Jun 30 2021

Q&A: Key Trends to Understand for Successful Online Courses

Melissa Venable, an online education adviser and course designer, shares her insights on what successful online and hybrid courses have in common.

BestColleges.com recently published its second annual “Trends in Online Student Demographics Report.” The findings were based on feedback from 1,300 students, including recent graduates, prospective students and those who are currently enrolled.

Some notable findings include:

  • Twenty-four percent of currently enrolled students had concerns about balancing education with work and family obligations.
  • However, there were decreased levels of concern compared to the previous year in areas such as education quality and academic support (16 percent this year versus 30 percent in 2020).
  • There has also been a decrease in student concerns over what employers think of online education (13 percent this year versus 24 percent in 2020),
  • When researching and comparing programs, 31 percent of prospective students rely on college websites, and 21 percent trust student reviews the most.
  • Still, 22 percent of prospective students find it challenging to locate an online program that meets their needs and interests.

Melissa Venable, an online education adviser for BestColleges.com, discussed key trends important for successful online or hybrid courses with EdTech: Focus on Higher Education. Venable is an adjunct faculty member and course designer at Saint Leo University and the University of South Florida.

EDTECH: What do you see as the most important elements for successful online or hybrid courses in the future?

VENABLE: Interaction is so important. Last year, many people found out that posting class materials and recorded lectures online is just the beginning — and not the most effective strategy for success. Students want and need to be connected in these classes. They need to feel connected with the content, with each other and with their professors. We may also see a call for more flexible classes, designed so that they can be offered in a variety of formats, from completely online to completely in person, addressing the different needs of different learners.   

Universities and colleges should become more aware of their students’ experiences and needs. Finding balance was a top related concern of online students participating in our survey this year. Academic support is essential, but there’s more that schools can do to help their students reach graduation.

From a practical standpoint, widespread broadband internet access will be essential for online learning success. The pandemic exposed what many call a digital divide among college students, and as school administrators told us in another recent survey, this can no longer be ignored.

EDTECH: It's not surprising that students are less concerned about what employers think of online education at the moment. Is there any evidence to suggest this trend will outlast the pandemic?

VENABLE: Only time will tell, but I think we will see some of this stick even after college campuses resume normal operations. For example, in our recent annual survey of U.S. business leaders, 56 percent said that online education is better than or equal to on-campus learning. This was up from 49 percent in 2020. Those saying it is better jumped from 14 percent to 31 percent. 

In addition, we’ve found that about half of college students learning remotely because of campus closures in 2020 said they would likely enroll in an online course once their campuses open. We’re seeing greater acceptance of online education, and perhaps an awareness of its potential benefits, from both students and employers.

EDTECH: It is really interesting that young people trust student reviews over college websites. How can colleges turn this information into actionable steps for their enrollment departments?

VENABLE: These days, making a major purchase usually includes looking at reviews of some kind. Hearing from people who have firsthand experience with a product or experience can be powerful. Higher education is no exception. We asked students about online student review sites in general, and there are many to choose from. 

Enrollment offices need to know how prospective students are connecting with information about their school’s online programs, including student review sites. These offices should also audit their websites to make sure they are providing students with the information they need to make decisions about enrolling. Students are telling us that they have trouble estimating actual costs, for example, and finding a program that is a good fit for their needs. Schools may also want to provide more in the way of student and alumni testimonials and profiles that include feedback about their experiences.

Tzido/Getty Images