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How Do Students Feel About Learning Online in the Wake of COVID?

Written by Molly Forman on Jun 16, 2020

Related content: University, Digital Education

Since its beginnings, online higher education has been met with skepticism. Is the quality up to par? Can the university experience be replicated online? Are student outcomes comparable?

These questions have taken on a new urgency as the COVID-19 pandemic thrusts online learning into the spotlight. Prioritizing student health and safety, universities quickly moved all classes online earlier this year with little warning. Students ended up finishing out the spring semester via Zoom calls. Fall remains an open question for many. The unexpected and unplanned move online has led students (and their parents) to doubt the value of their experience.

Just how much are students impacted this year—and what does this mean for education moving forward? Explore below.

How students perceive the race to get online

Many universities made the decision to go fully remote in the span of a week. While moving to “emergency remote learning” was a critical step to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the experience left many students disillusioned.

According to a survey conducted by exam prep company OneClass, 75% of college students across the U.S. feel their e-learning experience this spring lacked quality—whether due to technical mishaps, unengaging instruction, or a lack of specialized tools and equipment.

Another recent survey found that 78% of students wish to have in-person classes this fall. In the same survey, 56% of students expressed a lack of interest in online classes—based on their current experience—when school resumes.

The American Council on Education (ACE) asked students about their plans for the fall, and as many as 10% of students reported uncertainty about enrollment, while 2% are now choosing not to enroll at all. Considering nearly 20 million students enroll in colleges and universities each year, these numbers are significant.

The race for institutions to get online is not only disrupting the education system but also influencing how a generation of students views and values their education. It’s clear universities will need to rebuild trust and prioritize quality before offering additional online experiences this fall.

What the data gets wrong about online higher ed

Student data surrounding COVID-19 misses the bigger picture: there are major differences between emergency remote instruction and intentional online education. Instructors and students at a majority of institutions have not received adequate training, budget, technical resources, and more to prepare for online instruction and learning, causing widespread interruptions to the semester (and a lack of faith in the education system for some).

Students need and deserve an online experience that’s comparable to in-person education, with engaging instruction, robust curricula, and interactive opportunities for connection. While delivering this level of quality isn’t fast or easy, it’s achievable. Earlier this year, 2U partnered with Gallup to survey online degree program alumni of our various university partner institutions, measuring their success and sentiments in comparison to those of graduate students, both online and on-campus, across the U.S. Here are some of the things we learned:

  • 77% of 2U partner program students were motivated to learn by at least one professor (compared to 67% of traditional students)
  • 38% of 2U partner program students felt strongly that their institution prepared them well for life after earning their degree (compared to 27% of traditional students)
  • 6 out of 10 2U partner program students were highly likely to recommend their institution to others
  • 59% of 2U partner program students felt they received the full technical support they needed
  • 85% of 2U partner program students were employed full time after graduating (on par with 84% of traditional graduates)

If the survey results are any indication, online grad students at our partner institutions are more likely to feel set up for success. They are equipped to learn in an enriching online environment—and given the choice, 92% of student respondents would do it all over again.

Why online education is a fruitful opportunity for the fall

The current debate among educators, parents, and students is this: how valuable is higher ed if it’s not high-quality or in-person? The sticker shock of on-campus education continues to climb year after year—and students and their parents have made it clear that they will not pay full price for video calls and a lackluster educational experience. Students at several universities are demanding tuition refunds for the past semester, even joining class-action lawsuits against their schools. 72% of new students have had concerned conversations with their parents regarding tuition.

Universities have proposed many solutions—for instance, the University of Notre Dame plans to begin the fall semester two weeks early and finish before Thanksgiving. New York University is offering several hybrid or remote-only classes and enabling students to complete courses across three semesters. Stanford University is exploring ways to limit the number of student years living on campus, alternating living arrangements each quarter. Despite all of these alternatives, a majority of students still prefer the idea of in-person classes.

With the future still uncertain, many educators believe that universities that are not preparing for the possibility of another semester online are doing both students and their institutions a disservice. Online degree programs are designed to help students succeed in a variety of circumstances—pandemic or not. Data collected by 2U and Gallup demonstrates that a majority of students in online programs that are designed to be online have a comparable experience to that of their on-campus peers. Which is exactly what Simmons University plans to do this fall. They are providing students with the option to enroll in hundreds of online courses intentionally redesigned to provide a high-quality digital experience.

The student experience is just as important as the quality of education to cultivate great student outcomes. With the right digital infrastructure, colleges and universities can deliver a superlative experience online and make the “new normal” feel more normal.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.