What Do Students Want? The Research Might Surprise You

Students in dorm room
Online LearningResearchStudent Success
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Research into the demand for and effectiveness of online learning in higher education has been happening for nearly two decades. In the fall of 2012, for example, some 6.7 million out of 20.6 million students had enrolled in an online course. The online learning industry continued to grow at a steady pace for several years after (around 4.9% per year). So, why didn’t it become the dominant approach as ed-tech futurists predicted it would?

As it turns out, it took a global crisis to get more (or even most) people teaching and learning online.

The Demand for Online Learning Begins

Since the start of the pandemic, Cengage has been working with Bay View Analytics to research the academic experiences of students, faculty and administrators, including their sentiments about online learning. So where are things today? According to the recent Digital Learning Pulse Survey, more students—even those who are currently only taking in-person courses—want to take more classes online in the future. Three-quarters of students, in fact, express a preference for online, and more than half of them give online courses an “A” grade. More faculty than ever before have taught online, and many would like to continue. More students want access to other education services and support in an online environment…even support that might seem to make more sense in person, like 1:1 coaching. If online education was the “way of the future” in 2011, the future has now truly arrived.

When colleges abruptly switched to emergency remote learning in 2020, 97% of professors had never taught online, while most students had never signed up for online education. Many students lamented their learning experience and the loss of campus life. Some even sued to get their tuition dollars back. Amidst the backlash, learning designers everywhere bristled. To them, emergency remote learning is not true online learning. Instead, the courses are developed for digital delivery from the ground up, built with a team of educators over many months. Fast forward two years and the majority of students—even those currently taking in-person courses—are calling for more fully online courses.

The Research on Online Learning Shows Evolving Perspectives

Despite how many people use and want more opportunities for online learning, it’s still a polarizing topic within higher education. The Digital Learning Pulse Survey shows that there are those who are uncomfortable with, opposed to or afraid of teaching and learning online. Some of those who are less-than-enthusiastic expressed specific feelings that include: “I prefer in-person courses as I have more at stake in terms of personal relationships with professors and students vs. being completely online where I only interact via Zoom and do my own thing,” and “I would prefer to take my classes in person because of a lack of motivation [online].

We also know from the Digital Pulse Survey, though, that half of students in 2022 agreed that stress is a significant problem for them. More than half (57%) say their institution provides student support, but only 15% of students report that they’ve ever used those services.

More Online Learning Means More Student Support

Whether online or in person, it all comes back to student support. If students don’t feel supported in making the transition from in-person classes to online courses—and if they don’t even know where to go to find support or don’t have the right tools to optimize their online learning—then it stands to reason that online learning could be a stressful experience. Online students need as much, if not more, support than in-person students. From their institutions and their faculty, online students need things like:

  • Guidelines for communicating clearly and safely in online spaces and clarity around which forums to use and when
  • No assumptions about prior digital knowledge and online comfort-level (assuming that anyone is a “digital native” can be incorrect and harmful to those who aren’t)
  • Help building a strong and active digital identity and connecting their real “self” to that digital identity (it’s OK to get personal and show your face!)
  • Flexibility built into learning experiences and assignments
  • Strong, explicit signals that it’s OK to disconnect and reduce tech usage when needed for school/life/work balance
  • Opportunities for group and 1:1 interaction in the online environment, such as coaching, mentoring or just simple chats
  • Clear signposts of where to go for mental health support and crisis support—whether the support happens online or on campus, information about availability and access should always exist in both places

Higher ed institutions had many crises to manage throughout 2020 and 2021. They did the best they could in difficult circumstances, but that doesn’t change the fact that higher education delivery is fundamentally different now and the student support model needs to adapt.

Online Education Is Here to Stay

Online learning isn’t going anywhere, as people get more and more comfortable with it and realize its benefits. The number of people who said their online courses were effective grew with the length of time they were taking the courses, from 40% in Spring of 2021 to 62% in Spring of 2022. As we all embrace the fact that online learning will likely be around for good, it’s important that we make sure we’re supporting not just the enthusiastic people in the virtual room, but also those who may need that extra nudge to feel comfortable and thrive online. And as our research, learning and practice in this area continues at Cengage, we’ll be well-placed to help institutions do just that.

Get all the results from the Digital Learning Pulse Survey.