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2021 Trends in Online College Education

Online education is constantly evolving. Here, we look at the demographics of online students and highlight some of the biggest trends for 2021 that include AI, VR, microlearning, and gamification.

Online education became front and center in 2020 as the world's school systems (and its students) were forced to move to virtual learning models. The pandemic may have necessitated a frantic push out of in-person classrooms, but online learning has been on an upward trajectory for the last two decades. That's especially true for colleges. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimated in 2018 (the last year for which there are statistics) that 34% of the 16.61 million undergraduate students in the United States are enrolled in at least one online course and 14% are enrolled exclusively in distance education and online degree programs.

That represents a big leap over even 2004 when surveys showed that 15.6% of students in higher education were taking at least one online class and 3.8% were completely online. Although undergraduates represent the largest segment of online learners, graduate-degree seekers saw a sharper incline -- grad students taking fully online programs shot up from 6.1% in 2008 to 27.3% in 2016, and the number taking at least one online course increased by nearly 30% over that same period.

Experts predict that socioeconomic factors (and the pandemic, to a degree) will continue this trend. In this guide, we'll dive into what the average college student looks like in 2021, plus give you a snapshot of online education trends, including VR and gamification, for the coming year.

What Do Online Learners Look Like?

Just like in-person college students, online learners run the gamut when it comes to age, race, and motivation. Below, we'll break these segments down by looking at the data that recent studies have uncovered.

How is Online Learning Evolving?

Because online education is rooted in technology and is still relatively new, it is constantly evolving as educators and administrators adapt to technological advances and new ideas. Below, we'll look at what students think of online and on-campus degrees, check out which disciplines are moving online, and analyze the growth of open online educational programs.

How Tech is Revolutionizing Online Education

We can't talk about trends in online education without touching on all the ways that tech is pushing virtual learning. We're seeing innovation in the ways big data is changing every aspect of education: video-learning outlets are improving, while gamification, VR, and AI are opening exciting new avenues to learning.

  • Video-Based Learning Methods Are Expanding

  • Video-based learning is about as old as online education. Virtual learning platforms have long incorporated filmed lectures and video content to facilitate learning. Students watched videos and took quizzes to test the retention. And new generations appear to still favor this type of learning, particularly with YouTube. A study conducted by Pearson Education found that 67% of Millennials and 82% of GenZers preferred YouTube over other learning platforms.

    With emerging technologies in video-based learning, students aren't watching videos; they're actively participating with them. Video platforms now have embedded questions, keywords, pointer phrases, and navigation menus that give students a chance to engage with the material. Many universities have also adopted a method of interactive video-based learning where students watch a video made by an instructor and then post a response video wherein they ask questions or give a summary to show that they've retained the information. We expect this trend to continue, especially as video platforms like YouTube expand their capabilities.

  • Microlearning is Big

  • When we picture online learning, we usually envision a student sitting down in front of a laptop for hours on end. However, this way of learning may not fit anymore; smartphones and ubiquitous wireless connectivity have changed the way learners interact with the content in their programs. Modern learners are more distracted and have been trained by social media to favor a more self-serve model that allows them to do learning in short bursts. In fact, when asked what they want out of their content, 60% of online students wanted personalized, timely content, and 56% said they wanted the ability to learn on-demand.

    That's why more and more online programs are finding ways to deliver curriculum to mobile phones, where students can absorb materials on-the-go; waiting in line for a coffee, taking a break at work, or lying in bed at night. This shift to smartphone learning will mean big changes to the curriculum. Rather than big chunks of information, learning will be broken up into small, highly focused units that can be digested in a matter of minutes. For example, students might be able to watch a short video, play a quick game, listen to a brief podcast, or take a concise quiz and check off a day's lesson five minutes at a time.

    This technology can also change the way that students study. Rather than cracking the book and poring over tons of material in the hopes that it'll stick, learners can go right to the areas where they need a refresher before a test.

  • Gamification is Growing

  • Video gaming is a huge part of students' lives. According to Pew Research Group, 70% of college students say they play video games sometimes, and 65% say they are regular gamers (women at a slightly higher rate than men). Around 11% said they play for more than 20 hours a week. There are even emerging fields of study in video gaming, including bachelor's programs in video game design. For a time, institutions in higher education fought against incorporating gaming into lessons; attitudes were negative toward video games, the tech wasn't there, and even the willing didn't know quite how to make it work.

    However, the studies that say video games can have a beneficial impact on learning are piling up and the data are becoming harder to ignore. Some have touted the positive effects it can have on mood. Others have shown that it improves cognitive skills, and still others have linked it to better focus. With their interactive nature, online and mobile content delivery are conducive to game learning methods. For this reason, online programs have been and will continue to be at the forefront of using games to teach.

    Colleges and universities have adopted gamification in a number of ways. Some have incorporated badges and leaderboards to foster participation or found ways to deliver content through games, using platforms like Kahoot!, Quizizz, and Minecraft: Education Edition, which allows students to collaborate on unique projects in a virtual space.

