COOs describe how higher-ed institutions are responding to a rising demand for online learning by increasing focus on digital modalities.

Continued demand for online learning demonstrates a “major shift”

COOs describe how higher-ed institutions are responding to changing student preferences and a rising demand for online learning by increasing focus on digital modalities

Key points:

The demand for online and hybrid learning continues to increase, and this demand is accompanied by a decrease in demand for a return to pre-pandemic in-person learning opportunities, according to the Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report.

The eighth edition of the report, or the CHLOE 8, comes from Quality
Matters and Eduventures Research, a division of Encoura and surveyed hundreds of chief online officers (COOs) at higher-ed institutions.

While this growing demand for online learning peaked during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when emergency learning was at its highest, CHLOE 8 reveals that the demand continues to gain traction in today’s post-pandemic era and, in fact, has most likely not peaked.

“The CHLOE 8 report captures the dynamic, uncertain moment after the ‘emergency remote learning’ of the pandemic,” says Richard Garrett, CHLOE Co-Director and Eduventures Chief Research Officer, Encoura. “The crisis has faded but experience and expectations have changed.”

Interestingly, while higher-ed institutions have seen enrollment declines and are nervously tracking the impending enrollment cliff, the demand for online learning continues to grow in a robust manner, according to the report.

Responses to CHLOE 8 echo this demand for online learning–although 81 percent of COOs surveyed report that enrollment in traditional, face-to-face courses has stalled or declined at their institutions, 56 percent report growth or strong growth in enrollment in online and hybrid programs.

“While national reporting has indicated a modest decrease in total enrollment in U.S. higher education, there continues to be robust growth in online enrollment,” says Dr. Eric Fredericksen, CHLOE Contributing Editor and Associate Vice President for Online Learning for the University of Rochester.

CHLOE 8 also illustrates how a “dramatic shift” in learner preferences is putting institutions in a tough spot, as many are struggling to prioritize online learning in the face of limited funding.

“For many institutions struggling with enrollment and revenue levels, success in
building online capacity may spell the difference between viability and crisis in the next decade,” says Dr. Ron Legon, CHLOE Senior Editor and Executive Director Emeritus of Quality Matters.

Other key insights include:

Most institutions are taking steps to meet the rising demand for online learning. According to CHLOE 8 respondents, half of the institutions surveyed have begun to address demand for online learning in their strategic plans and resource allocations, and steps to do so are currently under discussion in another 36 percent of responding schools. This is remarkably rapid change in a normally slow-moving field like higher education.

Only a small minority are not considering changing their strategic plans. Of the 15 percent that are not, more than half (9 percent of the total) are still committed to finding ways to accommodate online/hybrid learning options.

The primary way institutions are adjusting to this shift is by increasing online options. Sixty-six percent of COOs shared that their institutions are adding new online programs based on student demand for online learning, citing higher enrollment growth for online and hybrid programs across all student groups.

At many institutions, neither faculty nor students are adequately prepared for online learning. Only 22 percent of COOs reported that a high proportion of their full-time faculty (70+ percent) have experience designing online courses, and few schools require orientation prior to learners starting an online learning course, despite the fact that research shows that orientation boosts student success.

Online learning technology investment has slowed and become more selective, as institutions work to consolidate the fruits of a pandemic-driven spending surge. At the time of survey, no participating institution had yet implemented institution-wide adoption of any of the technologies and capabilities inquired about in CHLOE 8.

Institutions are not yet effectively leveraging the differentiating power of quality in online learning by emphasizing student success in online and hybrid modalities in their marketing materials. “At a time when we’re seeing consistent and rising demand for online learning, most chief online officers are still not communicating institutional efforts around quality online learning,” says Dr. Bethany
Simunich, CHLOE Co-Director and QM Vice President of Innovation and Research. “This practice of ‘quiet quality assurance’ seems a lost opportunity for institutions pursuing new student audiences.”

“The CHLOE 8 Report solidifies the unwavering strength of online enrollment in both undergraduate and graduate education,” says Dr. Mike Truong, PhD, Director of Faculty Development and Associate Professor at Azusa Pacific University. “Despite the ongoing challenges and decline faced by traditional face-to-face enrollment, demand for online programs remains robust. Those educational institutions that overlook this prevailing trend will bear the consequences themselves.”

Related: Remote access to education democratizes learning

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Laura Ascione

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