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.
Online Students By the Numbers
Using data from the NCES and Learning House, we pieced together a picture of what online students look like these days:
- Gender: Just like their campus counterparts, online students are predominantly female. However, this discrepancy between female and male students is evening out. At the undergraduate level in 2012, female students represented 74% of all online students. By 2019, the gap narrowed, with 65% of online students female and 35% male. At the graduate level in 2012, women represented 66% of the online student population; in 2019, the number had fallen to 54%. This trend toward a 50-50 split reflects what we're seeing in traditional campus programs.
- Age: Online students are getting younger. In 2015, the average age of an undergraduate online student was 32.3 and the average online graduate student was 35. That number has fallen every year since and now stands at 30.5 for undergraduates and 33.7 for graduates. This may indicate a trend away from online education's foothold with working professionals and toward more conventional students who would have previously chosen a traditional on-campus program. In fact, the most recent numbers show that the 18-24 age group represents the largest segment at both the undergraduate (39%) and graduate (23%) levels.
- Race/Ethnicity: The level of diversity in online education is about the same as its face-to-face counterpart. The undergraduate online student population is:
- 63% Caucasian
- 15% African-American
- 10% Hispanic
- 8% Asian or Pacific Islander
- 67% Caucasian
- 11% African-American
- 10% Asian or Pacific Islander
- 8% Hispanic
- Employment and Income: Online students are more likely to have a job, and those who do have a job tend to work more hours than on-campus students. Seventy-two percent of online undergraduate students are employed, compared to 70% of on-campus students. Fifty-one percent of these students work full-time, while 21% work part-time. Online graduate students tend to work more; 70% reported having a full-time job, while only 14% worked part-time and 13% were unemployed (the others were retired or did not reply). The percentage of online students who say they work full-time has increased steadily over the last several years, both for undergraduate and graduate students. When it comes to income of online undergraduate students:
- 22% make under $25,000
- 21% make between $25,000-39,999
- 15% make between $40,000-54,999
Colleges Now Categorize Students Differently
Institutions of higher learning have long categorized students by demographics like age and gender and traditional vs. non-traditional students. While this has often been more convenient for the university, it hasn't served students as well. The traditional way of segmenting students (that universities have relied on) has only led to higher dropout rates, lower student satisfaction, and less success after college, according to a seminal study conducted by the Parthenon Group and the Lumina Foundation. Online learning systems offer more flexibility for curriculum delivery, lower overhead costs, and greater accessibility options, which has given colleges freedom to move away from this way of thinking and create new ways to categorize and understand students and their needs.
Academic Wanders, Industry Switchers, and Career Accelerators
The old model is being replaced by one that's more focused on students' motivations than their inherent traits. The new student segments look like this:
- Career Accelerators are typically older and already established in a career but are looking to advance in those careers. They make up 21% of the online learner population.
- Aspiring Academics are what we think of as traditional students; 18-24, recent high school graduates who are focused on the academic achievements of college life. This is the biggest segment of online learners at 24%.
- Coming of Age students are also 18-24 and exploring academics, but they're also using college's social world and extracurricular activities to transition to adulthood. Coming of age students represent 11% of online learners.
- Career Starters are practical thinkers who look at college as a stepping stone to a particular career. They make up 18% of the online student population.
- Industry Switchers are students who may already have some college (or even a degree) and have started down a career path but want to pursue a completely different field. Industry switchers also account for 18% of online students.
- Academic Wanderers are older students who see a degree as a credential for opening doors but aren't sure what to pursue or how to reach their goals. At 8%, they're the smallest segment of online learners.
Although many of these segments value the same things (most students cite flexibility and cost as the biggest factors in choosing online learning), their methods of learning and the ways in which they engage with the university are vastly different.
For instance, a student in the Coming of Age segment might place less value on specific degree offerings and look to engage more with broad academic offerings, social culture, and extracurricular activities. Conversely, a Career Accelerator tends to place less emphasis on the social aspects of school and more on credits for work experience, stellar career services, and academic rigor. Looking at students in a more nuanced way will allow colleges to tailor everything from curriculum and support services to counseling and even internship opportunities.
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.
Online Learning: Online vs. On-Campus Programs
Online programs often suffer from the stereotype that perpetuates the idea that online learning is inferior to in-person learning. Students in online programs dispute this. The Learning House study asked online students and graduates whether they thought their online education was worth it. An overwhelming majority (84%) either agreed or strongly agreed that it was. By contrast, only 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Eighty-one percent said they were confident that they would graduate from their online program with the skills they need to succeed in their field.
Some have also argued that soft skills that employers value, like communication, teamwork, leadership, and critical thinking skills, are better developed in a face-to-face learning environment. Students don't seem to think that's true, either. Around 85% said that their online program improved their time-management skills, critical thinking skills, and their attention to detail. Sixty-nine percent saw their teamwork skills improve, and 62% said their oral communication skills got better.
How do students who have done both online and in-person college courses feel? Eighty-five percent felt that their distance learning classes were just as good or better than their on-campus classes (37% felt they were better and 48% felt they were about the same). Graduate students were even more enthusiastic -- 42% ranked their online classes higher than their in-person ones.
Employers are beginning to give equal weight to online degrees as well. Even though 18% of prospective online students worried about employer perception of their online degree, a survey done by Excelsior College and Zogby International found that 83% of executives felt an online degree was just as reputable as one earned on-campus.
