Shanna Jaggers, Benjamin Motz, et al., Midwestern Higher Education Compact, Feb. 11, 2021, https://www.mhec.org/sites/default/files/ resources/2021The_Digital_Divide_among_College_Students_1.pdf
16. “Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies From Six Leading Universities and Community Colleges,” the Boston Consulting Group and EdPlus at Arizona State University, https://edplus.asu.edu/what-we-do/making-digital-learning-work
17. “[The Department of ] Education Needs to Strengthen Its Approach to Monitoring Colleges’ Arrangements with Online Program Managers,” Government Accounting Office, April 2022, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-104463.pdf
18. “CountingU.S.PostsecondaryandSecondaryCredentials,”CredentialEngine, February 2021, https://credentialengine.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Counting-Credentials-2021.pdf

Editor’s Note: Carol Schuler developed and led the CIC course-sharing consortium before becoming AGB’s editor in chief in 2022.

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