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What does the pandemic mean for the future of online learning?

October 29, 2021, By Jennifer Lerner, Senior Director, Professional and Adult Education Forum

When I first took on my role heading up online learning at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), my mission was to innovate. It was 2008 and I was overseeing one of the oldest distance education shops in the country at a pivotal moment in online education. Although a community college, even with such a large and well-established online program, would never have the budget of the for-profit juggernauts and proprietary institutions, my mission was to build a structure that stood toe-to-toe with those competitors while continuing to keep our students at the center.

Fast forward 13 years and we are again at a pivotal moment in online education. The pandemic ushered in the next chapter of distance education for many institutions. To understand the pandemic’s impact on students’ perceptions of and interest in online learning, we surveyed more than 2,000 current and prospective adult, online, graduate, and professional students. Here’s what we found—and how I expect online learning will continue to evolve in the coming years.


Student interest in online learning will continue to grow

In the years before the pandemic, enrollment in online graduate programs was already growing at a faster clip than enrollment in face-to-face graduate programs. Enrollment in online graduate programs increased by nearly 7 percent annually from 2014-19, while enrollment in face-to-face graduate programs fell 2 percent annually during this period.


Given these trends, and my experience watching students thrive in online programs at NOVA, I wasn’t surprised to learn that 60 percent of the students we surveyed had a positive experience with online learning (albeit emergency remote instruction) during the pandemic. Forty-six percent of our survey respondents also shared they are more likely to consider online programs because of experiences during the pandemic. Students have transitioned many aspects of their lives online—from work to birthday parties to their kids’ schooling—and it’s only natural that their education would become part of the mix.


I will be getting my master’s online now. COVID has shown me how to do that.


Survey Respondent

While I anticipate interest in online learning will continue to grow, I do expect that we will see some regression to the mean as some students seek a more hybrid learning experience. And there will always be a subset of students for whom online learning is not the right answer. About 43 percent of the students we surveyed said they are not interested in online options.


After experiencing online learning [during COVID-19], I decided to choose a graduate school that was definitely going to be in-person.


Survey Respondent

But for the growing number of students who are considering online learning, it’s important your online programs also provide the services students need to succeed in a virtual environment.

Students will continue to prioritize online support services when selecting a program

Students exploring online options expect to receive all the supports and services that they would receive on campus, and they should be able to see those services clearly outlined as they explore your program. As you can see in the table below, the students we surveyed ranked “online support services” and “student support services” as among the most important criteria they consider when making an enrollment decision.

Chart: Available support services impact students' enrollment decisions


Ensure your program webpages and other marketing materials reference the resources available to online students, including financial aid, career advising, academic support, and student health and counseling services. The institutions we work with through our Adult Learner Recruitment initiative have found success running ads which emphasize the specific ways they are equipped to assist each student from the admissions process all the way through to graduation.


A partner university recently asked which services students value most. The truth is, each student needs something a bit different, whether that be tutoring, career guidance, financial support, or otherwise. But what students need most is a strong feeling that someone at your institution is there to support them, aside from their professors. That might be accomplished by providing a single point person—at NOVA Online, we called them Student Success Coaches—who owns their case and regularly communicates information, resources, and the offer to discuss their goals and challenges. At other institutions, this might be accomplished by regular communication from the various units available to support online students. Whatever your specific approach may be, the goal is to ensure each student knows there is someone at your institution who knows their name, is there to support them, and can triage their questions to the right place.


Building a comprehensive suite of support services for online students is always going to be resource intensive. But there are a few strategies your team can use to support online students as effectively and efficiently as possible:

  • Making the Basics Routine

    Build knowledge base of FAQs for self-help and aggregate important links and resources in one place

  • Moving Beyond the Phone

    Use live chat for speedier troubleshooting and to use the communication methods students most often prefer

  • Lowering the Cost of 24/7

    Employ students for late-night, off-site shifts using live chat

  • Achieving Scale

    Use existing LMS partnerships to outsource staff or time-intensive service provision

After 13 years of building NOVA’s virtual campus and using that infrastructure to create a statewide network to provide online courses to community college students across Virginia, I’m thrilled to be collaborating with leaders in professional and adult education to grow their own programs. Consider my team and me here as resources to you as we navigate the next pivotal moment in online education together.

Jennifer Lerner

Jennifer Lerner

Senior Director, Professional and Adult Education Forum

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