There are a couple of explanations for this disparity between the perception and reality of online programs. One is that online programs started on shaky ground. These online programs were first adopted by non-accredited or suspect for-profit colleges, and the stigma that this created is taking some time to wear off.
The other is that there's a gap between on-campus and online outcomes. Depending on the study you look at, completion rates are anywhere from 10% to 22% less with online programs, and some demographics have done markedly worse with virtual learning (students of color, students with special needs, and students with lower GPAs especially).
Still, perceptions will continue to change and online programs will keep maturing, so we can only expect them to continue their growth vs. on-campus programs.
Online Programs: The Top Disciplines
We wanted to know which online degrees were the most popular and which were trending for this year, so we took a look at data from a few different sources. It should come as no surprise that the top online degree field for undergraduates is business, which makes up for 26% of all online degrees. This mirrors on-campus programs, where business is traditionally the most awarded degree field.
There was a tie for second place: online degrees in the arts & humanities and those in computers & IT both came in at 15%. Health and medicine degrees, however, saw a decline, falling to third this year (14%). Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees accounted for 11%, while social sciences, criminal justice, and law were close behind with 10%. Education (6%) and human services (4%) were next.
Compared to the 2014 numbers, many degree fields shrank. However, online programs in arts & humanities grew by 6%, STEM grew by 5%, and computers & IT grew by 1%.
The graduate-level is seeing some interesting trends, as well. Online education degrees dropped by half (22% in 2014 to just 11% in 2019). Counseling, arts & humanities, and the social sciences all dropped, too. Yet, health & medicine stayed steady at 11%. Online graduate degree fields that saw growth include business and STEM programs, and computers & IT grew from 9% in 2014 to 19% in 2019.
Online Classes: Synchronous vs. Asynchronous
Synchronous online courses mimic traditional on-campus courses in that students must log in and attend classes virtually, listen to their professor, and participate in the discussion in real-time. Conversely, asynchronous courses allow students to absorb class materials when it's most convenient for them. Quizzes and assignments are often due weekly in this format.
These two approaches have been the subject of many debates within online education. Some favor a synchronous format because it honors the more traditional ideas about learning -- student interaction, lecturing, and a classroom environment. Others feel asynchronous learning is more in line with modern learners -- it gives them the freedom to fit an education into work and family life, allows for more independence, and it lets students study in ways that best fit their learning styles.
Studies haven't been able to find any major differences between the two when it comes to outcomes, but which method is becoming more common?
Much like the debate between the two, data shows a push and pull every year. In 2016, 56% of online courses were delivered in a synchronous format compared to 42% in an asynchronous format. 2017 was a 50-50 tie, and 2018 saw synchronous formats skyrocket to 60%. The most recent year for which we have data showed a 51% to 49% tilt in favor of asynchronous learning. And herein lies our trend: we'll see a more balanced approach that takes advantage of the strengths of both methods.
Open Education: OERs and MOOCs Are on the Rise
Back in 2012, the New York Times heralded the year of the MOOCs, which stands for Massive Open Online Courses. Many universities adopted MOOCs (self-contained courses with unlimited participation and open access) and independent content providers popped up by the dozens. The idea was to provide free or low-cost courses that students could cherry-pick and complete outside of any traditional semester structure or degree system. Supporters trumpeted the idea that open courses had the potential to bring more equity to education, increase access, and establish scalable, inexhaustible learning resources.
Subsequent analysis has shown that this initial spike didn't last and that MOOCs didn't revolutionize learning in the ways that many experts predicted. That is, not yet. The initial frenzy may have subsided but MOOCs aren't going anywhere; universities and providers have learned from the mistakes of the boom, and now we're seeing slow, steady growth. Just in 2019, we saw 2,500 new courses, 11 new online MOOC-based degrees, and 170 micro-credentials.
The same goes for Open Educational Resources (OERs); these are mostly digital texts and media materials that any public user can access, enhance, remix and redistribute for educational purposes. OERs have seen slow and steady adoption by universities but some experts see the real growth happening in the public. Since anyone can access and rework them, we could see the emergence of crowd-sourced education, with students, publishers, educators, and other experts curating and evolving content.
By tapping into the power of the masses, some proponents argue we'll be able to create malleable curriculums that can pivot with the times, incorporate more diverse viewpoints, fuel innovation, and create learning communities where students are active collaborators instead of passive participants. Critics worry that crowdsourcing education could lead to crumbling standards, ethical issues, and a lack of authoritative oversight.
Crowdsourced education has been used by independent organizations (like Creative Commons) and websites quite a bit (particularly with language learning) but some universities have adopted it, at least in small ways:
- The University of South Florida created the Writing Commons eTextbook, which has now been used and tweaked by millions of users around the world.
- Columbia University and the University of Calgary used crowdsourcing to solve budget issues, change curriculum and update university policies around online learning.
- The University of Minnesota launched the Cultivating Change Community project, an OER eBook and site that's evolved to 50 chapters thanks to 150 authors.
Look for both OERs and MOOCs to continue their growth in 2021, and check out this interview with Rory McGreal, the UNESCO Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources (OER), to learn more about how colleges use OERs.
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
Microlearning is Big
Gamification is Growing
AI Is Changing the Game
VR Is Gaining Ground
Big Data Will Change Everything
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.