    The results, according to teachers, researchers, and students, have been positive. Students in programs that have adopted this tech have seen improved soft skills, emotional intelligence, and motivation to learn. Schools have seen greater student success and retention rates. Moving forward, we'll undoubtedly see gaming become a more integral part of online education.

  • AI Is Changing the Game

  • One of the biggest and most exciting tech trends is the marriage of artificial intelligence (AI) and online education. The transformative possibilities of AI in learning is limitless. It has the power to personalize education in ways we can't yet imagine; it will vastly improve accessibility, make college infinitely cheaper, and make online classes more intimate. While we still have a long way to go before we see its full potential, a few universities are already integrating elements of AI across their online programs.

    Georgia Tech, for instance, boasts a virtual assistant named Jill Watson who is taking some of the administrative burden off of teachers by answering students' questions about content, assignments, and tech issues. And preliminary studies show that students benefit from this approach -- they appreciate the quick responses and find feedback from AI to be less intimidating than from a fellow human being. Teachers also appreciate help with the grading process.

    AI will revolutionize learning in other ways, too: AI-driven analytics can gather data on the ways in which students learn, identify knowledge gaps, and improve retention by spotting signs of early dropout.

  • VR Is Gaining Ground

  • Virtual reality (VR) is being used more and more in schools, and for good reason. The Hermann Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows that students who listen to a lecture may have 100% retention on day one (that's the best-case scenario), 50-80% retention on day two, and about 2-3% retention after 30 days. Experiential learning -- that is, learning that's done by experiencing -- has been shown to increase that retention rate considerably. This matters because the immersive nature of virtual reality can be a stand-in for experiential learning in the sense that it can make students' minds believe they've experienced something.

    This immersion narrows the gap between theory and practice, increases student engagement, accelerates the learning process, and makes complex learning easier. It has applications that reach every level of online education, too. Students from across the globe could use it in synchronous environments to simulate a real classroom, which could solve some of the socialization issues presented by online learning. Students could use them to walk with dinosaurs, design buildings in 3D, practice giving a speech, visit ancient Rome, conduct surgery on a virtual patient, and visualize anything the mind can imagine.

    Several schools are already experimenting with these possibilities:

    - The University of Westminster has built a virtual court where online law students can recreate all the ins and outs of a real courtroom.

    - Criminology students at the County College of Morris in New Jersey don VR headsets to investigate virtual crime scenes.

    - Students at Boise State University (ID) use software to create realistic conditions to run virtual spacewalks outside the International Space Station.

    Of course, instituting VR will be a challenge; it's expensive, there's not a lot of software out there yet, and many online students would not have access to the equipment. This is changing rapidly thanks to innovations like Google Cardboard, which lets users turn any smartphone into a VR headset for about $10. Though it may be slow, in 2021, we'll see more widespread adoption of VR in online education.

  • Big Data Will Change Everything

  • Many argue that the thing that will change education more than anything else is actually a byproduct of technology in the online classroom: data. Data, or big data because of its increasingly huge volume, is being generated at a blinding pace as institutions adopt online learning platforms, digital textbooks, and mobile applications.

    Monitoring Student Performance and Outcomes: This information is astoundingly powerful -- it can tell experts and educators all sorts of things about how students interact with the curriculum, what makes students engage (or disengage), and why a student failed, dropped out, or disengaged, which is a huge distinction. Big data can also help identify gaps in knowledge and track the minutiae of student performance. With this data about performance and behavior, we can start to predict and intervene; content can be adjusted in real-time and steps can be taken to support struggling students, thus improving student outcomes. Without it, a teacher might not know a student is having trouble until a test and by that point, the rest of the class has moved on and it can often be too late for that one student.

    Improving University and Program Performance: Many universities and organizations have used big data and analytics to improve. For instance, Oral Roberts University wanted a more accurate and real-time analysis of how their programs and policies were affecting retention rates. When they dug into the data, clear patterns emerged and they were able to implement new policies that shot retention from 61% to 75.5% in a single semester. Likewise, Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, uses big data to analyze the full experience of its students from academic performance and residential situations to social engagement and use of support services. It then compares this data with established data that traditionally predict student success; the gap between the two allows them to know where students are falling through the cracks. Since using this model, Nazareth's graduation rates have improved significantly. Big data may also be used to help us understand and remedy bias in curriculum and testing, improve student recruitment and admissions, and even see statewide and nationwide trends more clearly.

    Misusing and Using Big Data: Its potential to advance education is astronomical, but so is its potential for misuse. There are issues of student privacy. So far, 21 states have enacted student privacy laws in response to big data collection. Additionally, big data can be difficult to make use of. Our data storage infrastructure is becoming antiquated and unable to keep up with advances in big data, which makes it hard to gather data, analyze the patterns, and implement education solutions. The increasing ubiquity of cloud services is changing this, but progress is slow. And, finally, many institutions have lacked the resources to either train staff or employ analysts to turn data into actionable information. To be leveraged in ways that will truly change education, all of these hurdles will need to be overcome.