Survey results are promising and indicate that online learning was more successful than many in higher ed initially believed

Students give passing grades to pandemic learning

Survey results are promising and indicate that online learning was more successful than many in higher ed initially believed

The COVID-19 pandemic brought an influx of new challenges to higher education, with the move to online learning shedding light on equity gaps and student mental health needs. And while no transition was perfect, the majority of students, faculty, and administrators actually give pandemic learning a decent grade.

In fact, more students gave pandemic learning an “A” grade, while more faculty and administrators gave it a “B” grade, according to the fourth and final installment of the Digital Learning Pulse Survey, a four-part series intended to help better illustrate the needs of colleges during COVID-19.

The survey of 1,486 students and 1,286 faculty and administrators across 856 institutions was conducted by Bay View Analytics on behalf of the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies), University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA) and primary partner and underwriter Cengage, a global education technology company.

“Student perspectives regarding their preferences and perceptions of quality are critical as we plan strategically for helping faculty leverage the professional development they’ve received in the past year,” said Angela Gunder, Chief Academic Officer of OLC. “Blended learning pedagogical practices are well poised to help bridge the gap between student access and success, and we’re re-imagining programming and resources that position faculty and staff to thrive in this space.”

“Digital learning was already growing, and the pandemic greatly accelerated that. It also increased everyone’s comfort level and capability with online learning and digital tools,” said Fernando Bleichmar, executive vice president and general manager for U.S. Higher Education at Cengage. “Students continue to face pressures and are questioning the value of higher education, but they clearly see the benefits and flexibility that digital learning can offer. Now colleges and universities need to find an affordable way to meet students where they are in their journey.”

Key takeaways from the survey include:

  • Students, faculty and administrators are aligned on key student challenges, differ on institutional support: Students, faculty and administrators all agreed that “stress,” “level of motivation,” and “having time to do coursework” were students’ top challenges this spring, though students saw institutional support (or lack thereof) as a bigger problem than faculty or administrators.
  • More students give pandemic learning an “A” grade compared to faculty or administrators: Students, faculty and administrators graded how well their courses met education needs during Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, with more students giving As, and more faculty and admins giving Bs:
    • Fall 2020:
      • “A” Grade – 43 percent of Students; 36 percent of Faculty; 18 percent of Admins
      • “B” Grade – 30 percent of Students; 45 percent of Faculty; 56 percent of Admins
      • “C” Grade – 16 percent of Students; 18 percent of Faculty; 23 percent of Admins
    • Spring 2021:
      • “A” Grade – 47 percent of Students; 43 percent of Faculty; 25 percent of Admins
      • “B” Grade – 29 percent of Students; 46 percent of Faculty; 56 percent of Admins
      • “C” Grade – 13 percent of Students; 10 percent of Faculty; 16 percent of Admins
  • Students more positive about online learning: The majority of students are more optimistic today than pre-pandemic about online learning (57 percent) and digital materials (52 percent). Nearly half of students (48 percent) are more optimistic about hybrid courses.
  • Students more likely to want some courses delivered fully-online post-pandemic, and preferences differ across format and respondent group.
  • Preference for some courses to be fully-online:
    • 46 percent of students strongly agree; 27 percent somewhat agree
    • 32 percent of faculty strongly agree; 21 percent somewhat agree
    • 15 percent of admins strongly agree; 25 percent somewhat agree
  • Preference for some courses in hybrid format:
    • 33 percent of students strongly agree; 35 percent somewhat agree
    • 30 percent of faculty strong agree; 27 percent somewhat agree
    • 25 percent of admins strongly agree; 37 percent somewhat agree

“These results will be reassuring for faculty and administrators,” said Dr. Jeff Seaman, lead researcher and Director of Bay View Analytics. “Their concern for student well-being and the quality of their education was very evident in our previous surveys, and it’s clear from the students’ responses that they valued this effort, and thought it was largely successful.”

The survey results are also encouraging for higher-ed’s long term growth and modernization by moving more learning online and making it more accessible for students.

“Some have worried that the remote learning experiences offered during the pandemic would negatively reflect on courses that are online by design. These results seem to contradict our assumptions based on anecdotal information. When [three-fourths] of students and more than half of faculty want to experience at least some courses fully online, the key takeaway is that the pandemic did not threaten but in fact accelerated the long-term growth, acceptance, and desirability of online learning, and those numbers will only improve, as emergency remote offerings are rebuilt as modern online courses and programs,” said Robert Hansen, Chief Executive Officer of UPCEA.

“The students surveyed understand and appreciate the value of their online learning experience,” said Russ Poulin, Executive Director of WCET. “This is encouraging considering that many of them were actually involved in an emergency ‘remote’ experience in a class not designed to be offered in that format. In the future, those students will greatly appreciate taking online courses from faculty prepared to teach in the modality with curriculum designed to maximize learning at a distance.”

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Laura Ascione