Online Learning is Here to Stay: Three Lessons for Higher Education Leaders

As colleges and universities continue to welcome students back to campus, many higher education leaders assume students would be relieved. This isn’t an unfounded theory. When institutions first went online in 2020, students were expected to spend just as much time, effort, and resources on what some of them perceived as a diluted version of their education.

What many students found, however, was that online learning could be academically robust and personally rewarding. The flexibility allowed them to work at their own pace, hold down other jobs, care for children or family members, or protect their mental health.

This means that students aren’t flocking back to campus as quickly (or enthusiastically) as institutional leaders thought they would. In an op-ed for Times Higher Education, Psychologist and University of East London Lecturer Paul Penn explains why:

“Losses are felt more keenly than equivalent gains. So students are naturally meeting requests to return to campus by asking: “What is the added value of campus-based delivery?” Universities don’t presently seem to have a particularly convincing answer – or, at least, are not clearly articulating it. This is likely a consequence of the assumption that a return to campus was what students desperately wanted.”

What are the lessons for colleges and universities? Let’s start with three of the most important ones:

1. Higher Education is Headed Toward a Virtual Approach

According to new research from The CHLOE Project, the typical college student’s course load will include a significant amount of virtual instruction by the year 2025. Nearly 100% of survey participants (higher education chief online officers) believe that both exclusively face-to-face and exclusively online students will be outliers in just a few years. Instead, the survey concludes that higher education is headed toward a blended approach akin to the hybrid workforce model. Still, other studies show there will continue to be a large number of students who seek an exclusively virtual experience.

About 35% of The CHLOE Project survey respondents also acknowledged shortcomings in their institution’s ability to train students for online learning success. On a positive note, technical support for faculty has expanded at many institutions. It now includes access to conferencing software, targeted support for synchronous or multi-modal courses, and expanded support for remote faculty.

2025 will be here before we know it. The last few years have shown that significant change is possible in a short amount of time. Armed with these predictions about the rise of blended learning, higher education leaders can confidently and carefully move toward remote instruction models that work for their institution.

2. Online Programs Can Help Your Institution Become Student-Ready

Given the demand for more online degree programs, institutions could enhance these programs in an effort to become student-ready. Ohio State University’s Shanna Smith Jaggars argues that schools must not only offer a variety of learning models, but also help students make informed decisions about which approach meets their needs:

“An older, full-time-working mom with a strong academic background may do just fine in either an online or face-to-face course, but a young man who is the first in his family to attend college may perform much more poorly . . .”

Because the concept of a student-ready institution prioritizes persistence, it also helps eliminate various roadblocks around diversity, socioeconomic status, and accessibility. At student-ready institutions, the entire burden of preparation and advancement no longer falls on incoming students. Instead, the idea is that institutions must be equipped to meet students where they are. Online learning programs are one way to do just that.

3. Define Your Institution’s Version of High-Quality Online Learning

In an interview for Inside Higher Ed, Augusta University’s Dr. Marc T. Austin revealed the different (sometimes conflicting) ways colleges and universities define online learning. The definitions and approaches aren’t one-size-fits-all – nor should they be. Dr. Austin offered several helpful takeaways from his own efforts to establish a robust online learning program. Here are just a few:

  • “Ensure that when the word “online” is used, it evokes a sense of a high-quality, fully supported student experience, not an imperfect copy of an otherwise excellent face-to-face experience
  • Communicate about online learning. Our intranet, announcements, newsletters, and articles drive home the message that there’s a new standard in town
  • Monitor instructional quality. It’s easier to monitor quality in the online space except when it’s synchronous and not recorded. It is important to remember that the ability to ensure quality depends on your ability to assess it over time; so, regardless of the modes chosen, consider how you can continuously improve”


Remote learning is here to stay. What that looks like from one institution to the next largely depends on quality standards and a unique student-ready approach. In the next post, we’ll share examples and best practices for this next era of virtual and blended higher education.

Online Learning is Here to Stay: Three Lessons for Higher Education Leaders

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