Five Best Practices for Online Learning in Higher Education

College students aren’t as enthusiastic about heading back to campus as higher education leaders thought they’d be. In fact, McKinsey & Company has closely monitored the growth of online education – which saw record enrollment over the past few years.

Because remote and blended degree programs are here to stay, there are important lessons to learn about this virtual landscape. Namely, that it constantly evolves. To help institutional leaders get through this evolution, here are some best practices for educators navigating this shift in real time:

1. Consider a “Cameras Optional” Policy

Students who opt for online courses do so because they need more freedom and independence than in-person courses allow. For some, this means they want the freedom to turn their cameras off during class. Dr. Torrey Trust and Lauren Foss Goodman from The College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst conducted a study on this very topic. They found that students were most likely to leave their cameras on if they felt like they were free to “turn their cameras off at any time without punitive measures.”

The study also found that video habits differed between learning environments. For example, 93% of students surveyed wanted their cameras on in breakout or study rooms, but 45% reported turning their cameras off during the virtual lecture. Ultimately, it depends on the instructor and the school’s overall policy, but a cameras-optional approach will likely bring the balance that remote students need.

2. Partner with Outside Education Companies to Boost Enrollment

While online enrollment is growing, total postsecondary enrollment fell by 4.1% in spring 2022 compared to spring 2021. This decline is significantly steeper than last fall’s total enrollment drop of 2.7%. To boost enrollment, dozens of colleges have initiated virtual degree programs facilitated by outside education companies. For example, Misericordia University partnered with Rize so students can pursue an online data science degree.

An Inside Higher Ed article explains that a partnership like this is cost effective because the outside company creates all course content and facilitates instruction in career-oriented subjects such as supply chain management, cybersecurity, public health, and more. In this case, more online options could mean more enrollment.

3. Cultivate Connection in Virtual Spaces

While some might say remote education is too isolated, others might feel just as isolated in face-to-face environments. Either way, the missing piece is connection. As more students sign up for virtual classes, educators must be intentional about building connections with and among students. This could look like breakout groups during class, virtual coworking spaces like Slack, or even dedicating some class time to thought-provoking polls or icebreakers in the Zoom chat.

Another way to build community (and recognize students’ individuality) is through personality or interest assessments. While results are tailored to each student, there’s a sense of camaraderie when learning about everyone’s similarities and differences. These shared experiences could positively influence students beyond the college years.

4. Adhere to Campus-Wide Quality Standards for Remote Courses

While instructors are largely responsible for the atmosphere and tone of their courses, overall quality standards must be campus wide. Research from The CHLOE Project found that 66% of chief online officers lack processes to ensure compliance for asynchronous online courses. Around 35% of survey respondents also acknowledged shortcomings in their institution’s ability to train students for online learning success.

To truly impact student success and persistence, online programs must meet higher quality standards. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is a good example. The University maintains three levels of quality for its online and blended/hybrid courses. It also uses the self-review feature of Quality Matters Course Reviews to evaluate classes against stringent standards.

5. Prepare a List of Trusted Online Resources

As with most difficult things in life, it takes a village. For virtual higher education, the village is partially made up of digital platforms and tools that make remote learning a little easier. Forbes recently highlighted several online resources for college and universities. Here are a few of the most notable:

  • Canva for Education: This subscription includes editable lesson plans, infographics, posters and videos. It can also be integrated into Blackboard, Microsoft Teams, or other learning management systems. Cost: free for verified educators.
  • Loom: This tool enables educators to record lectures and other educational content. It’s useful because it can record the speaker and the screen so remote students can view both at the same time. Cost: free for verified instructors and/or institutions.
  • Online Learning Consortium: The OLC is a collective of higher education leaders who have access to workshops, webinars, peer-reviewed research, a certificate program for digital instruction, and more. Cost: free for general community members. $195 annually for professional members.


Five Best Practices for Online Learning in Higher Education

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