Despite initial red flags, new data suggest virtual-learning options can improve learning outcomes, make education more accessible and provide students with new career opportunities.
Arianna Stone was part of the “bummer class” at Oregon State University — the graduating class that did the final stretch of senior year remotely.
A year and a half later, she’s a Ph.D. candidate and research assistant at the university. She’s also a mother of two children, ages 3 and 6.
Graduate student Arianna Stone takes a moment from her schoolwork to capture an image of her child. (Courtesy of Arianna Stone)
She says remote learning has allowed her to balance her education with work, parenting and other responsibilities. And now that remote learning has become the norm, Stone says the collective COVID-19 experience has made her Ph.D. cohort closer than they would have been otherwise.
“Pets and children are welcome during class. They’ll sit on my lap and quietly watch the lecture. That’s something you can’t do in person,” she says.
In addition to their Zoom meetings, the class set up a channel on Discord, a platform originally designed for online video game players to talk to one another.
“I forget that we’re not in person talking to each other,” Stone says. “We often joke we’re trauma bonded. Some of our professors say we are the tightest cohort ever. My goal is to work on a paper with every one of them.”
The onset of COVID-19 left many college students floundering. According to a survey by education consultancy OneClass released in December of 2020, 85% of college students reported the pandemic had a negative impact on their academic performance. Frustration with online learning tools was a significant factor. A OneClass survey in April found 75% of university students were unhappy with the quality of online learning they received.
Figures like these have led some universities to view virtual learning as an inferior good. In June the University of Oregon announced the school would return to mostly in-person classes in the fall, without a concurrent virtual option for classes that did not have them to begin with.
But new research has shown isolation and pandemic stress, rather than online learning, accounts for much of university students’ COVID-19 learning struggles.
A study from international education technology services company Cengage conducted between March 30 and April 12, 2021, found that 73% of university students and educators wanted to keep one or more of their courses online post-pandemic. A 2020 qualitative analysis by the Hechinger Report, an educational-advancement nonprofit, suggested students with disabilities of all kinds, including ADHD, fared well in remote-learning conditions. Employed students and students with child care responsibilities have expressed high levels of satisfaction with the flexibility and convenience of online learning. For many universities, the forced online-learning experiment of COVID-19 has led them to adopt a blended approach to education, with both online and in-person options, to enhance accessibility, student performance and preparedness for a rapidly digitizing business world.
COVID-19 forced colleges to deploy new tools and platforms, allowing online learners to interact with classmates more closely and gain collaboration experience not previously afforded to online students.
Now remote learning is here to stay. And researchers say it could make college more accessible and affordable, and boost preparedness for an increasingly digitized working world.
Regan Gurung, professor of psychology and executive director at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University, says research concluding online education is inherently inferior to in-person education is neither fair nor entirely accurate.
“The outcomes for online learning are varied. Many students not only liked it but did well. In some cases, 60% of students say they would like more online-learning options in the fall,” says Gurung. “There has been a big uptick in professors requesting to teach blended courses, taking on these new digital elements where they are apt and relevant.”
Gurung used his university’s great experiment with online education as an opportunity for research. Alongside Stone, he conducted a study titled “You Can’t Always Get What You Want and It Hurts: Learning During the Pandemic.” Surveying 649 Introduction to Psychology students at OSU, the findings suggest students learn best in the environment where they believe they are suited for success.
“What we found was that self-efficacy makes all the difference,” Gurung says. “If a student hears that online learning is difficult and internalizes it, they are handicapping themselves in an online-learning environment. That’s the message we are not hearing enough from the media.”
A study published in April in the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education found students had a particularly successful experience with the chat function in online-learning platforms. Respondents claimed live chat gave them better access to teachers and staff than they had previously. In larger classes where some students may be more hesitant to speak up, being able to ask questions to a teacher’s aide over chat decreases the fear of being put on the spot. This function caused some students to be more active in class than they would have been otherwise. And breakout rooms — a Zoom function where a larger group splits into smaller video chat rooms — allow for more intimate and collaborative group work, respondents said.
Oregon State’s established use of online teaching tools meant a smoother transition to remote learning for the main college. The college ranked fourth in the nation for e-learning according to the U.S. News and World Report in 2021 — the university’s seventh straight year of placing in the top 10.
But the e-learning program is not the direct equivalent of its in-person coursework: The e-learning program is asynchronous, meaning all course materials, including lectures, are posted online for students to complete on their own time. The main college teaches synchronous education, meaning all students are expected to be present for class at the same time.
“The hardest way to teach a class is when some students are remote and some students are live,” says Alix Gitelman, vice provost for academic affairs at Oregon State. “We still have some kinks to work out in the model. The technologist that is able to improve the hybrid experience is going to win the money game.”
Gurung and Stone’s research could serve as a guiding light as universities navigate a brave new world of blended online and in-person education. At OSU it already has. The university has received numerous requests from professors to keep and expand online-teaching options as the college reopens for in-person classes in the fall. Gurung and his colleagues have created an online portal for teachers wishing to improve remote-learning options, pooling information and resources to support educators.
Professors at OSU are experimenting with new ways of delivering hybrid education. One idea is that lectures and readings could be asynchronous, and meetings in class could be used for discussion and answering questions. Gitelman says remote advising has been particularly successful at preserving student privacy. Remote education also means leaders in the field are more accessible to students.
“It’s a lot easier to get big names this way. They don’t have to jet all around the country,” she says.
