10 trends to watch in distance learning

By Fred Lokken

As we all know, prior to the Covid pandemic, the growth of online enrollments at colleges and universities had been phenomenal. As late as 2019, online enrollments were on average 25% of overall community college enrollments, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. In addition, since 2003, traditional enrollments had steadily declined in higher education (on average a -2.5% decline each year).

The Covid pandemic led to a massive disruption in both K-12 and higher education as almost all instruction switched from in-person to fully online in March 2020. To be honest, the pivot was uneven and particularly problematic in K-12. After all, there had been almost no prior preparation or no real exposure to online learning for either students or teachers.

At the college level, however, community colleges were especially better prepared given the growth and extent of online classes and even degrees, and even universities were relatively successful in utilizing a web-live approach. That pivot went much better. In fact, post-pandemic surveys of college and university students AND faculty indicated a greater appreciation for — and interest in — online learning.

As a result, distance learning has resumed its role of growing enrollments and increasing access to higher education. A growing number of community colleges now have at least half of their overall enrollment in online courses and programs.

Quality, too

Over the next several months, the Instructional Technology Council (ITC) article series to be featured in CC Daily will explore various aspects of distance learning, focusing on its growing importance as the future of higher education. ITC, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges, has conducted national distance learning surveys of community colleges for the past 20 years. The cumulative data have documented the growth and evolution of online learning – and its impact on accessibility and learning.

Gone are the debates about the quality of online learning; this modality of learning has been viewed as “at least equivalent to” traditional instruction since 2010. And student success and retention in online classes meet or exceed that of the traditional classroom. The Millennial, Y and Z generations thrive in the online learning environment.

Trends over the next decade

As we look forward, prospects for online education are boundless. Based on the historic data as well as the Covid boost to online learning, the next 10 years will be marked by a number of important trends and developments, including:

  • Online education will continue to grow – and will dominate. Institutions should plan for 75% of overall enrollments to be online and 25% in-person in the next 10 years as online continues to expand rapidly.
  • The traditional quarter/semester will be challenged by the emergence of year-round models made possible by online learning and accelerated programs that better fit our technology-based future rather than our agriculture-based past.
  • The 21st-century economy will require repeated training/retraining/updating. Colleges and universities will need to foster a lifetime relationship with their students using distance learning as the primary modality of connection and instruction.
  • Student services will increasingly be provided by artificial intelligence (AI), driven by regional accreditation requirements for equal service provisions coupled with cost-savings and the higher level of services that AI can help to provide.
  • The traditional campus will become less relevant (not economically sustainable) as students seek out more technology-based instruction.
  • Adult learners will replace the traditional student as the principal source of enrollment in higher education.
  • Many colleges and universities will merge/close as a result of their inability to adapt to the rapidly changing (increasingly technology-based) learning environment.
  • Higher education will experience ever-increasing competition.
  • Certificates and micro-credentials will supplant traditional degrees as the most relevant education preparation for the economy.
  • Community colleges will seek collaborations and partnerships with each other to provide a synergy of micro-credentials, certificates, degrees and training opportunities relevant to a rapidly changing economy and workplace.

Key hurdles

The trends identified above amount to a significant paradigm shift for higher education – a shift that must be made to ensure the value and relevance of higher education to future generations. As with any shift of this magnitude, there is bound to be a great deal of denial and resistance as well as hurdles to overcome. Specifically:

  • This type of transformation is technology-based and requires appropriate guidance, expertise and support. Many online programs are woefully understaffed and underfunded. That needs to change.
  • Campus leadership must embrace these changes and provide prioritization of resources needed to transform the way we teach and learn.
  • We must find ways to address the current digital divide (devices, broadband and training) that exists for students, faculty and staff.
  • Higher education needs to become more accepting of change, to be more responsive to changing what we teach as well as how we teach, and must commit to a culture of lifelong learning and support for our students. Our relevance and survival depend on it!

This article was originally published in CC Daily.

Fred Lokken

is chair of the Business, History and Political Science Department – and former dean of the WebCollege – at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. He is past chair and a board member of the Instructional Technology Council (ITC), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges. Lokken has conducted the Annual ITC National Distance Learning Survey for the past 17 years.