The increase in blended courses and remote-learning options has mirrored the increasingly digitized nature of the private sector. For Katherine Haro, now in her senior year at Oregon State, remote learning allowed her to continue her education while pursuing a career at venture capital firm Oceanic Partners.
OSU senior Katherine Haro blends work with school through the use of synchronous learning. (Courtesy of Katherine Haro)
“I moved to San Francisco while I was still at OSU. Remote options meant I didn’t have to choose between my career and academics. It allowed a lot of growth for me both professionally and academically. And I really got close to my professors. When I had a question, I had to personally reach out to them,” she says.
At Portland State University, synchronous online learning was expected to be a temporary solution to COVID-19 challenges. But after a strong, positive reaction from students and faculty, the administration decided online instruction would continue in 2021, and expand.
“Remote synchronous instruction was intended as a short-term strategy to address the pandemic, but in many cases our students and faculty liked it better than expected. Our students tend to skew older and have lives and jobs, and students with disabilities have fared particularly well,” says Michelle Giovannozzi, associate vice provost for academic innovation at Portland State University.
“The question now is: How can we combine that modality with the other modalities we already have in place, in a way that allows students to choose what modality works best for their life and their education?”
Virtual internships have gained popularity at Portland State. So have virtual international study programs, since foreign-exchange students were not possible during COVID-19. Communicating with students in other countries has become easier, and now more and more students can practice language and have cultural exchanges with native speakers. Time-zone differences mean internships are still limited geographically, but students can still intern with companies on the East Coast, a rarity before the pandemic forced the school to pivot.
At Portland State, the plan is for hybrid education models to continue and advance.
“We are aiming for a model that we call ‘dual delivery.’ It means students can attend class from anywhere we have the technology,” says Giovannozzi. “This has become especially important as more workplaces are working remotely.”
In addition to offering more opportunities for career development, students attending universities with more robust online components could be better prepared to enter the workforce than their unplugged counterparts. Remote-working options have become increasingly prevalent in the business world. A 2020 report from Gallup recommended companies encourage employees to spend 60% to 80% of their time working remotely to maximize productivity.
Telework also reduces operating costs. A January report from technology consulting firm Capgemini Research Institute found businesses that made the transition to online or mostly online work reduced operating costs by a third, with savings on rent and utilities being most significant.
Community colleges have also seen the benefits of remote education.
At Portland Community College, the majority of for-credit classes are now offered in either online or remote formats. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of courses were on-campus, with just 20% of enrollment in online courses.
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Last year the college’s information and technology department led an immersive education initiative involving several faculty groups, with the goal of evaluating the use of augmented- and virtual-reality technology in teaching. In the spring term of 2021, instructors used Microsoft HoloLens and Oculus Quest virtual-reality devices to teach courses in aviation maintenance and emergency medical services programs.
“For some students, the opportunities enable them to come to college for the first time,” says Loraine Schmitt, executive dean of academic and student affairs innovation and technology at PCC. “For others, it may allow them more time to complete college courses, so it can speed up their graduation.”
While remote instruction is generally cheaper for colleges to administer, a number of factors could make the cost of remote education more comparable to on-campus learning. New, more costly technology could offset smaller in-person class sizes. Since e-college has been nearly all asynchronous until now, a college would still have to pay a remote professor’s full in-person salary. It could also mean employing more teaching assistants to help with the technology, organize breakout rooms and answer chat questions.
“Where you may save costs in one area, there are likely other costs to be incurred to successfully operate in a different modality,” says Dina Farrell, associate vice president of finance at PCC.
For Sarah Kurd, a graduate student studying industrial psychology at Oregon State, the shift to remote education did not decrease the cost of attendance, and she was eager to get back to live instruction as soon as possible.
Although remote work has also revolutionized the field she hopes to enter upon graduation — allowing therapists to interact with athletes at schools, sporting events and training combines across the country — she values the personal interactions of in-person education too much to want anything different.
“You get too many benefits being in person,” she says.
It is also unclear whether remote operating models increase overall attendance, or if online enrollment will be offset by diminished in-person attendance. But as President Biden’s plan to provide two years of free community college to every American student edges closer to reality — it’s currently part of Senate Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget resolution — remote learning could be a saving grace if enrollment in community college does spike.
Administrators and educators at Lane Community College in Eugene are already preparing for a future where blended classes are the norm. The college is getting a jump on the hybrid learning landscape by setting up 60 two-way computers, enrolling all students in a free technical-support class, building AI online tutoring programs and employing a tech support team made up of current students.
“The more we get creative and become flexible with our online options, the more it increases our capacity to compete in the accelerating online world,” says Paul Jarrell, provost and executive vice president of academic and student affairs at LCC. He says providing students access to online education options, as well as the broadband to access it, is essential for people to succeed in a more technological work environment.
“We can no longer provide what society needs in a K-12 education; we need that K-14 education. What the pandemic has exposed is that the divide between access and no access to education is greater than we thought,” says Jarrell. “If we had to expand our capacities to accommodate more students, it would be a good problem to have.”
One thing that is clear is that some students thrive in an online environment, some do best with in-person instruction — and others prefer a blend of the two. The technologies universities have embraced over the course of the pandemic are likely to continue — and advance.
Instead of thinking about the pandemic as a seismic shift in education, Gurung frames the technological advancements as pure progress, allowing academic institutions to deliver a higher-quality product to more students in a way more specifically tailored for them to succeed.
“I like to think of it as moving onward to better,” he says.
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